Hieroglyph Trail, Superstition Wilderness, Arizona

Hieroglyph (Petroglyph) Trail is found in the Superstition Wilderness which is part of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. The general system of trails it branches from is called the Lost Goldmine Trail which is accessed off US 60, just SE of Apache Junction, way in the back of the Gold Canyon neighbourhood. Take the Kings Ranch Road off of US 60 and follow the signs to the paved parking area. Do not park on the streets of the neighbourhood or you will likely be towed (read the signage). There were blue rockets in the parking lot, no other facilities. The trail to the petroglyphs is busy, but beyond seemed less so at least the day we were there.

NOTE: While we were aware of the potential for encounters with venomous critters, the more pressing hazard we encountered in late April when we hiked was the sun and heat. We carried 3+ litres of water, sun shirts, food & electrolyte replenishment. The choice of headgear will be an important one. Be mindful of the effects of heat and sun exposure.

The petroglyphs are just over 2km in from the parking area on a well marked and easily accessed trail. The trail itself is easy and family friendly (not stroller friendly), however, it has larger stones that can make footing challenging. There is some elevation increase, but nothing significant.

You will need to pass through two separate cattle gates to reach the petroglyphs, be sure to latch them after passing through. Once through the gates you will find yourself in the Tonto National Forest.

From the trail you can get a good view of The Flatiron, another popular hiking destination.

Location of the petroglyph is just inside where the trail enters the entrant to the saddle between the Superstition peaks. This is a runoff area and there was still water pools in late April when we arrived, complete with polywogs. The rocks near the petroglyphs are smooth from erosion and can be slippery even when dry; be careful of your footing when you go down close to them.

The petroglyphs are attributed to the Hohokam people, a group that populated the area but seems to have disappeared under unknown circumstances at or around 1500ce. Others in more modern times appear to have added to them, perhaps in 500 years this will also be considered a petroglyph, rather than graffiti as it is now.

Across the trail from the petroglyphs is a taller rock escarpment that is a favourite climbing spot, it was shaped much like the rock formation the petroglyphs are scratched into only taller. The rocks go up in the same block-like manner which younger children had scaled for a photo opportunity.

We explored the petroglyphs for awhile before following the rock in the stream bed to the left. We always seems to gravitate to rock hopping, but this was not the trail. We eventually had to move through the low bush to the right to regain the trail before carrying on up to the Superstition peaks which we hoped to hike later on. Bush-bashing is not the best option at this time of year due to higher likelihood of reptile encounters for which we were not kitted out. Heiroglyph Trail leads up to a saddle between the two Superstition Mountain peaks, where you can head left and eventually connect with The Flatiron, or right toward the closer, steeper peak.

The trail beyond the petroglyphs becomes narrower and more closed in with bush at times. It becomes less green after you round the first bend on the trail, and becomes ever more riddled with cactus encroachment. We had not seen other trails where you had to be as careful about contact with cactus as this one, most annoying of which were the very solid and pointy leaves of the agave plant; we both had run-ins with these which drew blood.

Look for the rock cairns that mark the trail as it becomes difficult to follow at points with the typical competing directions and trail divergences.

As the hike became steeper we found an area that had tall fingers of stone, looking like sentinels but reminding us of a scene from The Lord of the Rings movies. We stopped at that place for a snack and to enjoy the view.

The last few hundred meters to the saddle are steeper but manageable. Right close to the saddle we found an agave plant which was shooting up a stalk to bloom. Apparently the stock grows up very quickly, after which the agave dies. We thought the dead plants looked like the pods the creatures came out of in the movie Aliens.

The views from the saddle are amazing, which is always the payoff for the effort. The backside showed a good view of the Weaver’s Needle, hopefully a future hike for us, while the look back from whence we came shows a sliver of the city below.

We wanted to make the summit of one of the two Superstition Mountain peaks our map showed: the one to the left was about 3 km, the one on the right a little over 1 km. We chose going right thinking it to be shorter, but soon found it was a rocky and challenging choice. After only a few hundred meters we turned back, feeling the growing fatigue of the additional work and the heat, along with the trail getting harder to find and more treacherous. The trail to the other peak is more gentle and easier to follow being a straight-up hike. In the picture below you can see the other trail in the far ground.

Alas, reaching the summit of the Superstition Mountain will have to wait for another day.

The way back took us onto the part of the trail up that we originally missed, which made the return that much faster. As a note to other hikers the trail continues past the little cave you come to just above the petroglyphs, just keep right. We went down to look at the petroglyphs one last time before leaving and noted a trio of garter snakes by the pools, reminding us that where there is water we all gather.

The full hike took us 6hrs, 42mins, with a total distance of 10.73km, and just under 800m of elevation gain; a very enjoyable hike outside of the cactus run-ins.

One thing we have found is that the heat makes a significant difference in both our speed (including critter watch) and our ability to cover distance. We needed all the water we took, which was 3+ litres each, and had no where to replenish water on the hike. The lesson is to pack your kit according to your terrain and ensure you don’t hike beyond the capacity of your fitness and kit as you may not find any assistance on the trail and be out of cell service range.

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