Southern Arizona Trails
An abundance of airy, exposed ridges over closed-in drainages makes this one of the most scenic routes in the Chiricahuas. Covering a much greater altitudinal sweep than the preceding two trips, this trek gives the hiker a more balanced feel for the range as a whole from the oaks and cypresses of the midaltitude canyons to the aspen and spruce of the high country. If some of that"feel" tends to lodge in one's knees and ankles during the bone-jarring descent of steep Mormon Ridge, well, that too is an integral part of the Chiricahua experience.
Twelve miles east of the US 191 and Highway 181 intersection, Highway 181 makes a 90-degree turn from straight east to north. From this point, Turkey Creek Road (Forest Road 41) heads east. Follow this graded dirt road almost nine miles to the left-branching spur to the Saulsbury Canyon Trailhead. The sign is difficult to see from the main road as it is several dozen feet up the spur on the right side with no sign at the junction. Start looking for the spur after passing a one-lane bridge, a private gate on the left, and a cattle guard (all in quick succession). The 0.5-mile spur is rocky in places and not suitable for low-slung cars. If it does not get maintenance, it may not stay suitable for passenger cars. Camping is possible at the trailhead but there are more suitable places, both in established campgrounds, and dispersed camping off Forest Road 41 beyond the Saulsbury turnoff.
From the Saulsbury Canyon trailhead at Turkey Creek (0.0 miles; 6,320 feet in altitude) we walk gently uphill along an abandoned dirt road through a forest cover of silverleaf and emery oak, Apache and Chihuahua pine, Schott's yucca, and a few Arizona cypresses. After the first half mile or so, the track assumes the more congenial dimensions of a trail and begins crossing and recrossing the usually dry bed of Saulsbury Creek. A mile from the start, we begin climbing moderately up the right-hand wall onto a low ridge between two drainages. Several hundred feet higher, after making a few token switchbacks (where we get a view of burned-off Little Bald Mountain), the trail finally snakes up into wooded Saulsbury Saddle (1.9; 7,480). At a sign here we turn right to another sign visible nearby, then move to the right again onto the southwest slope of the rocky ridge east of the saddle. The ensuing steep climb offers good views across the deep canyon of Turkey Creek. Soon we cross a minor saddle to the ridge's Gambel oakshaded north side, trading the preceding vista for an equally rewarding overlook of Rock Canyon and distant Sulphur Spring Valley. Here, we begin to encounter trees singed by the Rattlesnake Fire.
As we approach the rocky crown of Little Bald Mountain the trail levels out a bit, allowing us to catch our breath for the first time since leaving the floor of Saulsbury Canyon some 1,500 feet below. Here we come to a sunny notch from which we can see the rounded, invitingly forested, only partially burned tops of Flys and Chiricahua peaks, still 1,300 feet above us. After traversing beneath Little Bald Mountain the trail suddenly leaves the oaks, pinyons, and agaves of the foothills behind and enters the welcome shade of a dense copse of Douglas fir, New Mexican locust, and Engelmann spruce. As we begin climbing again, we pass our first quaking aspen a sure sign that we have made it to the high country at last and presently we arrive at a signed junction with the Crest Trail (4.4; 9,280). (Hikers should make it a point to get here well before noon, as the trail to this point can get quite hot by midday.)
Here we turn right and then walk south along the Crest Trail to the still-forested saddle that contains Round Park. Those who wish to make the sidetrip to Flys Peak should search for an unmarked junction at the north end of this wildflower-studded meadow, then follow the path that leads north 0.5 mile to the summit. Much of this approach is through a burned area but the peak area is largely untouched. To reach Chiricahua Peak we stay on the Crest Trail, continuing south past several well-signed turnoffs until we arrive at a signed junction with the Anita Park-Anita Spring Spur Trail where we reach green forest after passing through a burned area. Backpackers will find good camping at Anita Park, a few hundred yards north. Anita Spring, down on the hillside east of the park, has potable water except in the driest of times.
To continue to Chiricahua Peak, walk south a short distance to Junction Saddle (6.4; 9,540). Stay left here, then go right at an unsigned turnoff just beyond and ascend moderately the remaining distance to the top (6.9; 9,796). Here, at the highest point in the Chiricahuas, there is a good dry campsite. Views are unfortunately blocked by the heavy forest cover. Although approached by the fire, the peak area is largely untouched.
To return to Turkey Creek, we retrace our steps to the last junction, where we turn right and begin a traverse of Chiricahua Peak's east slope. In 0.7 mile we reach another fork, turn right again, and continue along the peak's south face. After dropping moderately a short distance, the trail brings us to Chiricahua Saddle (9.0; 9,200), where we turn right onto the signed Mormon Ridge Trail, a heavily forested route that plunges down some 3,000 feet in less than four miles. From the saddle the trail descends, crossing a talus-choked ravine. About 0.7 mile later we meet the Mormon Canyon Trail on our left, and another branch of the Mormon Ridge Trail on our right; we go straight ahead, and soon begin dropping steeply. Most of this descent is made on the ridge's south side, keeping below the crest, and with only an occasional switchback to ease the gradient. In a few places the trail becomes merely a trace, often overgrown with weeds especially where the slope traversed by the trail is very steep. Because the trail is the only level ground between the steep down slope to the left and the steep up slope to the right the feet seem able to follow the trail even where weeds are too thick for the eye to see the trail. Be careful with foot placement here. While descending, the hiker will doubtless be struck by the sharp contrast between Mormon Canyon's densely forested south wall and the hot, brushy north wall upon which, unfortunately, our trail happens to have been built.
A small expanse of burned pines (pre Rattlesnake Fire) marks the halfway point of the descent. About a mile beyond this burn area the ridge begins to level out, large oaks and junipers appear on the park like flats, and the walking gets easier and easier until we at last cross tiny Turkey Creek and climb up to the road just beyond (13.1; 6,160). To place a car here for a shuttle, drive 0.4 mile beyond the spur turnoff for the Saulsbury Canyon Trailhead.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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