Gardener’s Wall 3740′ and Rock Knob 2740′
Total Time: 4.0 hours
Roundtrip Mileage: 7.3 Miles
Elevation Gain: 3450′
Crux: Class IV on Glass Dome, Class III on Gardeners Wall and Rock Knob
Trailhead: Toms Thumb- restrooms, trash, no water
The McDowells have quickly and quietly become one of my favorite ranges in Arizona. With large granite rock features sprinkled around the east side, the range offers excellent scrambling in a pristine Sonoran setting. While June is typically not the best time for longer forays into the McDowells, a storm over Tonto National Forest brought a nice breeze and some cloud cover that would make a summer hike safe and nearly tolerable. Tom’s Thumb, one of the most prominent landmarks of the range, was still closed to climbing due to nesting falcons. Just south of the thumb is a lesser known granite pinnacle known as Glass Dome, known for it’s comparatively smoother rock and challenging routes. Many of the climbs go at 5.9+, but I read of a class IV route on the NW corner that should make for a fun outing. I set out from the nearly empty Tom’s Thumb trailhead (most people aren’t stupid enough to hike the McDowells in summer) and hiked up the familiar steep switchbacks up to the saddle between East End and the ridgeline to Tom’s Thumb.
Glass Dome, hidden for the majority of the ascent came into view closer to the saddle, and looked difficult from virtually every angle. After a short break, I followed the signed climbers trail to the base of the Dome, and started looking for a way up.
Most of the base was technical rock, but there was a small ramp on the west side that seemed to be the ticket to higher ground. The climbing from there quickly grew more difficult. To get to the next level required some awkward stemming up a crack, mantling onto a sloping ledge. It looked like I would need to climb a series of jagged, slightly overhanging blocks to get to the highest notch, but a catwalk around the west side to the northwest corner led me to the high notch.
Up until this point, it had been mostly class III with one or two short spots of class IV. But looking up at the cleaved summit boulders, it seemed that the class IV rating was seriously sandbagged. The space between the summit rocks, about 20′ to the very top, was too narrow to wedge myself in. There were a few decent holds lower down including a good sized chicken head, but there was also a bit of an overhang. I tried twice and backed off each time, convinced this was more in the 5.5-5.6 arena and not something I wanted to climb free without a spotter. Later at home, I found that most routes end at or before the notch I was on, and I don’t think the final summit boulders are included in the class IV descent route, which made me feel better about not continuing. I dropped off Glass Dome and started looking for alternatives for the day. Not far away, I started eyeing Gardeners Wall, a huge granite feature that has the best and most challenging multi-pitch climbing in the range. Most prominent when viewed from the east, it looks more like a granite ridgeline from the south and west, but might make for a nice alternative. I had no information about the highpoint of Gardeners Wall, but it look like it would probably be class III, so I continued along the Tom’s Thumb trail to the signed climber’s turn off for Gardner’s Wall. The first bump along the ridgeline, technically the highest, isn’t part of the wall itself but a separate boulder pile. With bees swarming near the base, I hiked past and traversed brushy slopes west of the summit blocks to the saddle between the north and south summits. The map I had showed poor detail on which was the highest, and it was difficult to tell from the saddle. But the north summit looked easier, so I would start with that. It was fairly easy class III summit slabs to the northern summit, and on top it was clear that the southern summit was higher. I took a short break and dropped back to the saddle. Climbing the higher southern summit from the saddle looked possible, although would require a short 10′ face climb in the lower reaches by widely stepping off a nearby boulder with a gap beneath. Doable, but I figured I could probably find an easier route. I continued traversing along the west side, the summit rocks seeming higher above my head, until I found a narrow ramp that would get me up.
The first part was easy class III. The crux, about halfway up, was borderline class IV requiring a few smear moves to get you onto a narrow boulder with incredible exposure to the right down the wall. The last bit to the summit can be obtained by a small 6-8′ chimney.
The summit is actually has a few nice boulders to sit on and great views of Tom’s Thumb and down the steep granite wall. I had left my pack down at the crux, and dropped back down for lunch and a break from the wind. I knew there was a climber’s use trail to the base of the wall from near the summit, and I thought I would take this down to check out what the route’s looked like from below. The use trail starts from the north end of the wall, and steeply drops down a shallow and loose gully towards the base. I kept taking branches towards the wall until I made it to the base. The route certainly looked tough, although I think some of the easier multipitch routes are only rated ~5.5.
I hiked along the base of the wall following various thin use trails, and started making my way towards the main trail. Gardeners Wall and the the main trail towards East End are split by a brushy, boulder chocked gully, and as I grew closer, I had to climb under massive boulders through pseudocaves.
I thought once I hit the drainage bottom, I could hike out through the wash, but I found it incredibly brushy, and decided to continue along the use trail up the other side of the wash and back to the main trail. At this point it was about noon, and the cloud cover had been holding. I still had about 2 liters of water left, and I thought I might check out Rock Knob, a small summit east of the main bulk of the McDowells. Instead of continuing along the Tom’s Thumb trail to the trailhead, I hiked east along the Feldspar Trail, skirting the base of the Sven formations, with Rock Knob finally coming into view as I cleared Sven Slab.
It looked like it had a number of use trails up to the top. I took a right on the Rock Knob trail, and just before the boundary of the preserve and county park, I left the main trail and aimed for the saddle between the two peaks. I ultimately stumbled on a flagged use trail that headed up directly for the saddle between the higher north and lower south summits.
There were some steep granite slabs above the saddle that brought me to the base of the summit block, which turned out to be a fun little problem. The summit, similar to Glass Dome, was two large adjacent boulders forming a chimney between them. Getting between the blocks was the real challenge, as there was a big drop at the edge that requires an awkward swing around the boulder to get you safely between them. Unlike Glass Dome, these boulders were far enough apart for some good stemming to get you to the top. The summit had nice views of the main bulk of the McDowells, particularly the nearby Sven Towers.
After squirming my way back off the summit block, the clouds broke and the sun came out in all it’s fury, signaling the end to my scrambling. Luckily, I was only about a mile from the TH and hiked and old road back to my car, the only one left in the lot as the temperature rapidly increased for the day.