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White Tank Mountains Day Hike
White Tank Mountain Regional Park
February 27, 2016
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
Sunrise from White Tank Mountain Regional Park. [photo by Lin]

It seems that Arizona’s weather is becoming increasingly fickle and unpredictable as the years roll by. In my last trip report covering the Apache Wash Loop hike in the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve back in early January, I commented about the unseasonably cold and wet weather. We had just gone through a record six consecutive days of rainfall. And the temperature at 9:00 AM at the trailhead was a brisk 40 degrees, with 25 hikers shivering and trying to stay warm under several layers of clothing.

Listen up, Trailblazers! Here’s the scoop on today’s hike. [photo by Carl]
Trailblazers are mounting up and moving out. [photo by Carl]
Ten Trailblazers gather at the Mesquite Canyon Trailhead [photo by Carl]
Front Row: Chuck, Lin, Carl, Heather, Funyung, Becky.
Back Row: Scott, Mike, Rudy, Jim.
Rogue photo bomber! [photo by Carl]

Now, just seven weeks later in late February, heat is the issue and trying to stay cool enough on desert hikes is becoming increasingly challenging, with daily highs 10-20 degrees above normal for this time of year. We were forced to cut the previous week’s Black Canyon hike short by several miles due to excessively high temperatures on the trail, with hikers beginning to wilt under temperatures in the mid-90s in the sun.

So with that in mind and today’s high forecast to be a toasty 88 degrees (dangerously close to 100 degrees in full sun), I decided to push our original meeting time of 8:00 am back a full two hours to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures. It may be time for us to start setting our sights on the Flagstaff area and hike at 8,000+ feet to escape the oppressive heat that has been plaguing the Phoenix area for several weeks now, with no relief in sight. 100 degrees is probably just around the corner. Mercy!

Arizona Trailblazers are on the move. [photo by Lin]
Rugged terrain on the Mesquite Canyon Trail. [photo by Carl]

New weather flash: February, 2016, has just gone down in the record books as the second hottest February ever recorded in the Phoenix metro area, with 20 days of 80 degrees or above. And the earliest 90 degree temperature ever recorded for Phoenix in 120 years of keeping records was set on February 17, 2016.

Few people, including me, are thrilled at the prospect of crawling out of bed at 4:00 AM, even if it is for something enjoyable like hiking. But as ten highly dedicated Arizona Trailblazers gather at the Mesquite Canyon Trailhead at 7:30 AM with a cool and bracing temperature of 52 degrees, we can all begin to appreciate that the extra effort may have been worthwhile after all. I assure everyone that, barring unexpected problems on the trail, we should be back at the trailhead between 12:00 and 12:30, well before the hottest part of the day. Then I secretly cross my fingers and pray that Murphy’s Law isn’t lurking about somewhere out there on the trail, ready to strike without warning. Rattlesnakes! Did I remember to warn everyone about watching out for rattlesnakes? This warm weather is slowly bringing them out of hibernation.

The sun is still low to the horizon and skies are crystal clear as we move out from the trailhead, ready to conquer the imposing White Tank Mountains lying at the far western edge of the Valley of the Sun. This range separates the Phoenix Basin from the vast Hassayampa Plain stretching far to the west before it eventually touches the eastern edge of Harquahala Plain. Thumbnail Geology 101: In geology lingo all of southern Arizona is known as the Basin and Range Province. Encompassing over 29,000 acres (almost 46 square miles) of rugged desert and mountain landscape, White Tank Mountain Regional Park is the largest of twelve regional parks in Maricopa County. We are fortunate to live in a county that has one of the largest regional park systems in the entire country.

Jim and Lin continue working their way up the trail. [photo by Becky]
Lin sports her new pollen catcher. [photo by Carl]
Mike celebrates the day. [photo by Lin]
Becky photographs the photographer. [by Carl]
Rudy intently surveys the scene. [photo by Carl]
Funyung flashes the victory sign. [photo by Carl]
Stately saguaros cover this hillside.
[photo by Carl]
While this unfortunate saguaro seems to
be in declining health. [photo by Carl]

Today’s hike is known as a cherry stem loop, with the Mesquite Canyon Trail forming the stem, while the loop section consists of the Mesquite Canyon Trail, the Ford Canyon Trail, and the Willow Canyon Trail. We’ll hike the Mesquite Canyon Trail west for about 3.5 miles, before linking up with the Ford Canyon Trail, which we will follow north for almost a mile. Then at the junction with the Willow Canyon Trail we head east for about 2 miles, before re-joining the Mesquite Canyon Trail and hiking that for another 2 miles back to the trailhead. Total hiking distance will be about 8.5 miles.

Becky methodically grinds out the Mesquite Canyon Trail. [photo by Lin]
Taking a short breather. [photo by Carl]
Which way to San Jose? [photo by Carl]
Trailblazers slowly work their way up the trail. [photo by Lin]
South Mountain? Nope – White Tank Mountain. [photo by Carl]

Mesquite Canyon Trail certainly doesn’t waste any time gaining major elevation. Virtually right out of the starting gate we begin a gradual, but steady and relentless ascent up, up and away through some of the most rugged and picturesque desert, canyon, and mountain terrain to be found anywhere in southern Arizona. Geologists collectively classify the random patterns of quartz, gneiss, and eroded granite common to the White Tank Mountains as a metamorphic core complex.

What the heck are these people looking at? [photo by Carl]
OMG! Is that a streaker up ahead on the trail? Don’t look, Ethel! [photo by Carl]
Yes, Rudy confirms that it is indeed a streaker. The expression on his face says it all. [photo by Carl]
Meet Squeakers the Streaker. [photo by Lin]

So the next time anyone asks you about the White Tank Mountains, you can impress the hell out of them by simply (and slowly) uttering the words “metamorphic core complex” and make it sound like you actually know what you’re talking about. And you might also throw in the words “Basin and Range Province” for extra effect. All of your friends will think you must be one of the sharpest minds around and assume that you’re a brilliant geology expert as well.

The Mesquite Canyon Trail methodically and relentlessly pushes its way up to the loop junction over long rough and rocky stretches of trail that will really test our endurance on the way back down to the trailhead. After a short rest break at the junction we continue on the southern end of the loop, still hiking the Mesquite Canyon Trail west to its junction with the Ford Canyon Trail. We hope for at least a temporary break in the climbing, but the trail continues to steadily gain elevation, with periodic stretches of level ground, until we finally reach the junction with the Ford Canyon Trail.

Trailblazers take a shade break. [photo by Becky]
Time once again to take five. [photo by Lin]
Another critical trail junction. [photo by Carl]
Trekking down the Ford Canyon Trail. [photo by Lin]
This stretch of the canyon is bone dry. [photo by Lin]

Although not quite as strenuous a climb, the Ford Canyon Trail nevertheless continues to gain elevation through several sets of long switchbacks for another mile until reaching the Willow Canyon Trail. Here we take a brief lunch break before heading east on the trail. A short spur trail near the junction takes us to a dilapidated and dry stock tank and crumbling stone wall, all that remains of a long-abandoned ranch site, one of several scattered throughout the White Tanks. Although water from the larger tanks and a couple of small man-made dams provided a fairly steady supply of water, this was still a very tough and challenging area for ranching even under the best of conditions.

This is scenic and rugged canyon country. [photo by Lin]

Unfortunately, we blow right by one of the largest of the natural tanks that give these mountains their name since it lies hidden at the end of a small box canyon, accessed by a short spur trail near a dry creek crossing. Hundreds of these so-called “tanks”, natural basins scoured out of solid rock by the relentless carving power of rushing water over eons of time, are scattered throughout the White Tank Mountains. Some of these tanks are over ten feet deep and can hold water throughout the year, depending on rainfall amounts. They serve as critical watering holes for local wildlife, as well as popular swimming holes for hikers during the hot summer months.

Trailblazers make their way back to the trailhead. [photo by Lin]
On the final approach to Mesquite Canyon Trailhead. [photo by Lin]

Willow Canyon Trail gently meanders to the east in a series of ups and downs for another couple of miles, contouring along the canyon wall that soars high above rugged Willow Canyon, before it finally re-joins the Mesquite Canyon Trail where we started this adventure several hours earlier. It always amazes me how a trail can look so different going in one direction as it does in the opposite direction, and the Mesquite Canyon Trail is certainly no exception. Traversing mostly downhill on the return leg back to the trailhead, Mesquite Canyon threads a serpentine passageway through the White Tank Mountains as it slowly carries us back to the trailhead.

Mike gingerly massages tired and aching feet after the hike. [photo by Lin]

We make very good time on this last stretch of trail, and everyone arrives safely back at the trailhead by 12:15 in the afternoon, with the temperature still under 80 degrees. We meet some hikers just starting out as we’re returning, which always surprises me a little although it really shouldn’t. I don’t think any of us would care to change places with any of these guys though. That early start time has really paid off for us and we completely beat the heat today.

After brushing off a layer of trail dust and stowing away our hiking gear, we discuss the all-important topic of lunch.

Perusing the large menus at BJ’s [photo by Lin]
Yes, it's a tough decision. This menu is like a book! [photo by Lin]
Now this looks like one healthy meal. [photo by Lin]
Healthy may not be the best description here. [photo by Lin]

Carl had earlier suggested BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse near Northern and Loop 101, and that seems to agree with everyone. So we bid goodbye to the White Tank Mountains and head to BJ’s for fine food, cold drinks, and that special brand of Arizona Trailblazers camaraderie. This has been a terrific hike, and we even managed to escape old man Murphy today.

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updated March 3, 2016