Originally Published: January 14, 2012 12:49 p.m.
Three challenges require immediate consideration: Access, Ambiguity, and Aridity. Either way you go, east from Interstate 17 on Bloody Basin Road or north out of Phoenix through Cave Creek and Carefree past Seven Springs, you are in for more than 38 miles of slow-going dirt road. The last six miles are rocky and steep in spots. If water is flowing through the normally dry washes, you might want to wait until things dry out a bit. The dirt roads are not necessarily that bad, requiring four-wheel-drive, but they seem to go on forever. It took me 2.5 hours to drive the 38.5 miles from I-17 on Bloody Basin Road in my small, two-wheel-drive PU. Give yourself plenty of time to make the drive so it is somewhat enjoyable, rather than a source of extra stress.
These trails do not get a lot of use, due to their remote location. Consequently, they are not frequently maintained, nor do they receive much foot traffic, to keep up the appearance of wear and tear. In other words, they are easy to lose, difficult to follow. Cairns will be found frequently but they are usually small and brush often obscures the trail markers and the route itself. You must pay close attention to where you are going, especially as you cross washes, since they often appear like the trails, leading you astray. Official signs are often confusing, being inaccurate or damaged. Know the trails and the terrain. A topographic map is essential, as long as you know how to read it.
Finally, timing your hike to coincide with recent precipitation is important. I found water running in most of the washes I crossed, because it rained and snowed relatively heavily two weeks ahead of my hike. Even "Dry Spring" was wet. Having the means to boil, filter, or treat the water in some fashion is standard operating procedures these days. I took three days and two nights to complete this hike. Additionally, I was surprised to find broken pieces of Indian pottery scattered here and there as I completed the hike on day three. I also saw several white-tailed deer each day.
Whether you are looking for wilderness adventure, wide open spaces, primitive backpacking, desert hiking, diverse plants and animals, solitude, or cultural treasures, this is the spot and right in the heart of Arizona, as long as you have the means to get there. Now let's consider four plants you won't want to miss as you hike this twenty-one mile loop, ranging in elevation from 2,000 to 5,000 feet. Catclaw - ouch! Hackberry - Yum! Hobush - Cheers! Sugar Sumac - Pucker Power! And, of course, this entry's mystery plant, a holiday-oriented cactus.
Acacia greggii. Catclaw is one of those shrubs, rarely a tree, that you never forget once you've tangled with it. The cat-like claws grab you and just do not want to let go. You are more than likely, going to feel them before you see them, even in the winter when the plant is usually leafless. These claws lie scattered along the stems. Related species have their claws arranged in pairs at the base of the leaves. Like any legume, Catclaw is good for the soil, having an intimate relationship with bacteria that convert the inert Nitrogen in the atmosphere into something plants like - nitrates, which foster plant growth. Hiking along any south-facing slope between 3,000 and 6,000 feet in the Southwest, you are likely to encounter this scraggly shrub. It has divided leaves, typical of most legumes. In fact they are twice divided. The tiny flowers are presented in an elongate cluster called a spike. They are yellowish and bloom in the summer. Bees love them. Following the blossoms, come numerous pods, flat and curly. These fruits were ground into a meal by Native Americans of yesteryear, but care is needed to avoid the cyanide in the seeds. The wood of the thicker stems has been used to make tool handles, sometimes burned as a fuel source. (Pea Family)
Celtis pallida. Hackberry is a thorny shrub, at least this species is, which also bears the tastiest fruit of the group, in my opinion, but that is subjective as others feels that different species bear better tasting fruits. As with most wild plants, timing is important, using them at the right time of year in a good season. It is found here and there in canyons in lower elevations in the Sonoran Desert. The leaves are small, about the size of the tip of your little finger. The leaf surfaces feel like sandpaper, rougher as the plants age. The fruits are bright orange and the size of a pea. They are sweet and apparently nutritious, according to Wendy Hodgson in Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert. The flowers are tiny and rarely noticed. I have yet to find a plant in fruit with much on it. The fruits go fast, a favorite of wildlife. (Elm Family)
Dodonaea viscosa. Hopbush is a small shrub with bright evergreen leaves. Here too the flowers are inconspicuous but the dry fruits are readily apparent. These winged fruits have been used as a substitute for hops in beer production. The papery fruits are light brown and stand in stark contrast to the foliage, sometimes covering the plant profusely. The shrubs are rather distinctive, standing out on dry, open hillsides with their shiny leaves. They are not particularly abundant or common, but they are easy to spot, standing upright to a height of nearly 2 meters. They seem to occupy the driest, rockiest hillsides. (Soapberry Family)
Rhus ovata. Sugar Sumac belongs to a rather toxic group alongside plants like Poison Ivy and Sumac. In spite of its chemical renown, the fruits of this species were used to make lemonade among those hardy pioneers of the frontier. The Indians also used the fruits as a sweetener. The leaves are about the size of an egg, bright evergreen. The shrubs can be quite outstanding, 15 feet across and 10 feet tall. They do not bear spines. The flowers are small but quite noticeable as they cover the plants in pink (buds) and cream (flowers). The fruits are small, red, and sticky. The flowers were also boiled and consumed by some Native American groups.
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