Exploring the Superstitions: Trails and Tales of the Southwest's Mystery Mountains

Exploring the Superstitions: Trails and Tales of the Southwest's Mystery Mountains

by John Annerino


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A 2018 Southwest Book of the Year

Arizona’s Superstition Mountains are like no other mountain range in the continental United States. The ancestral ground of the western Apache and sacred heights of the neighboring Pima, these mountains were once a veritable no-man’s land of soaring cliffs, dead-end box canyons, and eerie hoodoos of stone, marking them as one of the last places on earth that any person would dare to tread. While this range appears on the surface to be a veritable nature lover’s paradise with towering saguaro cactus forests, desert wildflowers, and roadrunners, it is also home to rattlesnakes, plants and animals that stick, sting, or bite, and modern gun-toting dry-gulchers. In fact, in the past century, the Superstition Mountains have claimed the lives of more than five hundred visitors, marking them as the West’s deadliest wild area. Part hiking guide, part history book, Exploring the Superstitions: Ghost Trails of the Mystery Mountain vividly brings the supernatural beauty, mystery, and majesty of this unique area to life.

Within the pages of Exploring the Superstitions, readers will first be swept up in the legends of the Superstition Mountains, encountering colorful historical characters such as 1840s gold prospectors, brave-hearted Apaches, and sly outlaws. Readers will encounter the native flora and fauna of the range, from poisonous rattlesnakes to rare flowers. And finally, an in-depth guide to every trail in the range will satisfy even the most experienced of hikers.

Including a foldout map and dozens of original photos, Exploring the Superstitions belongs on the shelf, or in the backpack, of every history buff and every veteran hiker.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510723733
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 763,150
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Annerino is an author and photographer who has been working in the American West and the frontier of Old Mé xico for close to three decades, documenting its natural beauty, indigenous people, and political upheaval. A veteran contract photographer, his photography is archived in the Time Life Picture Collection and has appeared in scores of prestigious publications worldwide, including Time, LIFE, People, Newsweek, Scientific American, Travel & Leisure, New York Times, and National Geographic Adventure. Annerino lives in Arizona.

Read an Excerpt


My First Bivouac

"The very air here is miraculous, and the outlines of reality change with the moment. The sky sucks up the land and disgorges it. A dream hangs over the whole region, a brooding kind of hallucination."

— John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951)

AS A TWELVE-YEAR-OLD BOY, I HAD NOT YET READ OF John Steinbeck's mesmerizing journey among the deserts, seas, and indigenous people of Baja California and mainland Sonora, Mexico, but I had discovered what desert rats, mystics, indigenous peoples, scientists, hermits, naturalists, and adventurers already knew about the world's great deserts: You will either flee this hot, dry, and empty ground at first sight, or you will be drawn into it, captivated by the elements of sun, wind, sand and rock, your perceptions shaped by the illusion of time, distance, and space. Once you are drawn into a desert place, however, there is no escaping it — you will spend the rest of your life trying to unravel its mysteries.

Most likely you will try to do this one of several ways. You will study and classify its plants, animals, stones, or bones. You will get to know, where possible, the indigenous people who still live where modern man would likely perish. You will try to capture the marvel with your camera, paintbrush, or pen. Or you will simply need to cross the desert because it stands between you and the horizon line. ... And, when by day's end, you have not yet reached that distant point, you will need to sit and contemplate your journey in front of a crackling campfire, as the dark heavens unveil the star fire of the cosmos.

That's how I came to know the desert as a boy. Two red stone monoliths loomed high above the Sonoran Desert in the eastern horizon outside my bedroom window. I knew this because whenever I climbed up on the rooftop, which was often, I could see the colossal red stones shimmering through the distant heat waves, as dust devils whirled across the desert floor. They loomed as large in my mind's eye as photographs I'd seen in grade school of Ayer's Rock (Uluru) in Australia's Red Centre desert. I had to go to them. I did not know why. But to reach them, I had to cross the desert that stood between my parents' home and the beguiling red stones.

The journey from our doorstep led my dog and me down a busy thoroughfare that was used by horse and wagon riders at the turn of the last century to travel between the distant Arizona settlements of Phoenix and the Pima Indian Reservation. In what seemed like an interminable mile, this paved wagon road eventually gave way to the desert bajadas, "lowlands," which fanned out from the base of the red stones. These rolling bajadas were covered with saguaro cactus that towered above us with bizarre looking trunk-shaped arms.

The city and traffic behind us, I unleashed my white shepherd and watched in delight as he vainly tried to run down black tailed jackrabbits that exploded from beneath the creosote bushes and left him gasping in the distance. Whirring coveys of white wing doves and Gambel's quail flew from palo verde to palo verde tree as the futile chase continued. When my dog finally retreated, he was limping, his long tongue was wagging from exhaustion, and his pelt was covered with golden burrs of needle-tipped cholla cactus.

After removing the spiny clusters from his black paws and tawny white coat with my comb and tweezers, we continued our journey across the desert toward the red stones. They loomed higher and higher as we approached. I soon discovered, though I could not articulate it, that we were crossing a mysterious, indefinable line that separated civilization from the magic and mystery of going deeper and deeper into a desert place. Nor did I know the names of many of the odd-looking plants — that would come much later — but I was held rapt by the sight of ocotillo waving their long thorny arms in the warm spring breeze, as roadrunners sped after lizards that scurried along our rocky path.

Named for the indigenous Papago (known as the Tohono O'odham, "People of the Desert"), who dwelled in the vast desert lands to the south, the 1,663-foot-high red stones were called Papago Buttes by most, and by 1914 they formed the heart of Papago Saguaro National Monument. Until Congress rescinded that designation in 1930, this desert hideaway covered 4,000 acres of lush Sonoran Desert that stood on what was then the outskirts of cowtown Phoenix. When we finally reached the foot of Papago Buttes, my dog and I faced an exposed rock climb to reach a large black cave I had eyed from the distance. But first I gathered firewood from beneath a palo verde tree and stuffed the dead gray branches into my canvas pack.

Comprised of copper-colored conglomerate rock geologists have identified as Tovrea Granite, and estimated to be five million years old, Papago Buttes were as mystifying and exciting to me as the plants and animals that thrived around them, because here wind, but mostly rainwater, sculpted wide shallow caves called tafoni, and they also overlooked the sprawling Valley of the Sun.

Three rivers converged in the Sonoran Desert basin below Papago Buttes: the Gila, the Salt, and the Verde Rivers. They were surrounded by black mountains and red peaks that floated in the dreamy distance. Long before anyone could remember, an ancient desert people called the Hokokam, once flourished around the red stones much the way Australia's aboriginal Pitjantjatjara people hunted and gathered around Uluru. In the Piman lexicon, Hohokam has been variously translated to mean "those who have vanished." Once my dog and I negotiated a perilous stretch of rock to reach our lofty bivouac cave, I felt we, too, had disappeared from the rest of civilization. I could not imagine a more remote or exciting place. Off in the distance, another cave had eroded to the point it created a hole-in-the-rock that was used as a prism through which the Hohokam viewed the summer solstice.

My bedroll was a simple wool blanket that I rolled out on the rocky floor of the cave. My canteens were stainless steel one-quart surplus Army that we drank from whenever the ice melted enough to give up another swig of cold water. And our meal was a can of pork and beans that continually spilled and hissed in the coals of our little campfire. But for a twelve-year-old boy and his dog, there was no better camp to watch the sky suck up the land that decades later would fall to the blade of a civilization that was said to rise from the ashes of the Hohokam. A dream hung over the red stones because here, as night fell across the crimson desert, constellations climbed over the distant black ridges of a mountain I would later come to know as the Sierra Estrella, "Mountains of the Star." My dog dozing alongside of me, his ears perked when coyotes yelped and howled on the desert floor below us, as my dreams and eyes were lulled deeper into the burning red coals.

In the years that followed that formative desert journey, the names of the deserts and bivouacs would change, as did the lessons I learned. But the allure of the desert never diminished. It grew stronger. It nearly always enraptured me. It drew me deeper and, at times, I thought closer to reaching the vanishing horizon that always seemed just out of reach.

The desert cast a lifelong spell on me. I sometimes cursed this spell, but I never broke it because I was drawn to explore the desert at nearly every turn in my life. Living in someplace as rugged and sublime as the American West, it was difficult to limit those journeys to the trackless sand-covered expanses that typically define the popular image of the desert.

I was drawn not only to Death Valley and the Mojave Desert in California, and El Gran Desierto in the frontier of Sonora, Mexico, but to explore the yawning desert chasms and burning rimrock of the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau of the Four Corners region; the rugged summit crests of imposing desert sierras like Picacho del Diablo in Baja California Norte; the Sierra Kunkaak on Tiburon Island in the Sea of Cortés; and the Sierra del Carmen, which soared above the Rio Grande's Big Bend frontier of Texas and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Yet, as far as those desert journeys have led me from Papago Buttes — by foot, raft, rope, camera, and pen — and as seductive a mistress as some of those adventures have been, the Superstition Mountains stood waiting to beckon me over the horizon.


A Journey in the Footsteps of the Vanished Ones

"From the Superstition mountain rose the Eagle; From the sluggish-moving Gila rose that Hawk ... There I am going; there I am going."

VIrsak VáI-I, "Hawk Flying," 1904 Pima festal song (1904)

I STOOD ALONE AT FOOT OF THE GREAT PEAK BALANCING myself with two wooden crutches. The summit seemed impossibly far away, but I needed to reach the distant perch to see if I could once again return on foot to the mysterious mountains of my teens.

In the beginning, before the time of myths and legends, no one was here to see this primal land that was roamed by longhorn bison, bow-tusked mammoths, herbivorous mastodons, dire wolves, five-hundred-pound lions, and Pleistocene jaguars. Paleo Indians had not yet migrated to North America where they hunted the late Pleistocene-aged mega beasts with wooden spears tipped with hand-fluted lanceolate projectile points. The lush desert that formed between eight and fifteen million years ago had not yet been called Sonoran. And the Valle de Sol, "Valley of the Sun," was not thought of as paradise until Paleo Indians, Archaic Peoples, and the Hohokam vanished from the face of the earth. The silence and stillness of the crisp clean air was broken by summer monsoon thunderstorms and violent micro bursts that flooded rivers, streams, and dry arroyos and nourished an arid landscape that thirsted for torrential rain. During times of drought, windborn dervishes spun across the sun-seared desert floor, twisting and whirling through virgin forests of emerald green cacti that one day would be called saguaro.

The mountains encircling the Valley of the Sun, and the wild waters they bore — the Salt, Gila, and Verde Rivers — once knew names that were lost to modern knowledge. In time, the mountains that stood before me would be called Vainom Do'og, "Iron Mountain," by the indigenous Akimel O'odham. Formed nearly fourteen million years ago, Vainom Do'og was a dark 2,608-foot pyramid of schist and quartz that soared out of desert seas that stretched to the horizon in every direction. It was roamed by fleet-footed ancestors of the Akimel O'odham. They were remembered as the Huhugam, "Those Who Have Gone" and "Those Who Have Vanished." Hunters and gatherers from the ancient desert culture climbed the rugged peak in braided yucca fiber sandals. They sought out its stony flanks to harvest sweet red fruit from towering Ha:sañ (saguaro cactus) they gathered using long sun-dried poles of saguaro ribs, and there they also dug up and rooted out the succulent hearts of agave to roast in stone hearths. Here, too, they hunted desert bighorn sheep and mule deer, and made sacred offerings to the sun, moon, and stars. From AD 600 to 1450, the desert river valley encircling Vainom Do'og was the hub of their great civilization that was said to peak at forty thousand Hohokam inhabiting thirty-eight thousand square miles of lower Sonoran Desert during the early 1300s. Using stone hoes fashioned from flakes of schist, tough digging sticks shaped from ironwood, and shovels fire-hardened from cottonwood, the Hohokam dug hundreds of miles of twelve-to-fifteen-foot deep canals they burrowed through the burning black malpais, sand, mud, and cement-hard caliche, constructing an irrigation network on a scale that was said to be unrivaled in the Western Hemisphere. Descending one-to two-feet per mile, the ingenious hand-tapered forty-five-foot-wide channels carried mesmerizing streams of cool water that coalesced and carried silt-laden flood-water irrigation that rumbled under the blazing yellow sun, providing the Hohokam with bountiful agrarian harvests of cotton, maize, tepary beans, and cushaw squash. Pioneer city engineer Omar A. Turney wrote that the Hohokam had "450,000 acres under ancient cultivation ... the largest single body of land irrigated in prehistoric times in North or South America." But after nearly a millennia, the Hohokam disappeared and the Valley of the Sun once again became the desert first viewed by Paleo men, women, and children.

Some anthropologists speculated the mysterious Hohokam fled to higher ground in the Tonto Basin and beyond, where visions of fertility could be realized closer to the source of the life-giving Salt, Gila, and Verde Rivers that gave birth to their civilization and created the Valley of the Sun. Other scholars said they'd journeyed south, as they had been doing for centuries, on ritual vision quests to the Gulf of California to collect the shells of marine bivalves (glycymeris gigantea) used for trade and jewelry.

Find the "Lost City" old-timers said of the phantom Hohokam village glinting in the broiling salt pan along what became the treacherous ElCamino del Diablo, "The Road of the Devil"— that claimed the lives of hundreds of hardy prospectors, gambusinos, and forty-niners trying to reach the California Gold Fields — and you will discover an ancient encampment far from the nearest drop of any living water. Evidence of their artistry suggests many generations of Hohokam had been carving, etching, and polishing the saltwater clam shells at Lost City for hundreds of years, crafting bracelets, necklaces, finger rings, bird and animal jewelry, and turquoise and beaded pendants they wore with ceremonial copper bells and tropical bird feathers. Their trade, shell expeditions, and hypnotic desert journeys were not easy. Between Vainom Do'og and the Gulf of California in northwest Sonora, Mexico they traveled on foot along pathways that led from trail shrine to trail shrine two-hundred miles through searing creosote flats, scorching black lava, and shimmering desert pavement across El Gran Desierto, the largest sand sea and starkest no-man's land in North America. Along the way, they paid homage at petroglyph shrines of shells and mystifying figures they'd pecked into the black basalt and granite stones and boulders that overlooked the "great bend" of the Gila River, and precious catchments of rain water called tinajas that sustained them in the austere landscape. Others insisted the Hohokam perished from the "Aztec Plagues," epidemic diseases of zahuatl (smallpox) and cocoliztli (hemorrhagic viral fever) carried twelve-hundred miles north from the Mesoamerican center of Teotihuacan by ancient Toltec and Aztec traders who first brought them maize, copper, turquoise, and green, red, yellow, and blue macaw feathers.

Whatever befell the pre-Columbian Hohokam, they reemerged as a new people, the desert-dwelling Akimel O'odham, "People of the River," (Pima), Tohono O'odham, "People of the Desert," (Pápago), and Hia Ced O'odham, "People of the Sand," (Sand Pápago), who believe they are the true descendants of these remarkable people. Their ancestors abandoned clan castles, sun-temples, ball courts, platform mounds, and the caliche-covered adobe dwellings and settlements of Casa Grande, "Great House," once called "America's first skyscraper," Los Muertos, "the dead," named for human remains archaeologists unearthed, Snaketown, Ska-kaik, "many rattlesnakes," in Hohokam Pima National Monument which opened the secret door to understanding the Hohokam as a people, and Pueblo Grande, "Big Village," on the Salt River where one can still marvel at the remnants of their engineered waterways. These, and other Hohokam settlements, inspired contemporary Phoenix architecture and buildings that were said to rise from the ashes of the Hohokam. In time they would surround Vainom Do'og, which soared above the adobe-style homes and palaces nearly three times higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza. "When they forsook their last cities," Turney wrote in his 1929 study, "Prehistoric Irrigation," "all remained untouched: ollas and axes, bracelets and beads, votive and funerary offerings ... dedications to the ruling forces of nature. All suffered and all became fugitives alike; the barren mountains and drought-stricken valley again became a long silent wilderness."

Many barren mountains reared up out of the silent wilderness that was forsaken by the Hokokam. To the west there was the 4,512-foot Sierra Estrella, Spanish for "Mountain of the Stars," called Vialxa, "Berdache Mountain," in O'odham. To the south, there was 2,526-foot South Mountain, Muhadagi Do'ag, which bore no indigenous translation; and beyond was 1,660-foot Pima Butte, Vii Vav, or Viva'va, "Solitary Mountain." To the east there was 2,832-foot Red Mountain, S-wegi Do'ag, whose name still remains a mystery. And far beyond soared the lofty ramparts of the 5,057-foot Salt River Range, known today as the Superstition Mountains, that were called Wikwaxa, "Greasy Mountains," in O'odham. In Pima festal songs, the mountains were also sung to life as Kakâtak Tamai, "Crooked Top Mountain." According to Columbia-educated anthropologist Leslie Spier, "They [the Pima] thought of these ... mountains as their own because they lived between them. They were not safe beyond these limits." Standing in the midst of this ring of mountain peaks and ranges was the rough uncut black diamond of Vainom Do'og.


Excerpted from "Exploring the Superstitions"
by .
Copyright © 2018 John Annerino.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xiii

I Journeys of Discovery 1

1 My First Bivouac 3

2 A Journey in the Footsteps of the Vanished Ones 9

3 Tracking the Ghost Trail of Adolph Ruth 24

II Welcome to the Superstitions 55

4 Peeking in, Before You Go 57

5 Native Peoples 77

6 Natural History 87

III Adventures in the Superstitious 109

7 The Apache Trails: Through Apache Land 111

8 Weavers Needle: Locus for the Lost Dutchman's and Peralta's Gold 143

9 Superstition Mountain: Where the People Turned to Stone 155

IV Trails and Tales of The Mystery Mountain 171

10 Trails of the Superstition Mountains 173

Lost Dutchman State Park 174

Superstition Wilderness 176

Lost Goldmine Trail 177

11 The Peralta Trail 181

Abbey's Road 184

Peralta Trail Head Hikes and Treks 188

Needle Canyon/Weavers Needle Trail 189

Miners Needle Trail 192

Coffee Fiat Mountain Trail 194

12 Superstition Mountains Transect 203

13 The Dutchman's Trails 211

First Water Ranch Trail 212

El Viejo's Wild Bunch Trail 212

Grand Enchantment Trail 214

Joaquin Murrieta and the Spanish Racetrack 219

Massacre Grounds Trail and the Perralta Mine 221

14 Adventure Challenge Discovery Traverse 227

Appendix: Death Stalks the Superstitions 239

Selected Bibliography, Maps & Filmography 259

Glossary 277

Photography & Illustration Credits 291

About the Author 293

Maps of the Superstitions 296


John Annerino is an author and photographer who has been working in the American West and the frontier of Old México for close to three decades, documenting its natural beauty, indigenous people, and political upheaval. A veteran contract photographer, his photography is archived in the Time Life Picture Collection and has appeared in scores of prestigious publications worldwide, including Time, Life, People, Newsweek, Scientific American, Travel & Leisure, the New York Times, and National Geographic Adventure. Annerino lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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