Afternoon hikes in Phoenix are tricky things. On one hand I'm still working on Eastern time, which means that most days I'm done with work between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. That leaves me with several hours of daylight for a short hike during the work week. However, I'm in a desert. Hiking under the hot afternoon sun is not my idea of fun. After avoiding such adventures for several months I decided to give it a try one mild day and took Noah out to Apache Junction for a quick visit to the Superstitions.
There are a few spots in the Superstition Wilderness that we could get easily reach given our short time: Siphon Draw to the north, Hieroglyphics Canyon to the south, and Broadway Trail in the middle. I headed for Broadway. It would be new land to explore, with both Monument Canyon and a cool cave to head up to, and we could make the drive in a half hour. Well, forty-five minutes, with afternoon traffic and a brief bit of confusion on the drive.
Not having done any research on this hike, a bad habit of mine for these type of short hikes, I simply guessed that the small parking lot near the eastern end of Broadway Avenue was the right place to stop. The road curved into a little suburb with huge houses and eight empty and unmarked spots sat conspicuously near a cement gate. Either this was parking for an unsigned trailhead to the Superstitions or these residents expected guests to park here and walk to their houses. I guessed at the former and loaded up Noah and his carrier.
The break in the wall was easy enough to find, just off to the side of the lot, and a footpath started heading east. This seemed right. The air was hot and still, somewhere around 75, and the sun threw harsh light over the desert. Far ahead of us sat a bright white splotch with a little darkness on the bottom left - Broadway Cave.
I had hoped to let Noah walk for most of this hike. He's getting old enough to enjoy tooling around for a few miles out here and it's less than four miles to the cave and back. The trail was much too rough for that, all hard rocks and boulders. He's not that good at keeping his balance. I trudged along with him behind, crunching down on the ankle-rolling rocks below as I headed east, and he sat impatient behind me. At least the desert was pretty.
We trundled along the trail, eventually bumping into the Lost Goldmine Trail that loops around this side of the wilderness, and then found an unmarked footpath that continued east. Along the way I noticed some hints that this trail was once part of an old two-track. We weren't really following a path, we were following one of the gravelly tracks up into Monument Valley. There was some mining up this way in the valley, an old homestead and such, and I wondered if this road led to the that.
Before we entered the valley proper the cave reared several hundred feet above us. My legs were surprisingly tired already. It wasn't an easy trail in, loose rocks and a five hundred foot climb from the parking area, but I didn't expect to be tired yet. The climb up didn't look fun. I rested for a while, looking back over the valley below, trying to build myself up for the next leg. Noah tickled the back of my neck for encouragement.
There should be a side track that led up to the cave from the path to Monument Valley. I hadn't seen one yet. Impatient, I decided to cut south now, weaving through the rocks and cactus on towards the cave. And I quickly bumped into the track. If I had stayed on the path to Monument Valley a few more yards I would have found it. Noah seemed pretty excited that we were on a path again (and that he stole my hat).
As I climbed further up the hill a loud roar came swooping in and a black helicopter rushed over us. Darn tourists. I had seen this helicopter around the Superstitions before, buzzing around the main features like an overlarge gnat, and was annoyed to have it interrupt our little hike this afternoon. It was soon gone and we resumed our climb. The path switched between loose rock pilings and hard rock formations, neither of which were easy to handle while carrying a toddler, and I kept glancing up to see how close we were to the cave.
My hope was that the cave would be large and flat enough for Noah to run around a little bit. So far this hike had been steep and rugged, too steep and rugged for my son's little feet, and we both like it when he has a chance to walk around. When I finally climbed up the last lip and peered into the cave I was a little disappointed. The bottom of the cave was littered with huge chalky boulders too tough for Noah to handle and a steep hill of loose dust rose up to the back of the cave. There wouldn't be much room for him to run loose here.
Still, he was happy enough to be let out. I helped him over some of the taller boulders and we played around at the mouth of the cave. As any kid would do he had to touch most of the plants that grew at the mouth (none of which were too prickly). As we played I looked east over the valley. The sun hung hot to the west, lighting the smog over Phoenix with an ugly orange color, and I wondered how much daylight we'd have left today.
Noah was soon done with the boulders and headed over to the pile of loose dirt. It was steep enough for him to drop down to all fours to climb and I kept close, watching both for dangers in the dirt and for looser sections. He got to the top with ease, dirty and happy from the effort, and began to explore deeper into the cave. There was signs of a recent campsite here and more than enough footprints to ensure me that this section of the cave was safe for us.
A dark shaft led down inside the cave, dark enough that I had a hard time telling how far back it went, and I tried to convince Noah that we should explore it. I was pretty sure that it was less than thirty feet long, dark only because our eyes were warn out from the bright desert sun, but Noah didn't want to have anything to do with the cave. He fussed and dragged his feet, unwilling to explore the darkened area. I didn't push him. Instead we headed back to the mouth of the cave to check out the bright yellow splatch that had been so visible from the start of our hike.
The yellow splatch was little more than a wall of bright rock, maybe diorite, that extended south of the cave in a large circle. It definitely made the little cave easier to spot from a distance. We then headed slowly back to the carrier. The sun was dropping and I was beginning to worry about the coming sunset. We could always explore deeper into Monument Canyon… Or maybe I'd leave Noah behind and attempt to climb up Flatiron from this canyon. It would be challenging and off-trail and seemed like a heck of fun adventure.
Getting Noah back in the carrier is never easy. I coaxed him with cool water and a cheese stick before hauling him back up on my back, which seemed to do the trick. There was no way I was going to let him climb down the steep drop to the desert below or let him walk on the trail back to the car. I'd rather be a mean dad than have to deal with a nasty head injury.
Heading down was a slow crawl over the hard rock and loose gravel with a mix of nasty green trees along the way. The sun was in our eyes now, though it didn't seem as hot as before. The air was not comfortable by a stretch, it just wasn't an oven any more. As we descended we passed a little nest of thorns on a branch of thorns. Even the animals defend their homes with sharp pricks here.
I reached the base of the climb and cut over to the path, meeting up with the route to Monument Valley and starting back west to the car. The slight incline that had sapped away at my legs on the way in now gave me an easy and confident stride on the way out. We glanced back at the rock walls high above on the way back, the intimate angle of Flatiron learing high above with long shadows cast about, and I knew I had to try a climb from this valley sometime in the future.
The setting sun continued to cast deeper colors over the cliffs and around us, warning me of our shortening time. I hadn't brought a light out on this trip. I wasn't too worried. We were within a few miles of Apache Junction along an obvious footpath - even if we had to walk under the light of the full moon I could get us out of here. We were halfway to the car when the sun swung over White Tank far to the west for a few moments before dropping out of sight.
Dim red glow lit enough of the sky to let us finish the hike. In fact, there was enough light for Noah and I to spot a few rabbits hopping off trail, either startled by our passage or heading back to their underground home. He wasn't really sure what to make of them and watched them slightly with wide eyes. A few minutes later we circled around to the van, jumped inside, and headed down the darkening Broadway Avenue.
So it wasn't too bad, this afternoon hike. I don't mind walking without the sun, though I'd rather go in the early morning. Running out of daylight seems much more dangerous than running late into the afternoon. Today didn't get too dark, or too hot, and we got to get a few miles of hiking in on a workday week. As long as the hot summer didn't start up too soon I could see Noah and I doing this more often in the coming months.