Originally Published: August 23, 2012 7:20 p.m.
Some 37 years ago I got started with real wilderness backpacking at the Sheep's Crossing Trailhead in Mt. Baldy Wilderness Area. Many things have changed and many things are the same. You may be surprised by summer thunderstorms mixed with snow at 10 a.m., swarms of huge flying insects that may envelope your vehicle, elk just off the trail, and delicate orchids. These are just a small sample of the sensory experiences that make hiking around Mt. Baldy a wide-eyed outdoor delight.
Getting there is relatively straight forward. Take State Hwy. 260 east from Show Low to State Hwy. 273. Follow it eight miles south to the trailhead for Trail 94. This is past the turnoff for the Sunrise Ski Resort. There are plenty of signs to guide you. There is also a small parking lot at the southeast corner of the triangle formed by Trails 94, 95, and 96. Another beginning is possible from the west end of the Gabaldon Horse Campground across the meadow, south of Trail 95. I recommend the north trailhead at Trail 94 since there is more shade and a toilet.
Trails 94 and 95 are well marked and well worn. The Crossover Trail (96) is less used but is still easy to follow. Trails 94 and 95 start out going in and out of meadows then head into mixed conifer forest as they gain elevation after three or so miles of relatively level hiking. There is more stream side hiking on trail 94. There are some seeps/springs at the west end of the triangle, near the Reservation boundary on Trail 95. Otherwise, the only wet camping opportunities are within four miles of the trailheads, primarily on Trail 94. Trail 96 crosses a couple of wet spots too.
No permits or reservations are needed. Hiking to the summit proper is off limits to non-tribal individuals. You can hike the triangle (loop) in a day or make it a casual overnight backpacking experience. The Wallow Fire from 2011 did not materially impact this area, though there are sections of significant die off due to our prolonged drought. High elevation weather is always unpredictable. Be ready for anything, especially a most enchanted wilderness experience. Topo Map: Mt. Baldy quad 7.5' Administration: Apache / Sitgreaves National Forest
Glorious wildflowers occupy my list of plants to watch for on this hike. Three out of the four are monocots, an orchid, iris, and blue-eyed grass, though it is not a member of the grass family. While the leaves are grass-like, the flowers are a dead giveaway and it is the flowers that tell the story when it comes to valid plant identification. The final flower is shooting stars, a most racy wildflower. There's much more of course, but these are not to be missed. The timing of your hike will make a big difference on Mt. Baldy as far as seeing flowers, fruits, or fungi. I'll spell that out with each description. Enjoy!
Fairy Slipper Orchid, Calypso bulbosa (Orchid Family)
Passionate about orchids? Just like other flowers, such as roses, or personal objects such as cars, interests like artists or singers, etc., orchids have a fan base that's quite intense about the objects of their passion. Orchids are such a large and diverse Family, it's also easy to zero in or specialize in a particular subgroup based on pollination, ecology, floral form or color, and the myriad ways to hybridize these plants to come up with novel products. In short, there is much to love based on your own interests. Native orchids in Arizona are much less flamboyant than tropical representatives of this Family, but no less intriguing. The Fairy Slipper Orchids on Mt. Baldy bloom relatively early in the summer, but are among the most colorful of Arizona's orchids. I ran into one on Trail 95 and was immediately captivated by its large floral sack, purplish pink with yellow "hairs." It has a fascinating pattern of stripes within the sack and the cap above the sack is ornamented by a rooster-like comb of bright petal-like divisions. You can't miss it, if you are lucky enough to see it. One of the curious things about orchid flowers is how they are situated on the flowering stalk. Each flower is twisted into an upside-down configuration called resupination. You wouldn't know they were upside down and probably wouldn't care, but with the intricate association between insect pollinators and orchid flowers, it must be important in the perpetuation of the species. Fascinating. Amazing.
Shootingstar, Dodecatheon pulchellum (Primrose Family)
Remember the last shooting star you saw racing across the night sky? Now imagine this little flower with its petals swept back in a streaming style like a miniature rocket. Sometimes there are quite a few flowers seen together, but more often than not, the moist sites where this plant occurs support only a handful of these glorious flowers. Geographic regions match particular races of plants with similar but distinct differences in the size of leaves, color of stamens, chromosome numbers, and presence of glands. These differences have formed the basis for naming different varieties but botanists cannot pinpoint consistent patterns. Characteristic ecological associations have also been suggested with particular soil types, elevation ranges, and moisture levels. Being a lumper rather than a splitter, I enjoy them as one big happy family whenever I am fortunate enough to stumble upon them and Mt. Baldy is a good bet, especially early in the summer.
Iris, Iris missouriensis (Iris Family)
Occurring across the western United States and Canada, Iris is an expected find on Mt. Baldy, early in the season. Frequently encountered in wet mountain meadows, canyons, and valleys, Iris, like Orchids and Shooting Stars, exhibits a specialized floral structure. Unlike Orchids and Shooting Stars, the variation in form, color, size, etc. appears to be connected more to its environmental adaptability than its genetic plasticity. According to the Southwest Environmental Information Network, the ecological range of Iris missouriensis is probably more varied than that of any other North American species of the genus, extending from almost sea level in southern California to 3,000 feet in Montana and Wyoming. There is correspondingly wide variation in a number of characters, which has caused much confusion as to its possible sub classification. Homer Metcalf made a detailed study of this species. The basic requirement for its success seems to be an extremely wet area before flowering and then almost desert-like conditions for the rest of the summer. In large populations, sometimes covering hundreds of acres, Iris missouriensis may be found with either simple or branched stems, leaves from 4 mm to more than 1 cm wide, shorter than the stem or longer, only one flower to as many as three on a stem, and colors from deep blue to almost pure white. While hybridization is known for this species, it appears to be a lumper too. Whatever it has going for it, it works and if it ain't broke, don't fix it, as they say. Therefore, whenever you see an Iris in the field, it is more likely than not, to be one and the same species you've seen elsewhere. That's consistency, a proven track record of positive, proven performance.
Blue-eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium demissum (Iris Family)
Grasses are easily overlooked. Therefore, it is a pleasant surprise to see a blue-eyed grass peering up at you as you hike through the Mt. Baldy Wilderness. These beautiful, deep blue eyes are almost shocking, since the rest of the plant, superficially resembles all the other grasses growing together in high elevation, moist meadows here as well as across the Southwest from northern Utah to central Mexico. The tepals (sepals and petals look alike) are not large, at only one cm long on average. There are six, each bright yellow at the base. The flowering period is long, extending from mid spring to early fall. If you happen to be on Mt. Baldy toward the end of the flowering season, you'll also enjoy the wide variety and abundant supply of fungi. The forms and colors are quite picturesque, accenting well the flowers, which line the streams and fill the meadows.