Four Peaks Wilderness

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In Tonto National Forest, Arizona.

Four Peaks Wilderness was established in 1984, and contains approximately 60,740 acres with a major mountain rising up in its center from the desert foothills. The Four Peaks themselves are visible for many miles, and the rapid change in elevation produces interesting plant combinations. The Peaks are located in the southern end of the Mazatzal mountain range, in eastern Maricopa County and western Gila County. It lies about 20 air-miles northeast of Apache Junction, looking down on Roosevelt Reservoir to the east, and Apache Reservoir to the south.

Location: Mazatlal mountain range of Arizona
Size and Elevation: 60,740 acres, 1,600 feet to 7,657 feet
Ecosystem: Very diverse: Climbing up, desert shading to arid grassland shading to brushy thickets, to ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forest
Features: Very rugged country: ridges, gorges, and craggy summits
Activities: Hiking, Horseback Riding

Before you hit the trails, you may want to learn more about the topography, vegetation, geology, climate, wildlife, livestock regulations, water, or natural fire management. Still not satisified? Check out more sources for information and other Tonto wilderness trails.

Trails

There is a network of some 40 miles of "system" trails serving the Four Peaks Wilderness and contiguous areas. Their condition varies from excellent to poor. Signs are installed at trail junctions, but unfortunately they are often damaged or stolen. Some trails (as indicated) are not suitable for horses. All trails listed below are closed to bikes of any type.

Short Trails

77 - Cane Spring Trail
2.3 miles in length. This trail is quite vague and difficult to follow. It begins 1/4 mile west of Cane Spring Trailhead and intersects with Soldier Camp Trail 83.
Lowest elevation: 2900 feet; highest elevation: 4200 feet.
Difficulty level: more difficult.
Use level: very light.
Trailhead: Cane Spring.

81 - Alder Saddle Trail
0.5 miles in length. This is a spur trail from Four Peaks Trail on the east side of Four Peaks. It climbs steeply to Alder Saddle.
Lowest elevation: 5840 feet; highest elevation: 6400 feet.
Difficulty level: more difficult.
Use level: very light.

84 - Lower Soldier Camp Trail
2.0 miles in length. After traveling up a sandywash, the trail steadily climbs a ridge east from Cottonwood Camp. The trailis very steep in some places. Provides a non-motorized alternative access to Cane Spring and Soldier Camp Trailheads.
Lowest elevation: 1900 feet; highest elevation: 3120 feet.
Difficulty level: more difficult.
Use level: light.
Trailhead: Cottonwood Camp.

123 - Oak Flat Trail
1.8 miles in length. A steep, and badly eroded trail throughchaparral-covered slopes up to Four Peaks Trail 130.
Lowest elevation: 3680 feet; highest elevation: 5400 feet.
Difficulty level: most difficult.
Use level: very light.
Trailhead: Oak Flat.

133 - Brown's Trail
2.0 miles in length. This trail was constructed in 1988-89 andis in excellent condition. Grade, tread, and alignment are favorable. It joins Amethyst Trail 253 just below Brown's Saddle.
Lowest elevation: 5700 feet;highest elevation: 6760 feet.
Difficulty level: more difficult.
Use level: heavy.
Trailhead: Lone Pine Saddle.

134 - Pigeon Trail
2.0 miles in length. This is a route which was reconstructed in1989-90 and is in good condition. The first 1/4 mile is an old jeep road to Pigeon Spring. It goes through Ponderosa Pine forest to its intersection with Four Peaks Trail 130.
Lowest elevation: 5440 feet; highest elevation: 5640 feet.
Difficulty level: easiest.
Use level: moderate.
Trailhead: Lone Pine Saddle. There is also space for a couple of vehicles at this trail's terminus with Road 648.

253 - Amethyst Trail
3.0 miles in length. From its junction with Four Peaks Trail130, the northern half climbs steeply to Brown's Saddle. North of Brown'sSaddle, Amethyst Trail is narrow following the western flanks of Four Peaks.The trail ends at the. Amethyst mine. NOTE: The Amethyst mine is private property. Permission must be received to enter this property.
Lowest elevation: 5800 feet; highest elevation: 6880 feet.
Difficulty level: more difficult.
Use level: moderate.

Medium Trails

83 - Soldier Camp Trail
8.0 miles in length. This trail traverses the westernopen ridges below Four Peaks. The southern half is an old jeep road. Travelers will have nice views of Four Peaks and lower desert country. The south end of the trail can be reached by hiking/riding up lower Soldier Camp Trail fromCottonwood Camp, then going northeast a short distance on Road 401 to its intersection with this trail.
Lowest elevation: 3320 feet; highest elevation: 5450 feet.
Difficulty level: more difficult.
Use level: very light.
Trailhead: Mud Spring.

132 - Chillicut Trail
7.0 miles in length. The northern 1 1/2 miles is an old jeeproad. The trail has steep ascents and descents of ridges and also a steep climb to Buckhorn Mountain. It goes from the upper Sonoran Desert to Ponderosa Pine where it intersects with Four Peaks Trail 130.
Lowest elevation: 2840 feet; highest elevation: 6440 feet.
Difficulty level: most difficult.
Use level: light.
Trailhead: Rock Creek.

Long Trails

82 - Alder Creek Trail
12.0 miles in length. This trail skirts the southern slopesof Four Peaks and then follows Alder Creek to near its headwaters where it climbs to Black Bear Saddle and intersects Four Peaks Trail 130. Travelers will enjoy the transition from desert to forest. May be overgrown in some places.
Lowest elevation: 2280 feet; highest elevation: 5560 feet.
Difficulty level: most difficult.
Use level: very light.
Trailhead: Cane Spring.

130 - Four Peaks Trail
10.0 miles in length. Traverses the northern and eastern flanks of Four Peaks and then continues southwest along Buckhorn Ridge.The eastern and southern sections have steep sections and may be vague insome spots.
Lowest elevation: 3800 feet; highest elevation: 6600 feet.
Difficulty level: easiest to more difficult.
Use level: heavy (west end) to light.
Trailhead: Lone Pine Saddle and Mills Ridge.

Not uncommonly, one of the more challenging parts of a back-country trip is attempting to find the trailhead itself. For this reason, we have developed the following explanation of how to reach various trailheads.

Directions to Trailheads

Cottonwood Camp
Drive north from Mesa on State Highway 87. Approximately 11.5 miles north of the Verde River Bridge (and just past the Desert Vista Rest Stop), turn right (east) onto Four Peaks Road 143. Drive approximately 2.5 miles to Road 401. Turn right and. drive 4.4 miles to Cottonwood Camp. The trail starts east across Cottonwood Wash. Please do not damage the livestock facilities here.
Trail Accessed: Lower Soldier Camp Trail 84.

Cane Spring
A 4WD vehicle is required to reach this trailhead, but travel is not recommended for any type of vehicle. From Mesa, drive north on State Highway 87 (the"Beeline") to Four Peaks Road 143; this is approximately 11.5 miles north of the Verde River bridge and just past the Desert Vista Rest Stop. Turn right and and go approximately 2.5 miles to Road 401. Turn right and drive 4.4 miles to Cottonwood Camp. The road turns to 4WD-only beyond here for another 5.8 miles to Cane Spring.
Trails Accessed: Cane Spring Trail 77; Alder Creek Trail 82.

Mud Spring
Drive north from Mesa on State Highway 87. Approximately 1 l .5 miles north of the Verde River Bridge (and just past the Desert Vista Rest Stop), turn right (east) onto Four Peaks Road 143. Follow Road 143 for 16 miles from the highway. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended. The trailhead is a small pull-off on the south side of the road.
Trail Accessed: Soldier Camp Trail 83.

Lone Pine Saddle
Drive north from Mesa on State Highway 87. Approximately 11.5 miles north of the Verde River Bridge (and just past the Desert Vista Rest Stop), turn right (east) onto Four Peaks Road 143. Follow Road 143 for 18.8 miles to the El Oso Divide. At this point, take a sharp right turn (south) onto Road 648. Continue 1.3 miles to the trailhead. There is an upper and lower parking lot here. High-clearance vehicles are recommended; this road is generally unsuitable for horse trailers.
Trails Accessed: Four Peaks Trail 130, Pigeon Trail 133, Brown's Trail 133.

Alternate Route: From the community of Punkin Center, drive south 7.8 miles on State Highway 188. Turn right onto Road 143. Follow this road for 9 miles to the El Oso Divide. The road turns to the south for a mile along the ridge-top. Bear left onto Road 648 and continue 1.3 miles to the trailhead.

Oak Flat
From Punkin Center, drive south on State Highway 188 approximately 10 miles to Three Bar Road 445. Turn right and follow this road approximately 6 miles to the trailhead. High-clearance vehicles are recommended; a 4WD may be needed near the trailhead.
Trail Accessed: Oak Flat Trail 123.

Rock Creek
From Punkin Center, drive south on State Highway 188 approximately 10 miles to Three Bar Road 445. Turn right and follow this road approximately 3 miles to the Road 445A. Turn left for approximately 1/4 mile, turn right onto a short spur (Road 153). Park down near the creek (avoid parking where floods could damage your vehicle).
Trail Accessed: Chillicut Trail 132.

Mills Ridge
From Roosevelt Dam, drive 3.4 miles northwest on State Highway 188 to Road 429. Turn left and follow this road approximately 6 miles to the trailhead. A 4WD vehicle is recommended.
Trail Accessed: Four Peaks Trail 130.

Topography

The peaks themselves are visible for long distances in all directions, and are well known landmarks in central Arizona.

There are three distinct topographic zones within the area: The craggy summits of the peaks, the complex series of ridges and drainages below the peaks, and the area of bluffs and short deep gorges bordering Apache and Canyon Reservoirs.

Elevations vary from 1,600 feet near Mormon Flat Dam to 7,657 feet at the summit of Brown's Peak, the northern-most and highest of the four peaks.

Vegetation

Plant communities and their relationships with each other are particularly interesting in this area. This is due to the rapid changes in both elevation and aspect. North-facing slopes often will have entirely different vegetation than will an adjacent south-facing slope. Rapid changes in elevations produce unusual neighbors, with species of plants usually growing hundreds of miles apart found side-by-side.

At the highest elevation, Ponderosa pine and some Douglas fir are found. There are one or two small stands of aspen on the north slope of Brown's Peak. At intermediate elevations (6,000 - 4,000 ft.), extensive stands of Mountain chaparral are encountered. Pinyon pine, Gambel oak, and manzanita are typical species, and often form impenetrable thickets. Below 4,000 ft., semidesert grasslands blend into the Upper Sonoran Desert. Impressive stands of the giant Saguaro cactus can be seen at the lowest elevations.

Of particular interest are the narrow canyons with riparian vegetation, including pleasing groups of cottonwoods and sycamores. Also of special interest are areas that have burned over at various times in the past, with various sub-climax species to be found.

Geology

Those with an interest in geology find much to study in this area. The main bulk of the peaks consists of Precambrian granites and schists, clearly exposed along Buckhorn Ridge and in Boulder and Cottonwood Canyons. A cap of deformed shale and quartzite, also of Precambrian age, forms the sheer face of the peaks themselves. Farther to the south, the Painted Cliffs are composed of volcanic tuffs and ash flows of the Cenezoic age. They were deposited during the same time period as similar formations in the nearby Superstition Wilderness. The time differential between the formation of these volcanic formations and the underlying Precambrian strata is estimated at two to three billion years.

Climate

The high elevations of the peaks surrounded by the lower deserts has created a climatic"island in the sky," with temperatures significantly cooler than the adjacent areas. Travelers must take appropriate precautions if staying in the backcountry after dark (especially if this is by accident).

Lightning storms occur with regularity during the "monsoon season" in July and August. These storms frequently cause flash flooding. During the winter months, accumulations of snow are frequently found above the 6,000 ft. level.

The weather charts below are for general information. Conditions will vary according to the terrain. The temperatures are based on an elevation of 4,800 feet. These average temperatures may be extrapolated to other elevations with a general change of 3.5% F per 1,000 feet of elevation difference.

Wildlife

As with vegetation, the rapid changes in elevation bring together diverse species of wildlife within a relatively small area.

Studies have shown that this area contains one of the highest concentrations of black bears in the State of Arizona. Campers should take all appropriate precautions, especially with food storage. Other mammals found here include ring-tailed cats, skunks, coyotes, deer, javelina, and mountain lion. A band of desert bighorn sheep has been reintroduced near here, and a rare sighting is possible. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widows, centipedes, millipedes, etc., also call parts of this area home.

The entire area east of Four Peaks/ Buckhorn Mountain is within the Three Bar Wildlife Management/Experimental Area. The Arizona Game and Fish Department, in cooperation with the Forest Service, has been conducting special studies and hunts in this area since 1949. Contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department for further information on this unique management/ demonstration/experimental area.

Livestock

Many people do not realize that livestock grazing is allowed within designated Wilderness. There is one active grazing allotment under permit which has acreage within and adjacent to this Wilderness. The Forest Service's objective for range management in this area is for the "utilization of the forage resources while maintaining wilderness values".

The area east of the peaks is part of the Three Bar. The grazing permit for this area was revoked in 1936 after repeated incidents of trespass cattle. Temporary use was authorized until 1946; in 1949 the Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department entered into an agreement concerning future management of this area. This cooperative management continues today.

Water

Throughout most of this Four Peaks area, water is scarce and generally unreliable. Most of the springs and creeks are seasonal and/or difficult to reach. Always carry all the water you need with you. During the hot months, this can be a surprisingly large amount.

Unfortunately, it is no longer safe to assume that clear, cool water is okay to drink. Giardiasis, an intestinal parasite also known as "backpackers disease," is infecting backcountry users in the western United States with increasing frequency. Proper precautions should be taken.

Natural Fire Management

It may seem like a contradiction to urge all visitors to be extremely careful with fire and then to speak of managing natural fires. In the past, land managers attempted to exclude all fires from Wilderness. Our understanding of fire has improved in recent years, and natural fires are now recognized as a natural and desirable part of the ecosystem.

It must be emphasized that a natural fire with an established prescription is not to be compared with a man-caused wildfire: wildfires can still be destructive and dangerous.

Sources for More Information

Walk Softly in the Wilderness, by John Hart, Sierra Club Books, 1977.

Flowers of the Southwest Mesas, by Pauline Patraw, Southwest Parks and Monuments Assoc., 1972.

The Archeology of Arizona, by P. Martin and F. Plog, Doubleday/Natural History Press, 1973.

Geology of Arizona, by D. Nations and E. Stump, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1981.

Western Forests, by Stephen Whitney, The Audubon Society Nature Guides, 1985.

Desert Hiking, by Dave Ganci, Wilderness Press, 1987.

Tonto National Forest Wilderness Trails
Superstition Wilderness Mazatzal Wilderness Sierra Ancha Wilderness Hellsgate Wilderness Salome Wilderness

For further information contact: Mesa and Tonto Basin Ranger Districts - Tonto National Forest


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 23 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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