Superstitions and Legends

Trail Riding the Sonoran Desert
By Lin Sutherland
  |  Gorp.com

There's a place of legends in the Sonoran Desert, and it's called the Superstitions. A national monument, a wilderness, a rocky outcropping in the midst of Arizona scrub—all describe the region but none does justice to this uniquely American place of monumental beauty.

The Superstition Wilderness encompasses 160,000 acres of desert scrub and chaparral landscape accented by massive saguaro cactus about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix. It can be accessed by foot or on horseback, and, since I wanted to cover as much of the spectacular region as possible, I chose the latter. Looking for a an old hand in the Superstions to accompany me, I was introduced to Troy Shupe, a cowboy who formed Lost Dutchman Outfitters with his father.

Starting on a sunny day in March I set out with Shupe, his ace trail cook (and wife) Michelle, two other cow hands and a group of four enterprising travelers who, like myself, had little idea what was in store for them over the ensuing five days.

Our team was excellent, but the most valuable member of our expedition may have been Junior, a red, smart, lead trail horse. Junior has led innocents through the Superstitions for years. He knew every trail and watering hole. Given, Troy was our fearless leader, but Junior seemed to be way ahead of him on decisions concerning distance and direction.

The first day we headed into the wilderness through canyons and draws, and past the famous saguaro forests of Arizona. I learned that saguaros, those sentinel cacti that look like battalions of people, only grow within the 100 square miles around the Superstitions.

They are now a protected species, being unique, striking, and endangered. Some grow as tall as 80 feet and live more than 50 years. They are home to the cactus wren, which nest in their prickly thorns. They've evolved bony, wide feet to withstand injury while hopping around the cactus.

Rising above the Superstitions like the Eiffel Tower is Weaver's Needle, a tall stone monolith that is the legendary home of the Lost Dutchman Gold. It was here that Jacob Waltz hid his Motherlode.

On his deathbed, rattled with pneumonia brought on by days of rain and floods that had trapped him in the mountains, he revealed that if you held a cross on top of Weaver's Needle at sunset, its shadow would fall across the cache where he'd stashed his considerable horde of gold.

Many an opportunist has climbed that spire in search of the gold. They have lost their fortunes, their sanity, and their lives looking for that treasure. A woman prospector named Julia Smith even tried to dynamite Weaver's Needle, but when one of her workers plummeted to his death from atop the pinnacle, she took it as a bad omen and quit her crazy quest.

Riding past Weaver's Needle into the plains of saguaro, one senses the history and legends steeped in the landscape. The land is hard, racked with drought, snakes and sharp-edged cliffs. Flora and fauna alike seem determined to maim: from the prickly pear that caught my leg to the rattlesnake that slithered across our path.

Yet all this was undaunting as we explored the country. These strange stone mountains, rising out of the saguaro-studded desert, were innately hospitable.

On the back side of Weaver's Needle we rode a sharp ascent to Peralta Pass, one of the most scenic and inspiring formations I've ever seen. Formed by an ancient upthrust of shifting plates over half a million years ago, a long, strange ridge of stone pinnacles was formed, resembling ancient guardians standing in formation along the ridge of the mountain.

There are miles of these sentries lined along the ridgetop. Pima legend has it that the Great One knew a flood was coming and called the Good Ones to the top of the mountain. But Evil Ones crowded to the top as well, and the Old One turned them all to stone forever. There they stand: strange, silent sentinels.

By the third day I had become accustomed to riding my trusty buckskin, Rocky, five or six hours a day. I left it to him to lunge up the steep stone paths, avoid thorny bushes like the ocotillo, and carefully position his dainty hooves in rock sluices as we descended precipitous, crumbling footpaths.

I appreciated the steadiness and hard work of my horse and wanted to reward him for his thankless effort. After some experimenting, I discover Rocky's weak spot—Butterfingers. From then on, at water and lunch breaks I'd sneak him a treat or two behind Troy's back. They say you're better off shooting a cowboy's wife than feeding junk food to his horse, and as well-intentioned as I was, I wasn't about to test the assertion.

The day we headed up our steepest climb, Cardiac Hill, it rained—drenching our slickers and our horses and making the trail slick as donkey spit. We were watching for pumas, the sand-colored mountain lions indigenous to the area, because several had been sighted recently. Their numbers are on the rise due to a concerted effort to protect them in the Superstitions, their natural habitat.

We never spotted a puma but we did run into a herd of mule deer that refused to clear the trail. We ended up walking around them.

The horses made it up Cardiac Hill, and we rested at the top. The rain smelled fresh on the rocks, and below us Coffee Flats, a valley choked with saguaros, was filled with a fine mist as far as we could see.

We rode down Cardiac Hill in search of the Salado cliff dwellings. An Anasazi sub-culture that vanished in the 13th century, the Salados left behind their detailed and tightly constructed homes, perched high in caves along the canyon walls. We hitched the horses to some sumacs by a creek and climbed to these mysterious dwellings.

Six hundred years from now will your house be intact? Not likely. Yet those built by these primitive Indians still maintained their form. There were even handprints visible in the adobe walls where the mud brick had been pushed into place.

That evening we sat around the campfire and sipped hot coffee after a dinner of T-bone steaks and cherry cobbler. Coyotes sang plaintively. We could distinguish the assertive wail of the leader from the chiming high-pitched yips of pups. The sky was clear and clogged with stars. The horses shuffled and snorted softly, grazing on their dinner of alfalfa. It was as peaceful as you might expect, on a still night in March, nestled somewhere between the Superstitions and legends of the Sonora desert.

When You Go
The Superstition Mountains lie outside of Apache Junction, Arizona, 20 miles southeast of Phoenix, which is served by major airlines. Driving, it is 390 miles from Los Angeles, 800 miles from Denver.

My pack trip was organized by American Wilderness Experience, (800) 444-0099, and outfitted by the Shupe family's Lost Dutchman Outfitters, (602) 671-3372. Horse packing trips are best when scheduled from December to April in Arizona, moving up to Colorado May to November, due to the heat.

What to Take
Canteen or portable water bottle to tie to saddle, rain gear, hat with a brim, sunscreen, comfortable ankle high shoes or boots, good socks, long pants (without inside seams if possible), light jacket, long-sleeve cotton shirt, bandanna, flashlight, penknife, camera, plenty of film. At night the desert can be very cool, so take long underwear and a sweater or sweatshirt, just in case.


Lin Sutherland is a travel writer and photographer from Austin, Texas. She teaches writing at the University of Texas and the Austin Writers' League. Her articles have been published in Texas Monthly, Field and Stream, Woman's Day, and Outdoor Photographers.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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