Lights of Apache Junction
by Ted Tenny

“Why are those squiggly brown lines so close together?”

“Badlands,” I explain to my daughter. She is learning the fine points of reading topographic maps. “A steep slope has eroded into a highly complex drainage pattern.”

“Those aren’t bad lands, Daddy. That’s Apache Junction.”

Better look at the map more closely. “Uh, you’re right.” Actually I’m learning a thing or two. “Let’s see, the contour interval on this map is only 10 feet. That’s O.K. down here in the valley. But up in the mountains you can’t tell how steep the slope is.”

She points to a location on the map. “Why does it say ‘3004’?”

“Elevation in feet above sea level ... It’s the top of a mountain ... You know, we’ve seen this mountain, but we haven’t been there.”

Peak 3004 in the early morning, from the Sand Canyon Trail.

Dark, rugged Peak 3004 in the Goldfield Mountains is on the Apache Junction quadrangle. A masterpiece of Miocene volcanism, it stands lonely and forlorn between its illustrious neighbors Pass Mountain and Bulldog Ridge. I’ve never seen anyone climbing Peak 3004. Could it be simply because the neighboring peaks are higher? Don’t let the elevation fool you: Peak 3004 is a wild, exploratory climb for adventurers.

*    *    *

Oh, what a gorgeous October afternoon! Not a cloud in the sky, and the summer heat is gone. A hiker can’t just stay home on a day like this. A few days ago my daughter was onto something: on the map it looks like one could walk from Meridian Trailhead around the east and north sides of Peak 3004 and bushwhack on over to the Pass Mountain Trail. But wait. That’s an off-trail, exploratory hike.

Peak 3004 in mid-day, from the Pass Mountain Trail
    I know, I know, it would be better to wait until I have companions to go with me. But hey, civilization is never far when you’re around Meridian Trailhead. Just stick to that part of the map where those squiggly brown lines aren’t too close together. Nothing to it.

It’s mid-afternoon when I arrive at the trailhead. There are lots of cars, but everyone is hiking the Pass Mountain Trail. The loop around Peak 3004 is only six miles by my calculation. Surely three hours will be enough. I never wear a watch on hikes, anyway.

Here’s an idea: the trail goes all the way around Pass Mountain. So no matter where you are, if you climb up from the bottom or down from the top, you’re bound to cross the trail eventually. I’ll find it easy.

But I’m not starting on the Pass Mountain Trail. The trail from Meridian up to Bulldog Saddle is wide and easy near the trailhead. Approaching Sand Canyon I can see hikers over on the other side, but none on this side. Then the Bulldog Saddle Trail veers northeast, away from the canyon. It becomes rocky and steep, lined with cobblestones which give way to hard packed dirt as I approach the saddle.

There’s no one anywhere in sight. I turn around and take a long look back at Apache Junction and the trailhead, then cut to the north.

Peak 3004 is on the left and Bulldog Ridge on the right as I descend steadily north of Bulldog Saddle, toward the Salt River. The trail becomes less distinct. It is marked here and there with little cairns that seem to have been added as an afterthought.

Well where is the trail? By now I’m almost down to the valley. It’s been some time since I passed a cairn. Evidently not very many people hike here. But why not, on such a gorgeous autumn day?

Enough of this bushwhacking. It’s getting later in the afternoon, and I’d really prefer to be on the Pass Mountain Trail. From here I can’t see it, but I know it’s up there because it goes all the way around Pass Mountain. So I start climbing up a canyon.

The canyon is steeper than I’d like. Also, the rocks are black. This is odd. I don’t remember seeing a black rock canyon anywhere on Pass Mountain. But hey, it has to be out of sight from the Pass Mountain Trail, because I can’t see the trail from here. So I reassure myself. Once I’ve climbed up and over a dry waterfall, the going is easier.

Hmmm. The Pass Mountain Trail must be right over that next rise. At this point I’m sure I have climbed halfway up the mountain. On the other hand, that trail ascends gradually from the north end of Pass Mountain until it tops out at the pass.

Evening shadows play on Bulldog Ridge.

Watch those rocks! Some of the rocks are loose, and I’m all alone. This is no place to slip and fall.

Something is not right.

By now I’ve climbed so high that I’m just below the ridgeline. Is it possible that I crossed the Pass Mountain Trail and didn’t notice it was there? Not a chance. On the other hand, parts of the trail have been re-routed ... or have they?

Here’s the ridge. Once I get to the top I can look down and see the trail. I still can’t believe I crossed the trail and didn’t notice.

When I finally pull myself over the last boulder and stand on the ridgeline, I learn the awful truth. The Pass Mountain Trail is down there all right, but it’s across a valley to the west, a good half mile from where I’m standing. I’ve climbed the wrong mountain.

It’s going to be tough climbing down from Peak 3004.
    Worse, the day is winding down. The valley below me is already deep in shadow, but at least I’m up on the ridge where the sun is still shining.

Now don’t panic. Stay calm. Fine and dandy. But I’m all alone up here and I have to get down. There can’t be more than an hour of daylight left.

Go back the way I came? Nope. It’s taken me more than an hour to climb up to this ridge. Even if I could find the same route down, I don’t want to go that way. The rocks are too steep. That descent would be perilous even in broad daylight.

Cross the valley to the west and climb up to the Pass Mountain Trail? Can’t be done. I’m cliffed out.

Go east and try to return to Bulldog Saddle, by climbing Peak 3004 and exploring the rocky descent on its southeast side? Not this time. Even if I found a way, I couldn’t get there before sundown.

That leaves me with two possibilities. For now I’m going to walk south along the slopes. Then I’ll have to either find a way west to the pass, or bail out on the steep south side of Peak 3004. The shadows are getting long. I say a prayer, and thread my way south among the boulders and jumping chollas.

Soon I arrive at a saddle on the west side of the peak. So which is it going to be – bushwhack to the Pass, or bail out here? Think fast, Ted.

Bailing out is awfully steep. But I can’t see a route westward to the Pass and there isn’t time to explore one. There are several buttes in the way. By the time I’ve found a way to contour around them it will be dark. So I’m going to have to do a precipitous butt-slide southward on those rocks.

I pray again, then inch myself over the edge. My knees are shaking.

Loose rocks! I slide a few feet down, ripping my shirt on the rocks, but manage to stop. Then I start sliding again.

Cholla, dead ahead!

I desperately try to miss it, and almost do. “Owwww!” Though I manage to flick the cholla branch off with a rock, my arm is stuck like a pincushion. Doesn’t matter; I have to keep moving. If I get stranded here, it’s going to be a very bad night. No emergency supplies, flashlight, cell phone, or jacket. I have frightful visions of sliding uncontrolled, snagging my foot on a rock, and pitching headfirst into the rocks or a cactus. Banish those thoughts. Concentrate on getting down this slope. It can’t be so steep all the way down.

The author can often be found hiking.
    Chollas and prickly pears grow in inconvenient places. I keep butt-sliding. By now I’m bruised, stuck with cactus needles; my shirt is getting ripped to ribbons, and my jeans aren’t doing too well. My ego is also shredded, as if I care.

The slope eases up a bit, so the sliding is no longer uncontrollable. For the first time, I feel as though I might make it.

Finally I’m below those loose rocks. It’s possible to stand up and walk now, but slow going with big detours around outcroppings of rock and little detours around prickly pears and chollas.

An arroyo flowing into Sand Canyon is the last challenge. The sun is down, but in the fading light I can find a way. Carefully I climb down, walk across the arroyo, climb up on the other side, and walk east to the Bulldog Saddle Trail. Night has fallen, but I’m on a trail now.

All the other cars are gone from Meridian Trailhead. The sky is pitch black. I reach my car with only starlight to guide me, and the lights of Apache Junction. Oh, what lovely lights!

Lights of Apache Junction.

See Also:
Tenny, Ted,
Goldfield Mountain Hikes,
Gem Guides, Baldwin Park, CA, 2006. 
Walk a pleasant, scenic loop around Peak 3004, as described on pages 25-26.

Map of the Peak 3004 Loop Hike.