You wanna know something cool about Arizona?
It’s possible to go hiking in the mountains less than a week before Christmas with absolutely no need for snowshoes, three layers of clothing, or even a jacket. And not only is it possible, it’s comfortable. In fact, I’d say December is probably when you want to go hiking in Arizona, unless sweating yourself into dehydration is your idea of a good time. (Just kidding. I actually know nothing about hiking in Arizona in the summer, but my guess is it’s pretty freaking hot.)
When we flew back to the US for Christmas following our move to Singapore, our first stop was Arizona. We arrived on a Saturday evening, utterly exhausted and ready for bed, but if there’s one thing that can cure jet lag faster than any other, it’s getting outside as soon as possible. So first thing the next morning, we headed out for a hike. Our destination: the Superstition Mountains.
The Superstition Mountains
The Superstition Mountains, locally known as the Superstitions, are a range of mountains located about an hour’s drive east of Phoenix. Part of the Superstition Wilderness Area, the Superstition Mountains have a wide variety of trails to offer hikers with varying levels of difficulty. (This is a popular area for rock-climbers as well!) Elevations range from 2,000 to just over 6,000 ft and the terrain is, well, obviously desert. The Superstitions were formed by volcanic eruptions, so the area features rocky trails, jagged cliffs and volcanic remnants, deep canyons, natural falls, and very little in the way of shade. (At least from trees anyway. Maybe find a really tall cactus and stand beneath that?)
Side note: Did you know there are over 2,000 different varieties of cactus? Having only just seen my very first cactus on this trip, I had no idea there were so many different kinds. I’d only ever really thought about cactuses looking like the ones that sort of resemble freakishly tall people with too many arms, but those definitely aren’t the only ones. Pretty sure we saw at least a hundred different cactus varieties on this hike, even one that will attack if you get too close. (No joke. It’s called the “jumping cholla”!)
The answer to how the Superstition Mountains acquired their unusual name seems to differ depending on who you ask. Some people say it’s because of the Superstitions’ notoriety for a higher than normal rate of hiker deaths and disappearances, but I couldn’t find any actual data to back that up. Others say it’s because of the Lost Dutchman (who, strangely, wasn’t actually Dutch) who supposedly discovered a rich gold mine in the mountains in the 1800’s and took its location to his grave. (People are still searching for this phantom gold mine today, some dying in the process.) However, the most likely explanation is that the name comes from the non-Native American farmers who lived alongside the Pima in the 19th century. The farmers had heard tales from the Pima about mysterious deaths and strange sounds coming from the mountains, and it was these stories that likely resulted in the mountains being deemed “the Superstition Mountains”. Whatever the source of the name, it’s probably a good idea to have your wits about you when you visit. Just in case.
The Treasure Loop Trail
Having only just arrived in the country a few hours earlier and sporting some serious jet lag (and a cold caught on the plane in my case), we weren’t exactly up for any of the Superstition Mountains’ strenuous hikes. Instead, we took one of the easiest – the Treasure Loop Trail.
At 2.4 miles round trip, the Treasure Loop Trail isn’t a particularly long hike, nor a difficult one with an elevation gain of only 500 ft, but the views are outstanding over the entire route. The trail begins in the Lost Dutchman State Park near the Cholla Day Use area and heads up towards the Praying Hands, one of the Superstition Mountains’ most recognizable rock formations, before looping around back to the parking lot at the state park again. Thanks to a relatively steady incline and little to no scrambling (unless you want to get on top of rocks for even better views), the Treasure Loop Trail is perfect for all levels of hikers.
We were hiking with family who were very familiar with this route, but had we been on our own, we wouldn’t have gotten lost. The trail was well-marked with signs and would likely have been fairly easy to follow even without them due to how well-trodden the path was. The Treasure Loop Trail is commonly touted as one of the most popular hikes in the area thanks to its easy access and incredible views. I was actually surprised we didn’t pass more people on the path given how beautiful the weather was and that it was a weekend, but then again, it was just six days before Christmas. Hiking probably isn’t at the top of most people’s to-do lists that time of year.
As far as photography opportunities go, the Treasure Loop Trail has plenty of them. I think we surprised our family members with our ability to turn a one hour hike into a two hour one thanks to our impressive number of photo stops!
One of the best spots for photos along the trail is at the junction of the Treasure Loop Trail and the Prospector’s Trail. (They really ran with the gold mine theme here!) At this spot, there is an open area on the trail overlooking the desert and surrounding mountain range, perfect for those gazing off into the distance Instagram photos. :) Just before reaching this point, there are some tall rocks you can scramble on top of, too, that offer some pretty spectacular views. And don’t forget to grab some photos at the base of the mountain as well. In the absence of other people on the day we visited, the photos I got from down on the ground ended up being some of my favorite shots of the day. They make it look like we were well and truly in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a barren desert, but actually there was a parking lot and visitor’s center at our backs. Ha!
General Info for Hiking in the Superstition Mountains
There is a fee of $7 per car for entrance into Lost Dutchman State Park. (This only applies for those trails that begin from the Lost Dutchman. Separate fees apply for the Peralta Canyon area.)
Trails from the Lost Dutchman open at sunrise and close at 10pm, year-round.
If you want to see wildlife (mule deer, coyotes, jackrabbits, etc), you’ll have the best luck if you plan your hike at sunrise or late evening.
Besides the winter, one of the best times to hike in the Superstition Mountains is in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming. March is supposedly the best month for seeing those.
If you’re hiking with kids or anyone who tires easily, the Treasure Loop Trail is an excellent choice. There are benches scattered here and there along the trail that are perfect for those who need to take a rest!
No matter what time of year you visit, bring water. Plenty of it. For longer day hikes, at least a gallon is recommended.
For a map of all Superstition Mountains trails in the Lost Dutchman, have a look here.
For another fun day trip outside of Phoenix, check out the incredibly scenic Apache Trail Drive!
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