Edit: Here is a map of the area and driving directions!
This was the first (but certainly not the last) backpacking trip that really pushed me past what I thought I was capable of, both physically and mentally. The lower trail was covered by water due to high snow fall levels that winter, so we ended up taking the upper trail. The trail is well maintained and easy enough to follow, with stunning views of the reservoir along the way to the hot springs, however our lack of supplies made for a somewhat uncomfortable and stressful hike out.
Bring Enough Water
Since the trail runs the length of a reservoir, you would think there was plenty of water along the hike, but (at least in April) the water along the banks was so muddy and disgusting looking that we didn’t even touch it. Luckily we brought some water bottles and a CamelBak with us, and were able to fill up at a stream before it hit the reservoir. We expected there to be more streams closer to the hot springs but that turned out to be the only one that didn’t reek of sulfur, and at four miles away from our final campsite, it was too far for us go back and fill up before night.
We’re used to arid conditions, but the shrubby plants that dot the rock face provide sporadic shade at best, leaving us hot and dehydrated pretty much from the get go.
Wear Proper Footwear
Oh the blisters! My trail shoes (shoes, not boots) were no match for the slick shale slides we had to pick our way over, not to mention the hilly trail threading its way along a very steep incline. Usually it’s my heels that get blisters but this time it was my toes and bottom of my feet that suffered the most. I was hurting, and I felt bad for our pups and their bare paws.
I have since discovered a multitude of paw protection solutions, sprays and creams for adventure dogs. If your furry friend is anything like my dog Theanie, they won’t walk with hiking booties on (she will pout and absolutely refuses to budge if you try to put anything on her feet) so we make a point of keeping their paws tough with sprays.
Pro Tip: If you are serious about getting into hiking or backpacking, invest in a good pair of boots! My ankles have been saved many times by simply wearing the proper footwear.
The Hot Springs
I think we made it to the right hot springs, but I’ve heard that there is a shower at the biggest pool, and there was no shower at ours. The pool was pretty shallow but decent size for the two of us to sit in and enjoy the sunrise; hot springs are my new favorite way to begin a day of backpacking!
Pay Attention to the Trail
The hike back was definitely the most taxing part of the trip. We were already tired, sore and dehydrated and I was frustrated by my own lack of preparedness. At one point the trail split and (being the exhausted mess of gear and blisters that we were) we took the lower trail and unwittingly ended up trying to find our way up a cliff so we wouldn’t have to backtrack. In the end we had to turn around, and added another 2 miles to what ended up being a very miserable hike.
Looking back, we were lucky that blisters and dehydration was the worst thing we had to deal with. This was Theanies first big backpacking trip, and near the end we had to carry her back to the car. We were all pretty miserable, even I was to the point where I wanted to sit down and cry.
This backpacking trip pushed my physical and mental toughness. It was my third big excursion and the reality is, we were not prepared for the rough terrain, the harsh desert conditions and the lack of water available to us. Our hike yielded some of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken, and the raw beauty of the towering desert rocks coupled with a nice soak in natural hot springs makes this hike well worth the effort, as long as you (and your companions) are well prepared.
Throw back to my very first backpacking trip! As far as gear goes, I was woefully ill-equipped for this adventure, but the beauty of the desert and the historically charged final destination more than made up for my sore shoulders and barely there sleeping pad.
The scenery up to the trail head is absolutely amazing. The Superstition Mountains rise straight up from the ground to the east of Phoenix, with red rocks and saguaro cacti dominating the landscape. The road into the mountains is very hilly, and depending on the amount of rainfall for the season, littered with large ruts. We were driving a truck and had to be careful not to get stuck, and at one point we passed a low riding sedan having trouble getting around some especially sharp trenches.
My recommendation: bring an SUV or something with decent clearance, this road is not to be driven lightly!
I have always been a fan of desert plants and landscapes, and this trail has so much to offer in the way of interesting foliage and beautiful canyon views! We went in January so a lot of animals were hibernating (we were ok not seeing all the fun snakes, bugs and scorpions the desert has to offer) but the ever thriving cacti and succulents made for a very pretty hike. The trail is mostly rocky with some hilly up-and-down segments; the terrain wasn’t very difficult from a backpacking standpoint, but I would absolutely advise hikers to wear hiking boots or at the very least close-toed tennis shoes. On our way out we passed a family wearing sandals and flats and they looked miserable.
Pro Tip: Watch where you’re going! I have a tendency to look pretty much anywhere except right in front of me, and as a result I ran into cacti more than a few times.
The Cliff Dwellings
Constructed by the Salado people around 1300 CE, these mud-brick houses with thatched roofs are such an amazing piece of history. Built into caves about 20 feet up from the canyon floor, they are a bit of a climb to get to, but once there it’s very easy to imagine the daily lives of the prehistoric society that thrived in this ravine over 700 years ago. We only went to the first dwelling we saw (we were on a tight schedule and the sun set very quickly) but there are caves all along this stretch of canyon and looking at other pictures, I know we only scratched the surface of these impressive structures.
The Superstition Wilderness represents a unique ecosystem; the desert scenery makes for a rich hike, and the final destination and gave us the chance to explore and experience history in a very personal way. I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Arizona wilderness in the future!
Every new adventure is also a new opportunity for learning, and this trail taught us some very important lessons:
1: DON’T DRINK ON THE TRAIL
(especially if you’re not totally sure how much further you have to hike)
I guess this should be backpacking 101, but when you’re out in the wilderness with friends, it’s easy to forget the fundamentals. We knew that the first part of the hike was 4 miles long, but after that information about the terrain and amount of time it would take to get to our campsite was spotty. We stopped in some lovely shade to eat and shed some weight we were carrying, not realizing that we still had about 3 miles of steady incline ahead of us. After our lunch / whiskey break, we were feeling groovy and totally stoked… for about 15 minutes. Then the hangover set in (Did you know you could get a hangover 15 minutes after you take a shot? Turns out, you can!) and we were left to trudge our way up a mountain in sad, uncomfortable silence.
2: BRING ENOUGH FOOD
Again, a backpacking 101 detail! We ended up having enough food to keep us somewhat contented, but all of us wished we had brought more in the way of easily accessible trail snacks (especially during those last 3 miles on the first day).
3. KNOW YOUR FUNGI, FOLIAGE AND LOCAL ANIMAL LIFE
This area is notorious for being a snake haven, so while we were prepared to see lots of slithery friends, we were less prepared for their variety. Our first encounter was with a large gophersnake (commonly called bull snakes by Idahoans), which we caught napping in the middle of the trail. It took us a while to get around him as he was reluctant to leave the sunny trail for the dense grass on the side! Two days later, on our way back to the car, we passed a coiled and ready to strike rattlesnake, sunning itself and rattling away on a rock about 2 feet off of the trail. That got our hearts racing, and made us extra cautious when we came across a large brown snake further down the trail. None of us could identify it at the time, but we now know it was a rubber boa, a usually shy, even-tempered and somewhat rare snake!
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but leave your dogs at home!
I’ve seen some reviews online that say this trail is great for dogs, but given the amount of snakes there are (not to mention horse traffic) we left our pups at doggie day care. We knew they were safe and happy, and we were able to enjoy the scenery without having to worry if one of them was going to get into a scrap with a snake.
We also happened upon some morel mushrooms growing all over our first campsite. No one wanted to be the guinea pig to test if they were actually morels, but after some research back at home we know that they would have been safe to eat.
This is a challenging hike that ends in some incredible views and the most picturesque campsite I’ve ever been to, and I’m looking forward to going again and heading even further up Frank Wurl Trail!
The White Clouds Wilderness represents a piece of American outdoor beauty that makes long uphill grinds and painful new-boots blisters worth the effort. We’ve started on the 4th of July trailhead twice now, and both times have yielded very different but equally enthralling scenery, animal encounters and “geez I’m out of shape!” revelations.
A two night backpacking trip to the Born Lakes was my introduction to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and it was definitely a learning experience. For starters, we got to 4th of July Creek trailhead about 2 hours later than expected. This left us with very little time to get up a somewhat steep incline (1000+ feet over 3 miles), and while racing the sun sounds like a fun way to end the day, there is nothing glamorous about having to sprint up a mountain with 40 pounds on your back and two dogs who suddenly feel the need to pee on everything.
We reached the top of the basin just as the sun was setting, and from our high vantage point saw not only the size of the watershed we were about to walk into, but also a small pond surrounded by trees directly below us. Besides that, the valley was mostly covered with tall grass, little shrubs and winding streams.
As we descended in the basin, twilight quickly turned to dusk before darkness engulfed the valley completely, and headlamps became necessary to reach our first campsite. On our way we heard (but didn’t see) elk on their nightly water run, and as the moon rose over the mountain range above us we set up our tents and munched on protein bars before turning in for the night.
The next morning, low hanging clouds made for a chilly start to the day, but as the sun climbed higher so did the temperature, and after a quick breakfast we set off in the opposite direction of the lakes to do some exploring.
If you have time and energy to explore the area around your campsite DO IT! In some places, even taking just 10 steps in a different direction can lead to a whole new view.
Further down into the basin we found the remains of a log cabin and the skull of an elk, not to mention an incredible view of the valley stretching out below us. I will always choose to wake up early, enjoy the morning and get a jump-start on hiking for the day, but being in the wilderness brings out my adventurous side and wandering around a huge space to discover its mysteries is a part of backpacking that should never be missed.
Once we had our fill of hopping over streams and marvelling at the valley’s expansive beauty in daylight, we returned to camp, packed up our tents, and began the slow hike up to our final campsite. The cool thing about the Born Lakes is that there are a few to choose from and every lake comes with several large, flat areas perfect for pitching a tent. Although there was a wonderful campsite at the first and largest lake, we decided to push on to the furthest lake which lies right at the foot of a steep and rocky mountainside.
Once we had found a camp site, we meandered around some of the smaller upper lakes, climbed some rocks and simply enjoyed being out in the mountain sunshine. If you have your fishing license and feel like making the trek with a pole, Born Lakes are stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout by Idaho Fish and Game, for catch and release purposes and some nice R&R after a moderately difficult hike. We went in mid September so there weren’t many fish left, but it was nice to sit by the water and watch the clouds drift through the valley.
The not-too-cool, not-too-hot weather was perfect for hiking, but a thunderstorm rolled in later that evening and we had a pretty wet (not to mention loud!) night. Luckily we chose a campsite closer to the lake where the tree cover was sparse; the morning after the thunderstorm I walked about 50 feet down the hill from our campsite and found a tree that had fallen in the storm.
“And that’s why you don’t camp under trees.”
After a somewhat sleepless night, we were ready to head back to civilization but I have to admit, waking up to dense cloud cover and chilly rain was a quintessential White Clouds experience, and it made me appreciate my instant coffee more than I ever thought possible.
The hike to the Born Lakes is an amazing breath of fresh air, and it could easily be done in one day (from the trailhead to the 1st lake is 8 miles roundtrip), but I’m happy to take a slower pace and enjoy this wilderness over a weekend.