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White Tank Mountain Day Hike
White Tank Mountain Regional Park
January 13, 2018
by Chuck Parsons
Dave’s     GPS Map 
John’s   GPS Map 
21 Arizona Trailblazers gather near the Mesquite Canyon/Waddell Trail
junction for the requisite group picture. [photo by Dave]
Front Row: Li, Heather, Yanis, Katie, Gretchen, Jessica.
Back Row: Michael, Janet, Michelle, Donna, Debbie, Ramona, Tom, Krista, Kari, Dan O., Dan D., John, Chuck, Deirdre, Dave.

At 9:30 AM on a bright and sunny morning in mid-January, twenty-one adventurous Arizona Trailblazers strike out from the Mesquite Canyon/Waddell Trail junction and hit the trail running. These hikers are totally hyped and ready to rock n’ roll today. So clear the trail and make room for the Arizona Trailblazers! It’s a very pleasant 62 degrees as we start our epic journey of discovery in Arizona’s White Tank Mountain Regional Park, located at the far western edge of the vast Phoenix Basin.

Our goal today will be to complete a 9.5-mile loop hike through one of the most scenic sections of this very remote and rugged piece of Arizona real estate, part of it exploratory for most of us.

Today’s hike will incorporate four different trails (Mesquite Canyon, Willow Canyon, Ford Canyon, and Waddell Trail), forming a 9.5-mile clockwise loop through the heart of White Tank Mountain Regional Park. We’ll start out on the Mesquite Canyon Trail and hike that west for 1.8 miles to its junction with the Willow Canyon Trail. Then hike the Willow Canyon Trail west for 1.6 miles to its junction with the Ford Canyon Trail. At 4.7 miles, the Ford Canyon Trail will be the longest part of the loop but also the most scenic, as part of it traverses the rough and boulder-choked floor of Ford Canyon, where large expanses of gleaming white slickrock prevail. At the junction with the Waddell Trail we’ll head south for about 1.3 miles, as we make the final leg of our journey back to the trailhead.

At least that’s the plan anyway. But we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men (John Steinbeck, for you younger whippersnappers).

Trailblazers make their way up the winding Mesquite Canyon Trail. [photo by John]
We continue to steadily gain elevation on the Mesquite Canyon switchbacks. [photo by Tom]
Dave is in the lead. For an old codger, Dave is
an exceptionally strong hiker. [photo by Tom]
Time out to reconnoiter. “Guys, the trail goes thatta way, I think.” [photo by Tom]
Good Golly, Miss Molly! Is this trail ever going to level off? [photo by Yanis]
Tom appears to be praying for an easier route. It’s just around the corner Tom. Trust me, buddy. [John]

The Mesquite Canyon Trail starts out relatively level for a while, but it isn’t too long before it begins a long and increasingly steeper series of winding switchbacks that seem to go on and on into infinity as they carry us higher and higher into the White Tank Mountains.

Yup, we’re still on the Mesquite Canyon Trail. [photo by Yanis]
Huff ’n puff. Another time out for a short breather. [photo by John]
Beautifully backlit staghorn chollas grace this section of trail. [photo by Yanis]

Within 20 minutes or less, we look back down the trail and see that we’ve already climbed several hundred feet above the valley floor. As we steadily continue to negotiate the switchbacks and put larger and larger stretches of the trail behind us, the valley slowly recedes farther into the distance.

We finally reach the Mesquite Canyon / Willow Canyon junction. [photo by Yanis]
Hikers continue making their way UP the trail. [photo by Tom]
Trailblazers begin the second leg of the loop, the Willow Canyon Trail. [photo by Tom]
View looking east from the Willow Canyon Trail toward the west valley. [photo by Tom]
Fantastic! A level stretch of trail for a change. [photo by Yanis]

The rugged and picturesque White Tank Mountains, located at the far western edge of the valley, form a natural barrier that separates the sprawling Phoenix Basin to the east from the vast Hassayampa Plain to the west.

The “tanks” that give these mountains their name are actually a series of natural basins carved and scoured out of solid rock by relentless wind and water erosion over eons of time. Some of these deeper tanks can hold as much as ten feet of water and serve as critical, although somewhat ephemeral, water sources for wildlife in the area, as well as great swimming holes for hikers on hot summer days. And if rainfall is heavy enough, the largest of these tanks can sometimes hold water throughout the entire summer.

Bright shafts of sunlight and jet contrails juxtapose over the White Tank Mountains. [photo by John]
Clever Keeper keeps us amused, as he performs tricks for treats. [photo by John]

After nearly two miles of steady uphill hiking, we finally reach the junction with the Willow Canyon Trail and take a short break to celebrate the occasion.

The Willow Canyon Trail meanders to the northwest for less than a mile before heading straight west to its junction with the Ford Canyon Trail. Although short stretches of the trail head uphill from time to time, much of it is fairly level compared to Mesquite Canyon.

Somewhere along the trail, we take a short break when we come across Keeper and his owner Jeff. Keeper is a cute little Pomeranian mix and performs a series of tricks for us, as long as he gets a small treat for each performance. We stop to watch for a few minutes, before moving on toward the Ford Canyon junction.

We make much better time on the Willow Canyon Trail as we continue moving west toward the next trail junction. I radio ahead to the lead group to start looking for a good lunch spot with plenty of large boulders for seating.

Trailblazers stop for a lunch break along the Willow Canyon Trail. [photo by Tom]
Trailblazers stop for a lunch break along the Willow Canyon Trail. [photo by John]
Trailblazers stop for a lunch break along the Willow Canyon Trail. [photo by Yanis]

When trying to find a suitable location on the trail to stop for a lunch or snack break, we generally look for locations with plenty of large rocks or boulders or even large logs for seating. If it’s a warm day, we also look for some shade. We certainly won’t find any logs around here or much shade for that matter, so we settle for scattered boulders in the sun. It’s almost noon before we find a good location and we all stop for a well-deserved lunch break. We pull up our favorite boulders and sit down to break some bread together.

Regrouping near the Willow Canyon/Ford Canyon junction. [photo by Li]
Janet and Katie on the Ford Canyon Trail. [photo by Tom]
The rocks and boulders start getting larger in Ford Canyon. [photo by Yanis]
Beyond here is where the trail really starts getting rough. [photo by John]

After lunch we move out once again, and it’s not too much longer before we finally reach the junction with the Ford Canyon Trail and start hiking north. After about two miles of hiking through a long series of switchbacks, we come across a large black and yellow caution sign, warning hikers of hazardous travel conditions ahead. The park trail map also clearly states “Hazardous trail for 1.9 miles: Rough section; narrow spots; large rocks in wash. Hikers must use caution.” Although concerned about this from the start when planning this hike, I was assured by a couple of our hikers who had hiked this trail earlier that it wasn’t really as bad as it sounds. We just need to be extra careful and cautious through the roughest sections.

From the looks of these increasingly larger boulders choking the canyon floor, we may be finding out sooner than later.

Dan, Debbie, Heather, and Katie on the
Ford Canyon Trail. [photo by Tom]

As we slowly and carefully continue to make our way along the canyon floor, this trail is starting to remind me more and more of Fish Creek Canyon in the Superstitions where I blew out my right knee nearly ten years ago. Hopefully, Ford Canyon won’t take out my other knee.

Ford Canyon is starting to look more and more like a canyon. [photo by Yanis]
Large rocks and boulders are everywhere on the canyon floor. [photo by Yanis]

Less than a mile beyond the caution sign we begin to encounter large expanses of smooth, gleaming white slickrock, appearing even more brilliant in the sun. We soon come to the first of several steep drop-offs ten feet or higher that require some good old-fashioned butt-sliding or careful and skillful maneuvering to safely make it down to the next level.

Gleaming white slickrock becomes increasingly prevalent along here.
Note the long-abandoned dam in the background behind these hikers [photo by Yanis]
Trailblazers come to the first of several drop-offs on the canyon floor. [photo by Yanis]
This one is going to require a little butt-sliding to make it down safely. [photo by Yanis]
Down and down we slide to the next level. Everyone having fun? [photo by Yanis]
Trailblazers carefully navigate the boulder-choked canyon floor. [photo by Yanis]
This one is a relatively quick up and over (a U&O maneuver). [photo by Yanis]
Trailblazers peer over the edge to check the depth of this drop-off. [photo by John]
Michelle carefully makes her way down to the next level. [photo by Tom]
Dan, Debbie
Now Dan and Debbie go for it. [photo by Li]

The going is very slow through this stretch of Ford Canyon and we lose quite a bit of time as we carefully negotiate drop-off after drop-off, each seemingly more challenging than the previous one.

We eventually get past this section and start to make up time over the rest of the Ford Canyon Trail, although the long roller coaster stretch of trail through still more rough and rocky terrain continues to slow us down a little.

It isn’t until we finally reach the junction with the Waddell Trail that the going really gets easier. At the junction we start heading south over relatively flat, rolling terrain for about 1.3 miles back to the trailhead.

We make record time down the Waddell Trail, and all of us are back at the parking lot by 3:00 PM.

←   Dave uses the moonwalk maneuver to back down between these two large boulders. [photo by John]

Michelle negotiates yet another butt-slider on the Ford Canyon Trail. [photo by Li]
Tom, Debbie
Tom and Debbie are up next. Each hiker has their own personal approach. [photo by Li]
This tank is fed by a periodic waterfall flowing from the cliffs behind it. [photo by Yanis]
Debbie stands next to one of the most photographed tanks in these mountains. [photo by Dave]
Despite a few initial misgivings about the Ford Canyon Trail and an unfortunate foul-up trying to connect with one of our hikers at the Library and Nature Center just outside the park entrance, everything goes relatively smoothly. With a starting temperature of 60 degrees and an ending temperature of 72 degrees, we couldn’t have asked for a better day of hiking.

Thanks to both Deirdre and Michael for convincing me that hiking this loop clockwise was a much better option than hiking it counter-clockwise. That was made quite clear on the hike through Ford Canyon. So for all future hikes on this loop trail, I can now strongly recommend hiking it clockwise instead of counter-clockwise. Please take note all future White Tank Mountain hike leaders.

After cleaning up and making sure all hikers are back safe and sound, we discuss lunch options. Most of the group opts to head back home, while seven hungry hikers decide to make a pizza stop at the nearest Oreganos. After this hike, I believe a number of us are already hyped up for White Tank Mountain Part II on February 24. This will be another loop hike, but a longer one (13 miles) incorporating the Goat Canyon Trail and the Mesquite Canyon Trail. Check out the website for additional details.

Kari, Michael
Kari and Michael on the Waddell Trail. [photo by John]
The parking lot and trailhead are finally in sight. [photo by John]
Chuck and Donna hike the final leg of the Waddell Trail back to the trailhead. [photo by John]
Stopping for a lunch break at Oreganos. [photo by Tom]
Clockwise: Donna, Heather, Debbie, Li, Michael, Tom, Michelle.
Dave’s Hiking Stats:
•  9.6 miles
•  1,600 feet elevation gain
•  5 hours 44 minutes total time
•  2.3 mph average moving time

Concerning the best laid plans of mice and men (John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men) referenced at the beginning of this trip report, thankfully nothing bad or disastrous actually happened and Murphy’s Law was not even a minor player on today’s hike. I just wanted to see if anyone was actually paying attention. So if you managed to get this far, you passed the test. Congratulations and Happy Hiking!

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updated January 24, 2018