Legs singing in a cacophony of joy, I trotted down from the top of Superstition Mountain on a most welcome descent. This was the first downhill grade that I've been on for quite some time, plus the trail was wide and easy. Ahead of me the dark clouds drifted closer, threatening, yet all that mattered for now I was that I was going downhill. Downhill was closer to my exit and closer to impromptu shelter if needed.
It had been a long morning. I had climbed up Turk's Head in the dark, then ascended Superstition Mountain through Hieroglyphics, and even with the reasonable temperatures this weekend my legs were cramping and begging for a break. A break wasn't in the books, not with those storms ahead. All I had to do now was follow the ridgeline trail down to West Boulder Saddle and Carny Springs below, some five or six miles in all, and I'd be done for the day. Well, with a short detour to visit the Three Sisters, of course.
Three Sisters is an iconic formation that sits above the semi-famous Wave Cave. The sisters are almost as photographed as the Siphon Draw area, which is the veritable perception of the Superstitions. Sharp rock protrusions jet out from the cliffs above in a stubborn fight against erosion, though it may look like two or four depending on your angle. Even from the top it only looks like two sisters. That's not as cool of a name, though.
Anyways, this formation sits alongside my descent, and while the incoming storms drove me homeward I wasn't about to pass by it today. My path glided downhill gently, dropped sharply through a little chute, and then glided over the hills again until it split first once, then twice. I took the second fork to the right and followed a faint route with few cairns along an exposed ridge, stepping over downed agaves and aloe plants as they sprung up. Even with all of the downhill from the peak behind me I was still above 4300' at this point and the southern views were impressive.
Turk's Head was visible far down there, a tiny little rock formation that looked nothing like the looming monolith I had gazed up at in the darkness so many hours ago. Its long angle was even more apparent from here. Another thing that was apparent was just how clear the skies were in the west. Phoenix probably hadn't seen any rain at all today. Perhaps Camelback would have been a safer destination than the Superstitions.
The faint route on top of Three Sisters was tough going. Tough going in my current state, anyways. It rolled up and down some hills, faded in and out, and then completely disappeared. I was in sight of the first narrow finger of rock when my right hamstring completely seized up and I dropped like a wet sack of potatoes. Dang it, I haven't had a cramp this bad since... Michigan, maybe? I had to massage the muscle back in shape, coaxing my leg straight, and even then it took some stretches and pacing before I could walk semi-normally. After that episode, and a closer look at the rocky and prickly top of the fingers atop Three Sisters, I decided to turn back early. This was close enough to the those narrow rock formations for today.
On the way back to the main trail I snuck a few looks down the northeast slope. That's an alternate approach up from the Wave Cave area, and from the cave it only climbs a thousand feet. It's pretty brushy, though. I wonder if this might make a good summer hike, to climb up from the Wave Cave section, hit the sisters, and then descend down Carny Springs, all before noon. Hard to estimate how long the ascent would take, especially with it being off-trail and overgrown like that.
Another rainbow over Malapais Mountain greeted me as I rejoined the trail and started down the descent. This time there was no joyous legs, just cramps and old man aches. The trail dropped more rapidly here, often tumbling down solid rock formations that forced me to step carefully and brace myself with the trekking poles. Once past the steep section there was a long section of curves and winds around numerous grooves in the hillside, some with dripping rock walls, and then a wide rocky wash. I had made it to the uppermost reaches of West Boulder Canyon.
An aside on West Boulder Canyon. This rocky wash flows north, past Willow Spring and Aylor's Camp, all the way to Canyon Lake far to the north. Which is weird, because a few hundred yards to the south is a thousand foot drop, seemingly a much more natural place for the water to flow. Guess the rock is just slanted in the wrong direction. Instead it chooses to flow over a dozen miles to the north. One day I might follow the flow northwards, which might make an epic Superstition Ridgeline loop, but not today. Today I was only interested in that quick drop in the other direction.
My natural thought was to turn right here, to follow the wash up to a nearby saddle that looked an awful lot like West Boulder Saddle. Halfway there I noticed the cairns were getting sparse so I checked my GPS and, sure enough, I was completely off-trail. The true route skips right over this wash to another fork and then follows that one up. If I kept on this direction I'd end up near that overgrown descent near Wave Cave, which I was not in the mood to do today. I turned around, found the path, lumbered up the brief climb to the other fork, and slowly made my way to the real saddle.
Temperatures were getting downright hot now, with the full sun bearing down on this saddle. Kinda wish those storm clouds would hurry up and cool things down, as long as they didn't bring any of their thunder and lightening with them. I sat down near a spot of shade and pulled out my last liter of water and some snacks and gazed down towards the parking lot so far below. Not a person was visible along this trail, nor were there any footprints up here. That lot was overfilled, so everyone must be visiting the cave. It's nuts that I've spent most of the day out here on the edge of the wilderness and the only other people seen were clustered at the stereotypical locations. There's so much more to the Superstitions than Hieroglyphics Springs and Wave Cave.
Getting back up was a chore that involved more muscle kneading and stretches. My pack felt great putting on, at least, with no water and most of my snacks gone. Only thing left in there was a sweater for the morning cold, poncho, and a smattering of survival gear. My phone died, run out of juice from the ever-hungry Route Scout app, so I didn't have to worry about trying to reach out to Katie with my timetable. All I had was the descent down Carny and the stormy clouds to the south.
Dropping down this trail is so much easier than climbing up. I reached the bottom with only one section of tricky sliding near the base and began loping forward on the level ground toward my car. Right before exiting the wilderness proper I bumped into a confused man looking for Wave Cave, and then after that was a steady procession of groups heading to that destination. Above us the sky rumbled and the light went from gray to slate and still they came, pouring into the desert, couples and friends and families all interested in a hole in the rock.
I reached my van a few minutes after the first big drops came down. Quickly pulling off my gear and unloading, more to escape the crowds than the rain, I soon was putzing down the road stuck behind three slow drivers that were more worried about getting dust on their vehicles than letting me pass. Sitting back I sipped on some water I had stashed in here and the few snacks left, glancing back every once in a while to watch Three Sisters disappear in a mass of rain. Somehow I had made it out of there with minutes to spare, even with all the short breaks near the end. Even in my cramping, dour state, I knew better than to chalk it up to luck.