Four Peaks is a landmark that is visible from most anywhere in the Phoenix valley. Unless there's a building in the way, the rugged profile can always be seen to the northeast, a distant landmark some sixty miles away that may shine brightly under a hot sun, glisten with a fresh cover of snow, or be cloaked in clouds. And when you're driving along the Apache Drive near Lost Dutchman State Park it rises above the hills of Apache Gap and, at the right angle, you'll see four little peaks framed underneath Four Peaks. Those little guys are knows as Little Four Peaks.
I didn't see that scenic frame on my drive up to Apache Gap early Sunday morning. It was before five as I drove through the gap on my way to Tortilla Flat and the land was still shrouded by night. I made it to a small parking lot at the start of 213, a service road far too rugged for the van (or most non-specialized vehicles), and started on my planned hike towards Tortilla Ranch.
Oh, I shouldn't be out hiking. My asthma inhaler and knee brace were left at the house, forgotten, and I would need both of them on a hike in the remote Tortilla area. Plus, my back, where I had strained a muscle a few weeks ago, sent a throbbing ache as the road slowly passed by in the darkness. A half-mile in and I stopped, wheezing slightly, and finally admitted that this area was too much a challenge in my current state. Something easier, something shorter and right along the way, was about all I should tackle today.
Forty minutes later and I was back at Little Four Peaks, walking along an old dirt track. It was still dark out and I needed my head lamp, mostly to avoid bumping into any outstretched cactus arms. A GPS route was already loaded up for this hike, as I had played with the idea of doing this one today after tackling Tortilla anyways, and I knew that having a route to hint me in the right direction would save some time on this off-trail trek. Plus I couldn't even see any of the peaks I would be climbing today from here - there were too many hills around me.
The old dirt track faded away and I dropped down into a narrow wash. One game track led to the next and every once in a while a cairn would show up, though I wasn't able to make out a concrete trail that they belonged to. It didn't matter too much. While the constant weaving around prickly brush and palo verde and cholla with no consistent path to follow was annoying, it was only a mile to the peaks. Bushwhacking is never in a straight line.
When the wash split the first time I took the right fork, and then it split a second time and I picked right again. Which was a mistake. A left on the second would have taken me straight up to a saddle and an easy climb to the first peak. Now I was stuck squirming under branches and pulling myself up piles of loose rock in a tight valley. When things opened up and I was faced with only small outcroppings it was a relief.
These outcroppings gave me a chance to do more climbing then hiking, more upper body motions than just walking. Which reminded my back that it should be complaining more. Perhaps two weeks of rest wasn't long enough. At least I was hurting now, within a mile of the car, instead of halfway up Tortilla Peak, six miles and thousands of feet up. I paused to stretch out a bit and enjoy the slowly waking skies to the east.
I was far enough outside the Superstitions to get a good view of the entire western end. With one glance I could see everything from South Peak on the ridgeline, Weaver's Needle, Bluff Springs, and over to Malapais Mountain. Speaking of the ridgeline, Chris and I have been talking about redoing that one soon. I'm kinda looking forward that hike again, if only to see how better prepared I could be for a whole day up there. Ran out of water embarrassingly earlier last time.
Back to the climb on hand. I was pretty sure that the little rise was the top and so I focused on that, each step taking me a few inches further up. There were a few annoying obstacles: a small wall of prickly brush, a pile of loose boulders, short lines of exposed outcropping. Ten minutes of slow going and I reached the peak. The morning breeze tried to pull my hat off as I drank in the brilliant eastern skies.
Views to the north were also looking good. Four Peaks was slowly waking up under a partly cloudy sky. I can't wait to get back up there and do the Mother Lode. That was another hike in the running for today, that and Tortilla Peak, but my back probably wouldn't have enjoyed either. With one last wistful look to the north I turned away and headed down this hill to the saddle beyond.
Now the path was easy to make out - it went straight down this peak, into the saddle, and then began to swing up the next one. The next one was a small one. I'm not sure if it's even one of the peaks visible in the profile or if it blends in. There was a fun climb, though. Before I was basically hiking up a rocky hill, now I was climbing sections of sloped, exposed rock, and was forced to look for cracks and hand holds to reach the summit.
The saddle over to the third peak was almost level with where I stood. Again, maybe two and three just merge together on the horizon, or maybe they were more distinct from the road below. Either way, I did enjoy the comparison with Four Peaks. Up there, the saddle between two and three has a couple of pines growing in it. Down here in the Sonoran there was a cluster of cholla trees.
Wasting little time, I quickly bumbled down into the saddle, weaved quickly through the forest of cholla, and started up the next peak. It was a simple affair and I was on top within minutes. From here, though, things started to look a whole lot more serious. The peak was only dozens of yards away, close enough that I could probably chuck a few rocks and knock over the cairn on it, though the gap between was sudden. I'd be dropping a good distance down and then guessing at which crack would give me the best climb up. Flexing my left shoulder and back I pushed on, carefully sliding and dropping down to the saddle.
This climb was fun. Sure, it was overgrown, which only gave me more things to pull up on and more things to scratch and claw at me as I passed. There was only one spot where I realized that I was in a sticky situation, and so I just dropped back down a dozen feet and went up a different route. As I climbed the sun finally poked above the horizon, showering yellow-orange light over the rocks in a messy display.
As I broke over the summit in the morning light, the fourth summit, I expected a great view of Superstition Ridgeline and hoped for an easier route back. What I didn't expect was another peak. Again, a mere dozen yards away it sat, with a small cairn and everything. My count must be off - either the first summit isn't visible or two and three blend together. Didn't matter. What mattered is that I had another peak to bag, even if the going was only getting tougher.
This drop involved a bit more butt-sliding then before, and it was obvious that most people didn't push on, with less tracks and more brush. At the saddle there was a single stubborn tree, again reminding me of the twisted and gnarled pines up on the larger Four Peaks, and then I even found a little hole that matches with Amethyst Mine. Okay, maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch.
Once I pulled myself up along the last crack I stopped to drink up the views in full. It really was a great vantage point. I could make out several vehicles driving up the road to First Water Ranch, the parking lots along it, the northern end of Superstition Ridgeline, and even a healthy chunk of Phoenix. Behind me the little peaks I had just climbed were shining in the morning sun. I stood on the last peak, the southernmost one, with the day's breeze whipping around me, and felt a little accomplished. Sure, this may only be a two mile hike, but with my back still messed up I let myself enjoy it.
Now there was just the return. Unfortunately, there was no easy way down off of this, so I had to backtrack all the way back to the first saddle. I tried bypassing the peaks along the way on the east side, which only left me cliffed out and forced to tackle a different climb each time. By the time I got to the saddle I was ready to be done… Well, sort of. I mean, this whole hike was barely an hour. Which may have been just enough for me to do without an inhaler, knee brace, or healthy back.
Descending was about as much fun as the initial climb, all bushwhacking and weaving between the cactus. I got one good knock on the back of my hand, forcing me to stop and pull a dozen spines out through my gloves, and another good brush with my left shin. Guess it wouldn't be a good Arizona hike if I got out unbloodied. When I returned to the car I finished off my morning coffee and then started the drive back home. Little Four Peaks was crossed off the list and I learned that I needed another few weeks before attempting anything bigger than that.