Elephant Mountain and Indian Fortress

Elephant Mountain 3926′ and Indian Fortress 3342′

Phoenix Area: Spur Cross Ranch, New River Mountains

Total Time: 5:00

Round Trip Mileage: 8.9 miles

Elevation Gain: 2500′

Class III

Trailhead: Spur Cross Ranch- $3/ person, pit toilets

Companions: Holly




 Spur Cross Ranch is a relatively recent addition to the Maricopa County Parks system, 2,154 acres of mountainous desert at the southern end of the New River Mountains and the northern-most aspect of the Valley. Looking to do something longer over the holiday weekend, I suggested we explore this area as part of a loop hike and tag Elephant Mountain and Indian Fortress. I hadn’t read any trip reports on the two, but from the topo and Google Earth, it seemed like a straight forward jaunt up the ridgeline. How bad could it be? We left our home and found our way to the trailhead under extremely cold and windy conditions, with puddles frozen along the dirt road, and 40 mph winds expected throughout the day. We paid our $3 to a volunteer manning the gate, and headed out on the old ranching road.
Trailhead.
Trailhead.
Old ranching road.
Old ranching road.

The road dropped into a broad wash and continued on the other side, climbing one of the many small ridges spilling off the higher New River Mountains. Elephant Mountain looked impressive from this angle, and Indian Fortress looked virtually unclimbable without technical gear. The trail dipped in and out of washes several times, bringing us closer to the east side of Elephant Mountain.

Approaching Elephant and Indian Fortress.
Approaching Elephant and Indian Fortress.

When we were about halfway to the saddle, the trail dipped into a wash and stayed low, weaving around rocks or up onto the banks to avoid larger obstacles. It was probably the most enjoyable part of the day, and one of the few places where we weren’t being blasted by the wind. Leaving the wash, the trail began to climb steeply towards the saddle, and we hunkered down for a break before subjecting ourselves to the violent wind we could see whipping above at the saddle.

Following the trail up north slopes to the saddle.
Following the trail up north slopes to the saddle.

Somewhat dreading the windy punishment in store, we continued on to the saddle, where I was pleased to find an easy trail to the summit of Indian Fortress. Just below the summit is a handful of walls from Native American ruins, likely Sinagua. There wasn’t much left to them, and with no where safe to hide from the wind, we quickly headed back to the saddle to find shelter and eat an early lunch.

Native American ruins.
Native American ruins.
View atop the Fortress.
View atop the Fortress.

Up until this point, aside from the wind, the day had been going quite well, and the summit I had been concerned about, Indian Fortress, was quite trivial. From below, it was difficult to see around some volcanic cliffs along Elephant Mountain’s east ridge, but it looked like it would ‘probably’ be straightforward. Unfortunately, the 40 mph winds would complicate things. We started up the steep, sometimes loose slope heading directly towards the volcanic cliffs on the ridgeline. We stayed to the north, looking like the safest bet from below.

Headed up the steep ridge.
Headed up the steep ridge.

Hitting the rock formation we found little caves with cholla husks from pack rats, but sadly little relief from the wind. Initially, a narrow trail wove around the base of the cliffs, but this disappeared into a loose, rock filled gully, probably the worst part of the day. Holly didn’t hesitate and headed up the loose rock, climbing about 50′ to rejoin the ridgeline. For a short time, the going was a bit easier, with the grade easing as we closed in on the summit. We found a spot where the trail dipped off the ridge and found the first true, windless spot of the day. We stopped here, eyeing the route ahead. The ridge abruptly narrowed and steepened, with cliffs to the north and loose talus to the south, a thin use trail charging up the ridgeline. In reality, anyone who does this kind of thing with any frequency wouldn’t have thought much about this section, but our calm, windless spot was funneling the winds higher up, making that narrow section of ridge the windiest part of the day, probably 60-70 mph gusts.

A narrow ridgeline under high winds.
A narrow ridgeline under high winds.

I told Holly we could turn back, but with only about 200′ of climbing to go, she wanted to continue on. We were immediately blasted by the winds, and were knocked off our feet more than once, fighting to keep from falling off one way or the other. The section was short but difficult due to the wind, and led to a class III rock gully that would bypass the cliffs below the summit along the ridge. This was the technical crux of the day, although easier than the loose chute from earlier.

Looking down the class III.
Looking down the class III.

Holly was uncomfortable with the combination of exposure, wind and climbing around cacti, and told me to go on the rest of the way without her. From there, it was actually quite easy, and I topped out 5 minutes later. Holly, who had been watching me from below, saw how quickly the last section took and joined me at the summit.

Summit panorama.
Summit panorama.

Again, we did not linger long with the winds, wanting to descend and get through the most difficult sections of climbing. We descended the class III section smoothly and headed down the narrow, windy ridge, again getting knocked around, this time into a few cacti. Getting back to the lower cliff bands, I searched for an easier route to the south, but found only cliffs. Thus, we dropped back into the loose chute and traversed below the cliff face. At this point, we were getting tired from the unexpectedly difficult ordeal, and hurried back down to the saddle, slipping a few times and bumping into far too many cholla. Once on the southern side of the mountain, the wind eased, and I use the opportunity to pull about 15 cholla spines from my leg. There’s no doubt the entire climb was made twice as difficult by the relentless wind.

Back near the saddle and bonafide trail.
Back near the saddle and bonafide trail.

From then on, the rest of the day went smoothly, taking the Elephant Mountain trail to it’s junction with Spur Cross Ranch road, and following this in and out of several washes. The south facing slopes featured some incredible Saguaro, some of the most impressive that I’ve seen in the Phoenix area.

Huge Saguaro.
Huge Saguaro.

Fairly tired, we trudged our way back to the trailhead along the old road, in and out of at least 5 washes, to finally warm up in the Subaru.

Leave a Reply