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I turned off my headlamp, and the desert’s darkness pressed in around me. I squinted skyward as scores of stars slowly came into focus. Our guide, Matt Cairns, pointed out constellations: the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major. A bright flash streaked across the sky — the first of several shooting stars we saw that night.
We were barely far enough from the sprawling Phoenix metro area to escape its light pollution, and just a few miles from our van, but we were somehow still deep in the wilderness.
I was hiking with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based tour company Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA) through the Superstition Mountains, a vast wilderness area within easy reach of Phoenix. And yet, it felt remote — I lost cell service a couple of hours into our hike. The nights were black, and deeply silent.
AOA leads guided multi- and single-day adventures throughout the Southwest that run the gamut from hiking and backpacking to mountain biking, road cycling and paddling. The operator offers a tiered commission structure that ranges between 10 to 25 percent.
The Superstition Mountains Backpacking trip that I chose is an accessible, three-day, two-night excursion that loops through some impressive desert scenery: red-rock canyons cradling freshwater springs, and wide-open expanses of spindly saguaro and cholla cactuses. The route, while certainly rugged, doesn’t gain significant elevation or cover more than a handful of miles per day. The Superstitions trip is ideal for beginners, families and seasoned hikers alike.
It’s also an ideal place to come with a guide. These mountains are notorious in several ways, as the name may imply. Long before the area was a federally designated wilderness area, the Superstitions inspired an Apache legend that they conceal the entrance to hell. Treasure hunters continue to visit in search of a lost gold cache, rumored to be hidden in this maze-like landscape.
But the “superstitions” also extend to a more serious subject, as hikers regularly seem to disappear off these trails. It’s easy to get turned around, or to follow a game trail (paths created by wildlife) or seasonal wash on accident. Or to wander too far on a hot day with an inadequate water supply, only to find the spring you were aiming for is dried up. Search and rescue calls are common.
All this to say, it’s pretty easy to get lost and hurt in these mountains — and that’s even without looking for the rumored lost gold. So, not only did my AOA guide make a mean beef stroganoff, but he also knew where the water sources were, and which paths were game trails in disguise. Cairns helped me watch out for teddy bear cholla, which drops hunks of its spiked arms all over the trail like land mines. And he told me to keep an eye out for local fauna, such as ring-tailed cats and javelinas (similar to a wild boar). He also pointed out cactus-wren nests stuffed improbably inside cholla needle fortresses.
Though the Superstitions are home to some of the most popular hiking trails in greater Phoenix, it’s also easy to get away from the crowds here. Most people visit as day hikers; with AOA, we took a route that quickly left the throngs behind. By the second day, I realized we hadn’t seen a person outside of our group of four in more than 24 hours.
That night, we camped near a spring that forms a small oasis. The cool water reflected a red-rock tower in the distance. I found a handful of rusted hinges with handmade nails — perhaps evidence that this was once a base camp for a gold prospector. Maybe there was gold nearby; I felt a twinge of curiosity.
But right then, I was content to appreciate the mysteries of that wild place — without getting lost.
The DetailsArizona Outback Adventureswww.aoa-adventures.com