Tonto National Forest
By Robert Stieve
Most trails have a hook — a highlight, a focal point, a reason people hit the trail in the first place. On the Bright Angel, it’s the Grand Canyon. On the Weatherford, it’s the Inner Basin. And on West Clear Creek, it’s West Clear Creek. Throughout most of the year, the centerpiece of any hike in the Superstition Wilderness is the rugged Sonoran Desert landscape — despite its proximity to the sixth-largest city in the United States, this is one of the most remote areas in all of Arizona. In the springtime, however, the hyacinths, anemones, Mexican goldpoppies and desert lupines take center stage.
Nothing against the bluebonnets in Texas or the cherry blossoms in D.C., but there aren’t many wildflower spectacles that can rival the explosion of color that washes over the Arizona desert in February, March and April. To see a delicate flower emerge from the unforgiving soil is a good reminder that Mother Nature is capable of just about anything. It’s a sight worth seeing, and there are a number of trails that’ll get you there. Second Water is one of the many.
The route begins at the First Water Trailhead. Initially, you’ll be on the Dutchman Trail, which leads to Second Water after about 10 minutes. Just beyond the intersection you’ll come to First Water Creek. Most of the time, there won’t be any water, but in the springtime, it’s a possibility. If the water is flowing, you won’t need a boat to get across — just a little agility. From there, the clearly marked trail follows a gentle route through saguaros, chollas, paloverdes and ocotillos to an intersection with the Black Mesa Trail. Keep left and look around. After a wet winter, the desert floor in this area, known as Garden Valley, is carpeted with wildflowers and grasses. Think focal point.
Continuing, there’s a steady dose of Sonoran Desert, and after about an hour, you’ll come to one of the more interesting saguaros in the world. At some point in its long life, the stately plant suffered some kind of trauma that bent it in half, leaving a good portion of the cactus lying on the ground. Fortunately, the saguaro bent but didn’t break, thus allowing it to keep living and keep growing. As of this writing, three new “arms” had sprouted up from the horizontal section on the ground. Like the surrounding wildflowers, this is another one of Mother Nature’s many miracles.
Ten minutes beyond the cactus phenomenon, the trail begins a downhill run toward Boulder Canyon. This is where most of the elevation change occurs along the trail. It’s not much of a challenge, but it helps deter the masses. As you work your way down, you’ll see a canyon to your right. That’s Second Water Canyon, which parallels Boulder Canyon up ahead. Canyons are common in this wilderness, and they tend to look the same to an untrained eye. It’s one of the reasons so many people get lost and, in some cases, die in the Superstitions. There’s no risk of getting lost on this trail, though. It’s easy to follow and eventually leads to a thicket of reeds growing in a riparian area just before Boulder Canyon. The lush scene will surprise you. And so will the creek that marks the end of the trail.
After about an hour and a half of hiking, you’ll come to an intersection with the Boulder Canyon Trail and a tributary of La Barge Creek. Like First Water Creek earlier, there’s a good chance of seeing water in this stream if winter storms have delivered an average amount of precipitation. As far as turnaround points on a trail go, this has to rank as one of the most spectacular. The surrounding rock walls of the canyon, the saguaros dotting the landscape, the flowing stream ... it’s almost enough to make you forget that wildflowers are the focal point of this hike.
Photo: Spring flowers bloom in the Superstition Wilderness. | Paul Gill
Length: 6.6 miles round-trip
Elevation: 1,940 to 2,420 feet
Directions: From Phoenix, drive east on U.S. Route 60 for approximately 25 miles to Tomahawk Road (Exit 197) and turn left. Drive north for 3 miles to State Route 88 (the Apache Trail), turn right and drive approximately 5 miles to the First Water Trailhead, which serves as the starting point for the Second Water Trail, as well.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes
USGS Map: Goldfield
Information: Mesa Ranger District, 480-610-3300 or www.fs.usda.gov/tonto