In the twenty-plus years that I lived in the Phoenix area before moving north for a few years, I had only “hiked” at these mountains once…and had driven to the “White Tank Mountain Regional Park” only once or twice more. I used to look at the mountains from afar and considered that they were just part of the landscape, and to be honest, I considered them to be a rather bleak and unappealing part of the landscape…the far western boundary of the Valley of the Sun that was my desert home…grayish brown lumps of rock…out there.
(I made the below photo while in the parking lot of the Ford Canyon Trail-head…about four minutes before sunrise proper.)
After moving to Utah and experiencing the Wasatch Mountains as my “back yard,” I began to reflect even less favorably on the White Tank “Mountains,” because they were so much less than the new and real mountains in my life. My hiking sons who lived with me in Utah for those few years had actually frequented the White Tanks more than I had…and after hiking to our favorite waterfall in the Wasatch, we all had something like a growing, playful contempt for what could be found at the end of the “Waterfall Trail” in the White Tanks.
(I made the next photo about six minutes later, walking northwest on the trail that would take me to Ford Canyon where I would have a wonderful climb.)
As the twists and turns of Life would have it, my family and I moved back to this metropolitan desert…and I still have the yearning to be out hiking mountains…and it just so happens that the White Tank Mountains are probably the closest “mountains” to where I presently live.
(And still another six minutes later, I had rounded a bend in the trail and had a clear view of the antennas that one can see for miles across the desert.)
So after being here again for just over a year, I figured that I was probably overdue in heading west and learning more about these mountains. I will admit that from afar, from the dozens of miles away that I usually view them, they still don’t look like much, still don’t appear inviting in the least…and still aren’t very compelling as far as “mountains” are concerned. But now, after having spent the better part of a winter’s day climbing, hiking, and walking among them, I do have a greater appreciation for the White Tanks…I can consider them to be “mountains” in my hiking experience…because I did have to actually “hike” and “climb” up them to get where I wanted to go on that particular Sunday.
(The next photo is what it looks like facing northeast from the trail, with the White Tanks behind us, before actually getting into the canyon.)
And as I have mentioned in a previous post, it was in looking closer at my surroundings that I found the beauty of this particular spot of desert.
The above and below images were made probably within a few yards of each other…approaching three miles into the hike…heading mostly west, but north, as well, hiking what would be the right side of a slightly oblong loop that comprised my route for the day. The vegetation above consists of the large Saguaro cactus, some variety of Cholla cactus immediately to the right of the Saguaro and in the closer right-hand foreground of the image…some brighter green Creosote to the bottom left, and Ironwood and Palo Verde on the far right side and moving inward. There are also some grayish-green shrubs that are a variety of Sage and some Brittlebush.
In the below image you’ll notice the skeleton of a fallen Saguaro…what’s left of it anyway.
The trail is climbing up into the canyon now…slowly gaining elevation…moving up into the rockier aspects of the mountainside.
Hmm…cause for concern? I’ve never seen a sign like this on any previous hike…not here, or in Utah.
And that’s where we’re going…that bit of trail that you can discern at the foot of the closest Saguaro on the left…
Looking back down the draw…down the dry waterway that must be something fierce and wonderful after a summer monsoon…. The trail will be toward the right and out of frame. At 8:55 in the morning, the sun was still a ways behind the ridge and lighting only a portion of the canyon…and making it difficult to make a good image.
To the right of the bottom right corner/protuberance of that large rock in the center of the image, you can see a first glimpse of a “white tank” with the water streaks below it.
I was familiar with white granite from the mountains and boulders of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah…the rock that locals had termed “Temple Granite,” as it was used to build the Mormon’s temple in Salt Lake City…so it was something of a surprise to find it so out of context here in the middle of the desert…
…but there it is, worn smooth by thousands of thousands of summer floods crashing down the mountains….
The trail has disappeared into an understood sense of direction, a knowing of where one ought to go simply because the land suggests it. A marker has been stuck into the ground at a wider spot among the boulders…its information tells us that we are on the Ford Canyon Trail and have traveled four miles and that we should go in the direction of the arrow, more or less….
Sometimes the physical trail is nothing more than footprints left by those who wandered here before us…we have to look down and around…to imagine the moving water that lives and travels here and not become lost in the enormity of our surroundings, but to focus and understand…and even hope….
…and look for the unnatural, odd stacking of stones whose alignment means more than just direction…affirmation…relief…. (Do you see the cairn just right of the center of the photo?)
The only trail, really, was the waterway, the drainage, the silt and sand and gravel, rocks, and boulders, green trees and grasses that lead ever uphill from our location…to worn slabs of granite steps to climb and go further…that lead to a damn wall…
…rather a dam wall, a contrivance reminiscent of alpine reservoirs maintained in former times to catch winter waters for summer times. I don’t know the history of this place, don’t know if it was used for livestock…or whatever, but the former pool has been filled with sand and dirt and other whatnot. I’m not sure if it occurred naturally with the rains, or if it was filled intentionally by the builder or someone who came afterward.
There were several clumps of this beautifully tufted “fountain grass,” in the waterway.
It’s hard for me to imagine a river of flood waters coursing over this area, but I know it has, and at numerous times over the eons, in order for these slabs to have so many of their rough edges smoothed away to the rounded surfaces that now exist on these exposed masses of rock.
This is the point where the path became a literal trail again and climbed out of the waterway of Ford Canyon….this is also a natural ending place for this first post, as the next one will share images of vast open hillsides that dominated the second half of the hike.
Thank you for visiting with me and enduring to the end of this unusually long post. I hope you’ve enjoyed these several glimpses at the Ford Canyon Trail in the White Tank Mountains.
Sunday morning, November first of this present year, eight minutes into the hike…the desert looked like…well, the desert as I have come to know it. This stretch of the Sonora Desert has become rather familiar. I’ve been on this trail eight times now and have covered more than 40 of its 70-plus miles…and this stretch is the furthest south that I have been. There might be still one more track south of this trail-head, but being familiar with the area south of here, I doubt that I’ll head in that direction.
The early twists and turns of the trail, and the crossing and re-crossing of dry water-ways or creek-beds had brought me up a slight rise and pressed on toward a flatter plain that would soon give way to other and more declivities and inclines as I progressed northward. I had seen this particular Saguaro from further back and wondered if the trail would take me anywhere near it. If one were “looking for a sign” when lost out here in this desert wild, that someone might be tempted to view this as some kind of guide, or not…. I found it to be a significant landmark that, when coming from the other direction a few hours later, told me that I was very close to the end of my excursion.
I’ve seen mistletoe several times, but don’t know that I’ve ever posted any images of it. Here it is in it’s context…
…and here it is again, but in a closer view.
The living and the dead of the eternal desert….
An old-school trail marker, faded by severe summer suns….
The trail was actually quite a bit lower than the surrounding desert in the below photo. I thought it provided a nice shrub-height perspective.
I thought there would be more to this section of the trail than there actually was. I came to the end much sooner than I thought I would and then stood there mid-trail thinking, “Is that all…really?” It felt much too early to head back to the truck and I wasn’t inclined to marching further on the already familiar track, so I headed off-trail to explore a couple of the minor peaks in the area. After reaching the top of one, I turned north and found a pleasant-enough view of the desert beyond…the trail toward the middle of the image is the one that would take me up toward the trail-head at Table Mesa Road.
I’m still adjusting to this desert hiking and have to admit that I’m sometimes disappointed in the landscapes and panoramas…sometimes they seem so featureless…or plain…. Someone once said that it’s not what we look at, but what we see that’s important…so I press myself to look more closely in my search for beauty out here…I try to look at things with a fascinated, scientific mind sometimes, framing things within contexts of what I’ve read and learned about this type of landscape.
And when looking much closer, I find cliffs and canyons covered in lichen….not literal cliffs and canyons, of course, but ground-level rocks that are covered in the moisture-dependent and fragile, yet enduring yellow lichen that appears with more frequency than one would expect out here.
I notice, too, the varieties of plant life and the slope and angles of the land as it rises and falls in its relationship with, among other things, the comings and goings of water, the sculpting that occurs from the drainage and collecting of its seasonal rains…and then I wonder at how it looked when it was born, this volcano-riddled desert…..
From the top of another hill, I looked south and over the desert that pressed against roads and homes and saw the distant ridges that were clothed in the mists of commerce and civilization…smog…and was touched by the irony of this kind of “beauty” being the result of something so inherently unappealing.
When I was taking a biology class in college several years ago, one of our assignments was to conduct a field study or observation of the plants growing on one slope and compare them with the vegetation found living on an opposite hillside. I had recollections of that experience when I was climbing the hill in the above image. I had just been on a different slope that was only dirt and rock with very little of anything growing there and no evidence of animal-life, and then visited this particular slope that was covered with wild grasses and Jojoba shrubs, desert trees and cacti, and had wild burro and rabbit droppings, as well as lizards and chipmunk/squirrel type creatures scurrying about….what a difference there was to be seen in the opposite extremes of the lay of the land……when looking closer.
I don’t know the name of the tree in the above image, but it provided an uncommon and inviting shade as I was descending the last hilltop of my afternoon explorations.
And lastly, an image that presents the contrast of near and far in the Arizona Sonora Desert…not very compelling when viewed from a distance, in my opinion, but strikingly beautiful and fascinating when experienced up close and personal.
I had walked across the Sonoran plain on a man-made trail that led into and onto the edges of raw canyon walls. After reaching the pass at the top, I found only cairns and footsteps that led into the natural trail of a watercourse that had been carved through the land and literal rock by eons of desert rains and their accompanying floods. The crispness of the morning air was gone with the rising and warming sun, but the unexpected bright orange of Fall’s changing colors quickly reminded me that the nights were indeed cold up here…in the White Tank Mountains.
Abstract like thoughts and imaginings…the eternal desert changes and renews itself with the close passing of time….
Another visit to the archives brings this image from a hike I took on the Sunday before Thanksgiving two years ago. Exactly four weeks prior to this day, I was sitting atop that summit in the distance, Mt. Raymond, admiring the view of the canyons and mountains around me…360 degrees of wonderfulness…and a fantastic experience rivaled by few others….