Mazatzal Peak 7903′
Total Time: 10 hours
Round Trip Mileage: 13.2
Elevation Gain: 4300′
Trailhead and Amenities: Barnhardt Trailhead, no facilities
Companions: Garrett, Kristin and Dexter from Bendhiker.com
I left Phoenix shortly after sunrise and set out on the Barnhardt Trail on the eastern edge of the range at about 8:30. The Barnhardt Trail quickly enters the Mazatzal Wilderness and Barnhardt Canyon, one of the more spectacular canyons in the range with steep walls and rocky cliffs.
The early stretches of the trail were a fairly gentle grade, staying high above the canyon floor and weaving in and out of drainages. Pools of water could be seen far below, with small cascades along the way.
The casual grade of the climb quickly changed as the trail suddenly hooked into a side canyon to the south and aggressively switchbacked up the canyon slopes beneath Suicide Ridge.
At this point I had been hiking just over an hour, and took a short break on a rocky perch under the shade of some junipers.
Once the trail breached the lower cliffs, the landscape changed from cacti and junipers to thick brush. This area was burned in the 2004 Willow Fire, and young oaks dotted the slopes surrounded by hardier manzanita. I began to look for a place to start cross country up slope towards the summit, but it seemed that the brush was thick consistently along the trail. From topo map, it appeared that heading up and over 6044′ would work, but at the base I found nearly impenetrable brush. I hiked on, eventually hitting the unmarked junction with the Sandy Saddle Trail, with a faint trail heading down the ridge into Barnhardt Canyon with a large cairn at the junction.
Looking upslope, I found the key to the day, a use trail that wove through the manzanita and oaks up to point 6566′. It was impossible to tell how the brush would be above that along the ridge, but I figured I had to try something and this might as well be it. The going was easy enough early on, with the manzanita spaced far apart with no serious brush to contend with. A bit higher upslope, just below the ridgeline, was thicker young oak trees. These trees were all the same size, having grown the spring after the 2004 Willow Fire. I pushed my way through and quickly found myself on clearer ground on the ridgeline. I was surprised to find a solid game trail, and one that seemed to be used by fellow peakbaggers given the occasional cairn I would stumble on.
The ridge started to narrow with rock slabs and short cliffs along the north side, and I found it to be some of the best cross country of the day. The ridge slowly hooked south to meet up with Suicide Ridge, and I had relatively no trouble until at about 7000′ when I encountered my first and only patch of locust brush, which I had learned to hate since Kibbey Butte in the Grand Canyon.
Thankfully it was short lived, and once I made it on to Suicide Ridge proper, it was mostly hopping over blow down and skirting manzanita. Finally at about 7500′ I entered healthy pine forest and had views to the north of Cactus Ridge, Four Peaks, Theodore Roosevelt Lake and the Superstitions. From there it was a quick hike up grassy slopes to the rounded summit.
The views from the top were impressive, with panoramic views across the Valley of the Sun, north to Mogollon Rim and the San Francisco Volcanic Field and south across the range. The western face of the summit was rocky cliffs, and the false summit to the north was a prominent rocky knob. I took in the views for about 30 minutes and signed into the summit register which showed about 20 people/ year, mostly locals from Phoenix and Payson.
As I stood to put on my pack, I noticed two figures hiking up the North Ridge, the first people I had seen all day. They quickly closed in on the summit and introduced themselves as Kristin and Garrett, with their dog Dexter in tow. They had spent the past several months roadtripping across the Western US and Canada and were touring Arizona, on their way north to Sedona, Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. They had started about 30 minutes before me, but hiked along the Barnhardt Trail much further, climbing up the North Ridge through horrible brush. Their legs were bloody and covered in scratches. Even their dog looked whipped, and passed out under a shady bush near the summit. I told them that aside for a small patch of locust brush, the ridge I had taken wasn’t too bad and they were welcome to hike out with me. They quickly agreed and we set back down Suicide Ridge, much more conscious of avoid brush when possible. The manzanita was hard to avoid at times, but thankfully not thorny, and they assured me that this route was much better.
We spent the next few hours talking about road trips, peakbagging, national parks, and craft beer. I really enjoyed both their company, and the experience of hiking with a dog, who somehow always seemed to manage some short class III moves.
We made it through the locust brush without incident, but I had trouble remembering where to drop off to meet back up with the trail. The line I choose was definitely not as clean as the one I took up, and I subjected their legs to a few more scrapes before we finally emerged on the trail. At this point we were all pretty exhausted and after a short break, we picked up the pace to get back to the trailhead, only making one short stop at a small pool for Dexter to have a drink.
We made it back to the trailhead at about 6:30 and they were kind enough to give me a cold beer from Oregon and check out their sweet camp set up. We chatted for a bit longer until the sun had nearly set, sharing recommendations on Sedona, Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.