In the Canadian Rockies, winter is a malicious brute. And here he is again, barging back into our lives, obviously intending to stay a while and rough everybody up. For the next week, the forecasted high temperatures in Canmore and Banff are approximately -20°C. The lows will plunge to -30°C.
Even if winter isn’t quite so brutal where you live, we urge you to run for it. Because it’s surprisingly easy to escape. You don’t have to go far to find sunny skies, warm temperatures, and an abundance of hiking trails accessing exotic, spectacular wilderness.
Our recommended destination for winter hiking: Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, a mere 45-minute drive east of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. If you’re a keen hiker, the Superstitions are worth a two-week vacation.
“The Supes,” as we call them, comprise 160,000 acres (646 square km) of snow-free, desert mountains and canyons. Summers there are too hot to safely enjoy hiking. But late October through April, the days remain warm enough that you can often comfortably stride in shorts. We’ve backpacked in the Supes in January, when daytime temperatures averaged 21°C. After twilight, however, heat always dissipates rapidly in arid lands, so be prepared for freezing nights.
From Calgary or Vancouver, Westjet and US Air fly to Phoenix. Round-trip fares start at about $350. Within the States, US Air offers inexpensive fares to Phoenix. Renting a car at Sky Harbor might cost as little as $20 per day.
If you arrive in Phoenix in the morning, that afternoon you can begin sampling the Supe’s extensive trail network. You’ll hear the satisfying sound of gravel crunching beneath your boots. You’ll be surrounded by bizarre cacti: writhing ocotillo and statuesque saguaros. You’ll see monolithic cliffs, sharp pinnacles, plunging, boulder-strewn ravines. Tilt your head back, and you’ll likely be staring into a brilliant, blue sky. Not only will you see the sun, you’ll feel it massaging the muscles that just hours ago you’d held taut against the onslaught of winter. Only on weekends, on certain trails, might you encounter many Phoenicians. Tranquility reigns in the Supes.
Trails Illustrated Map 851 “Tonto NF Superstition and Four Peaks Wilderness Areas” is adequate for dayhiking. If backpacking, get the USGS 1:25 000 topos so you can pinpoint springs, which will be your only water sources.
These are our favorite hikes in the Supes:
Drive the Superstition Freeway, then Hwy 60, east to Apache Junction. Turn left (north) off Hwy 60 onto Idaho Road. Set your trip odometer to 0. In 0.6 mi (1 km) turn right onto Hwy 88. At 6.2 mi (10 km) turn right into Lost Dutchman State Park, at 2080 ft (634 m). This is a very appealing campground.
The trail leads to the mouth of Siphon Draw, where a steep route ascends 2470 ft (753 m), culminating at 4550 ft (1387 m) just below the summit of Flatiron where you’ll enjoy a vast, aerial panorama. Time it right, and you’ll see the sparkling lights of Phoenix on the western horizon while you descend.
LaBarge Creek / Boulder Canyon
Drive the Superstition Freeway, then Hwy 60, east to Apache Junction. Turn left (north) off Hwy 60 onto Idaho Road. Set your trip odometer to 0. In 0.6 mi (1 km) turn right onto beautiful, winding Hwy 88, known as the Apache Trail. Drive northeast 14.5 mi (23.3 km) to Canyon Lake. Park at the marina, then return to the trailhead opposite the marina entrance. The trail initially climbs above an arm of the lake, then enters a dramatic desertscape. Most people will want to return the same way rather than loop back northwest through boulder-strewn LaBarge Creek Canyon.
The trail climbs above La Barge Creek 1 mi (1.6 km) to a ridgecrest, then descends into LaBarge Creek drainage at 2.5 mi (4 km). Turn around anywhere along here for a fulfilling, half-day hike.
Strong hikers who examine the map will see they can continue south to 7 mi (11.3 km) where Trail 104 splits into east and west forks. Go right (west) briefly, then right (northwest) on Trail 241 to pass beneath Black Mesa. Loop right (northeast) on Trail 236 back to Battleship Mountain at 13 mi (21 km). Then rejoin the Boulder Canyon trail and you’re on familiar ground for the final 3.5 mi (5.6 km). Total circuit distance: 16.5 mi (26.6 km).
From Idaho Road in Apache Junction, continue east 8.5 mi (13.7 km) on Hwy 60. Pass King Estates. Turn left (north) at the sign for Peralta Trailhead. Follow FS Road 77 (unpaved but graded) north 8 mi (13 km) to the trailhead at 2400 ft (732 m). This popular trail leads 2.5 mi (4 km) to 3766-ft (1150-m) Fremont Saddle and a startling view of the Supes’ most famous sight: Weaver’s Needle. Elevation gain to the saddle: 1440 ft (439 m).
Swift, eager hikers will continue, descending the far side of the saddle, proceeding northwest of the Needle to a junction at 5.5 mi (9 km). Go right (south, then southeast) beneath Black Top Mesa. At the 6.5-mi (10.5-km) junction, go right (south) on Trail 234 to 3410-ft (1040-m) Bluff Saddle. Bear right on Trail 235 in Barks Canyon to return to Peralta Trailhead. Total loop distance: 11.5 mi (18.5 km). Map: USGS Weavers Needle.
West Boulder Canyon to Siphon Draw via Superstition Crest
This 8- to 9- hour, one-way traverse is for athletic hikers who are competent, cross-country navigators and have either a second vehicle or a willing shuttle slave. The USGS topo maps Goldfield and Weavers Needle are required equipment for this long, highly scenic route linking the east end of the crest with Siphon Draw in the west. The distance, a mere 12 mi (19 km), sounds relatively easy but isn’t. Though the route is distinct the entire way, the terrain is rough, going astray is a constant possibility, significant ups and downs are frequent, and the elevation gain and loss totals about 5000 ft (1524 m).
In winter, it’s essential that you start hiking by 8 a.m. because the sun will set at approximately 5:30 p.m. If you think you’ll be too pressed by the limited daylight, consider hiking out and back. Start at the east-side trailhead and go only as far as the cluster of pinnacles on the ridge near 4300 ft (1311 m). Well before reaching the pinnacles, you’ll attain an impressive view of Weaver’s Needle. The ridge climaxes at 5057 ft (1541 m).
To reach the West Boulder Canyon trailhead, follow the above directions for Peralta Trailhead. About 1.2 mi (2 km) shy of Peralta, just before the road dips into a wash, park in the unsigned but obvious trailhead on the left.
Begin hiking the rocky road (chained to block vehicles) north-northeast. Ahead you’ll see two drainages. Your trail will ascend the one on the right. Soon reach a fence where you’ll pass through a hiker’s maze. About 1.5 hours from the trailhead, surmount a pass. Bear left here. The trail contours briefly. Do not descend right into West Boulder Canyon. Further directions should not be necessary if you have a compass, the topo maps, and the requisite experience.
Tortilla Flats / Upper LaBarge Box / Peters Mesa
For a superb two- or three-day backpack trip, drive Hwy 88 to Canyon Lake marina (described above for LaBarge Creek / Boulder Canyon). Set your trip odometer to 0. Continue past the tourist hamlet of Tortilla Flats. At 8.6 mi (13.8 km), immediately after milepost 221, reach Tortilla Flats trailhead on the right.
Ascend FS Road 213—a rough, 4WD route best traveled on foot. Gain 350 ft (107 m) to a pass. Follow the road southeast, descending 200 ft (61 m) to the wilderness boundary at 3.2 mi (5.2 km). You’ll pass a windmill and watering hole. Hike the JF Trail 0.75 mi (1.3 km) southeast on a rocky hill to a junction. Turn right onto Hoolie Bacon Trail 111.
At 8.5 mi (13.7 km) reach the east side of Upper La Barge Box and possible campsites. Exit the west side of the Box at 10.25 mi (16.5 km). At the junction with Whiskey Spring Canyon, go right (northwest) toward Music Canyon. Another good campsite is at 13.5 mi (21.7 km), near Charlebois Spring. Go right on Trail 105 over Peters Mesa, then generally northeast via Kane Spring to Tortilla Flats trailhead. Total loop distance: 20.5 mi (33 km).
There are several guidebooks on the Superstitions. None is exceptional. All will suffice. In addition to describing the trails, they explain the intriguing legend of the Lost Dutchman Mine. Supposedly, enough gold to finance a life of luxury awaits you at the tip of the Weaver’s Needle shadow. Precisely where the gold is buried along the arc of the shadow is the question that remains unanswered.