Arizona Gems: Superstition Mountain, Gonzales Pass, Picket Post Mountain, Superior, and Apache Leap
The Tour Begins
I would like to provide you with a tour of one of the most beautiful parts of Arizona. The scenery changes significantly along a 30 mile route, ending up at a small Arizona copper town, Superior, and a huge rock cliff, approximately 500 feet in elevation. Superior is nestled at the foot of this gigantic, awe-inspiring mountain cliff named Apache Leap.
Let's begin. About 10 miles east of Apache Junction, Arizona (on the outskirts of the Phoenix valley), on U.S. Route 60, is the small town of Gold Canyon, Arizona. Speckling the area is greener vegetation, brush grass, creosote bush and beautiful Palo Verde trees. The two dominant trees in the area are Mesquite and Palo Verde. Palo Verde with its green trunk and mesquite with its brown rough bark are easily identifiable. I start the journey here because at this point it would be obvious to any traveler that the terrain has changed greatly from that of the valley. On the north side of the highway are small rock hills and the Superstition Mountains looming over the desert. This region covered by cactus north of Gold Canyon was prospected (perhaps even to this day) for gold, hence, the name. Much of this land if not all is now protected by law, so as a designated wilderness area mining is restricted. It is frequently referred to as Superstition Wilderness.
The Superstition Mountains are steeped in legend. The number of people curiously lost or found dead there is rather large, and this fact lends to the mountain range's name. The greatest superstition associated with the range is that of the Lost Dutchman gold mine. Jacob Waltz, a prospector, is supposed to have found a rich area of gold. At his death he spoke of it to an old Mexican widow who owned a bakery. It is the rumor that he worked a mine for gold that keeps the legend going. Gold fever is a powerful disease spawning books, theories, and attempts to find this legendary mine. So far it has remained elusive. Five people since the 1940's have been confirmed dead after seeking the cursed lost gold mine. In the 19th century, more died from the elements or from Apache attacks.
We Move East
The Superstitions have large exposed rock faces, and it is this and the casting shadows that give it beautiful hues throughout the day. It takes on a slight reddish tone in bright light, changing to purple tones as the day wears on. These mountains are steep with berm-like hills at the base. Vegetation grows green up the sloped bottom until it reaches the rock which becomes sheer,shooting straight up in the air.
During the wet monsoon season in summer the Superstitions can have dark thick clouds hanging over them. The clouds can soon move quickly, the sky can clear up, and in march huge puffy white cotton ball clouds.
There are peaks poking up just east of Superstition Mountain with craggy valleys. Then more peaks quickly jut up. This is a place you must visit. It often gives me pause to think how utterly beautiful the earth can be.
As we continue east along Route 60 the land to the south is rather flat with desert vegetation growing denser and greener as we go. This is ranch land, barb wired off, and home to small herds of cattle. Occasionally you can see ranchers driving their cattle into shoots and corrals. I suppose these ranchers are prepping for the sale of their steers. This is all prime grazing land. In the wet season, if it occurs, the Arizona wild flowers are spectacular. Here is a place known for its wild flowers of many varieties, and it is often highlighted on the news and in magazines. There is: wild mustard, lavender thistle, white Desert Chicory, Desert Bluebells, Scarlet Hedge Nettle, lavender Owl Clover, and orange-yellow Arizona and Mexican Poppies. The colors are brilliant with the number of flowers increasing as we approach the Florence-Tucson junction at Arizona State Route 79, still heading east.
Approaching Gonzales Pass
As the Route 60 breaks slightly to the left heading northeast the grade begins to pick up more rapidly. We are moving toward Gonzales Pass, the mountain opening allowing us to descend upon Superior. The saguaros, the giant desert sentinels with their sprawling arms, are getting more noticeable. These cactus trees are thicker now due to the rainfall near the mountains. Because of their propensity to dot the mountain side, it is my belief that they thrive in the dirt that is highly mineralized at these elevations. All of the vegetation is getting thicker as we drive over new road beds freshly cut to provide traffic east and west on 2 separate highways. The rock that was cut and blasted through is of a dark gray (silver colored when hit with bright light) nature reminding me of slate. This section of road is leading to a high point that overlooks Superior, still farther to the east. Here the wildflowers are even thicker in spring with sections covered with yellow poppies. We see more and more rock as we climb away from the lower grasslands.
Once we pop over the pass, the town of Superior lies straight ahead. The landscape changes rapidly with almost too much to take in. To the south is Pickett Post Mountain, a favorite for hikers at 4375 feet. It looks like a huge boulder with chiseled sides. The hills are rockier and steeper and much closer together.
Picket Post Mountain was a lookout for the cavalry in the 1870's. Pinal camp near the base of the mountain would receive signals from soldiers at the top. To get early warning of Apache raiding parties moving in the area, a heliograph (a device for transmitting messages by reflecting sunlight with mirrors) would flash messages. The cavalry would respond to these signals by riding out and trying to engage the Apaches. Miners and ranchers had been victims of Apache raiding, and Camp Pinal provided a presence for these locals.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
As we pass Picket Post Mountain, climb, and then roll over a rise, Superior, Arizona and Apache Leap are clearly in view. We have passed the world famous Boyce Thompson Arboretum to the south. Now a state park, this cornucopia of plants indigenous to the desert and the state of Arizona, is an oasis lying between huge rock formations. It became affiliated with the Arizona State Parks in 1976. It is well worth the time. Our next stop is Superior.
Lake Supply Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Superior, AZ and Apache Leap
Superior is a mining town, and copper is why the town developed. Its name comes from the Superior Mining Company (Michigan) which was the first major developer of the copper mines. Earlier in its history, silver was mined in the hills around Superior.
The Resolution Copper Company took over the mines after Magma Mining left the town in 1987. Currently a controversy exists within the town as to whether a camping area called Oak Flat, east of Superior, should be traded for other lands owned by the company. This area east of Apache Leap contains a copper ore body, the largest in North America, and possibly the world. Resolution and those who want to encourage the creation of jobs in Arizona, want the company to be able to trade lands it owns in Southern Arizona for Oak Flat. At the same time, the land is considered sacred by the Apache tribes and they are opposed to the trade. For hundreds of years the Apache have gathered acorns from white oaks given to them by mother earth. This is a spiritual issue, as the Apache believe the oaks were intended for their sustenance. They also hold sacred ceremonies in this place.
At the eastern end of the town a huge rock cliff 500 feet high hovers like a huge fortress wall. It in itself has a grand history. Originally called Big Picacho, this escarpment was home to an Apache group who lived at the very top. Since there were no known trails leading up to the top of Apache Leap, the Indians felt rather secure. However, sometime in 1870 after an Apache raid to capture cattle, signals were sent out from Picket Post Mountain and cavalry were sent out to intercept the warriors. The soldiers followed cattle wandering to the east of Apache Leap, and they discovered the access to the top. They waited and then attacked upwards of 100 Apaches. Instead of allowing themselves to be captured, 75 Apache men jumped off the cliff to their deaths. Twenty-five surrendered with their fate a mystery. Legend has it that the Apache women mourning the loss of their men cried over the side of Apache Leap, where their tears became little black glass orbs. Obsidian (naturally occurring glass) is found all over this area, but most is found near a perlite mine not far from Picket Post Mountain. Hence, these pieces of obsidian have been named Apache Tears.
And here is a good place to end our tour. To the south lie a number of copper mines. To the east lies Globe, Arizona, another famous Arizona mining town. To the north and west are fantastic views of mountain ranges. In my opinion, if you don't take a trip to Arizona, you are missing out on an inspiring lifetime event. If you decide to travel in Arizona, by all means, don't forget your camera!
Plants of the Deserts
Questions & Answers
© 2010 John R Wilsdon