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