In the White Tank Mountains, hikers
reap the rewards of the Sonoran
Desert: ancient petroglyphs and,
if their timing is right, a waterfall
at trail's end.
© George Stocking
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Waterfall Canyon TrailThis trek in the White Tank Mountains is best after a rainfall, but even without the rain, it offers dramatic desert scenery.
By Amanda Fruzynski
This is one hike that takes a little planning. Selecting the right day to make this short trek can mean the difference between catching a rushing waterfall or coming upon a quiet, cool pool. Both are beautiful, but for those who want to experience the hike's namesake, it's best to wait until after a rainstorm.
The Waterfall Canyon Trail in White Tank Mountain Park is named for an unexpected waterfall at the trail's end. There are two ways to get there: by parking in Area 6 and walking 1.8 miles round-trip, or parking in the more populated Area 4 and taking the Black Rock Long Loop to the Waterfall Canyon Trail for a total trek of 2.8 miles.
In addition to the water, the latter route offers a nice hike through a cactus wonderland. Park in Area 4 and cross back over White Tank Mountain Road to the beginning of the Black Rock trail on the other side. This kicks off an easy stroll through a valley bursting with a half-dozen shades of green. There are cactuses everywhere. Yellowish-green staghorn chollas stretch their jointed arms out to nearby strawberry hedgehog cactuses, their fuchsia blooms popping during spring; the "fuzzy" heads of teddy bear chollas spread out into little herds; and stately saguaros oversee the whole lot.
When you get to the fork in the trail, take the Long Loop on the right. This route continues at an easy amble, and plenty of benches are peppered along the trail in case you want to sit and enjoy the scenery.
Eventually, the Black Rock Long Loop connects with Waterfall Canyon Trail. The trail signs are easy to see, and for a short stretch, the path is paved in clay. The trail then steepens a bit, revealing a dry wash that runs parallel to the trail below — you can't miss the bright white boulders scattered about.
At this point, you'll want to make a quick stop at Petroglyph Plaza to see the writing on the rocks. Just beyond the petroglyphs, the trail turns into a dozen stone steps before arriving at a sandy clearing.
Giant cliffs shade this area, and the temperature is noticeably cooler. It's the perfect place to have a quick snack — smooth, cool boulders make great benches — especially if there's a group ahead of you that's already checking out the waterfall.
Getting closer to the waterfall involves an easy climb up and over a few smaller boulders and through a wide crevice. If a heavy storm has recently rolled through, water will be rushing down the canyon wall. If not, the walls will glow silvery white in the shaded light, and the pool of water below will be quiet and cool.
Either way, it's a surprising finish to a trail that mostly meanders through a dry desert landscape. It's also a good reminder that while timing does matter, nature still offers a stunning view to those who make the effort to explore a little.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: 2.8 miles round-trip
Elevation: 1,400 to 1,600 feet
Directions: From Phoenix, take Interstate 10 west to Cotton Lane/Loop 303 (Exit 124). Head north on Loop 303 for about 8 miles to West Olive Avenue. There will be a road sign directing traffic toward White Tank Mountain Regional Park. Turn left (west) onto Olive Avenue, which leads to the park's entrance. Once inside the park, continue on White Tank Mountain Road to the Area 4 parking lot. Park entry fee required.
Information: White Tank Mountain Regional Park, 623-935-2505 or www.maricopa.gov/parks/white_tank
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