Note: A guest writes... Just tried going to this trail today 1/25/09 and learned that it has been closed to all motor vehicles by the state land bureau for plant and animal preservation. Only hiking and horseback riding is allowed now.
Please advise the author or site admin if you notice this changes.
The Butterfield Pass Trail
is at the cross roads of Arizona history. Several historic trails converge and overlap at this North Maricopa Mountain pass located within one of America's newest national monuments - The Sonoran Desert NM
. This is a popular 4WD trail appearing in many guides, but there are hiking opportunities within the wash that parallels the 4WD trail. This section of trail is maintained by the Boy Scouts of America as a community project.
With spring break in full swing and our house full of "city" visitors from Canada, a combination of Arizona adventure, scenery (including spring desert flowers), history, and exercise is in order. A mix of 4WD off-roading and desert hiking will score high on all 4 criteria. I would classify this combination as a "gentle introduction" to both Arizona past-times - a good mix for "city folk" visitors not necessarily familiar with the "great outdoors"!
When you turn off at the primitive dirt road near the large wooden sign indicating the Sonoran Desert National Monument
, you may want to take a moment to observe the many trains pushing through the Maricopa Mountain Pass along the Union Pacific Rail Road main line
. Note that this section of the Hwy 238 (aka Maricopa Road) is sponsored by "Arizona Rail Fans" - a testament to this being a primo trainspotting location! If you're wondering why the paved road veers suddenly away from the rail line, there are remains from a "Y" switch used by steam "pusher" locomotives to turnaround and assist trains up and over the Maricopa Mountain Pass.
Continue along the primitive dirt road heading north following the trail markers
. About 4.4 miles north from Hwy 238 you will reach the Butterfield Pass Trail junction
. There are maps and brochures in the BLM trail box
and a bulletin board that outlines some of the local history.
The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
(aka Anza Trail) passes along this route. In October 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza led a colonizing expedition of nearly 240 settlers departing from Tubac (near present day Tucson) to establish a new mission at the Spanish port of San Francisco. Anza's journal indicates they camped near this spot in mid-November 1775.
Gila Pioneer Trail appears in many history books as an implied single route, but is in fact a collection of trails loosely following the Gila River "valley". One of these trails follows the path through the Butterfield Pass.
The Mormon Battalion Trail
also follows the path through the Butterfield Pass. 360 soldiers from the battalion camped near here on Christmas day in 1846 on route to San Diego during the Mexican-American War. A roster of the soldiers who marched with the battalion is posted at the kiosk.
John Butterfield won a government contract for $600,000 per year for 6 years to carry mail between St.Louis and San Francisco twice a week. On September 15, 1858, the first Butterfield stage left San Francisco. 23 days, 23 hours and 30 minutes later this stage arrived at St. Louis. $200 would buy you a passenger ticket from St.Louis to San Francisco on the Butterfield Overland Stage Route. The stage traveled 24 hours a day with only stops long enough to change horses. Outbreak of the civil war in 1861 interrupted travel on this stage route
Armed with all this history, I'm sure you are ready to step back in time and hike the Butterfield Pass Trail. I'll describe a recent east to west hike:
- Park your vehicle and sign in at the BLM trail kiosk. You can start by joining the wash to the immediate south of the kiosk. The wash is sandy at this point with a variety of spring flowers throughout. Ground is relatively flat. Start trekking west along the wash. It will track within 50 ft of the 4WD trail making a crossing to the north side about 150 ft west of the kiosk. Continue to follow the wash tracking to the north side of the 4WD trail. The land to the north side of the 4WD trail is wilderness area - no motor vehicles allowed
- The sandy wash will cross the 4WD trail and will now track the south side of the 4WD trail. Plenty of spring flowers
in the vicinity.
- Continue along the sandy wash until you see the Butterfield Pass Camp sign. This marks the entrance to the mountain pass. Alternately, you may prefer to drive to this point and leave your vehicle by the Butterfield Pass Camp sign. A shorter hike from Butterfield Pass Camp to Happy Camp is only 2.6 miles long. Join the wash immediately to the south of the 4WD trail
- Wash and 4WD path converge. Follow the 4WD path up out of the wash towards the cattle gate. If you choose to drive this section, I can attest it is the most "technical" area to navigate - high clearance is a must
- Cattle fence throughout pass. Rise out of the wash and pass through cattle gate on 4WD road. This is the maximum elevation point for the Butterfield Pass at 1734 ft. Re-enter the wash and continue heading west
- Continue along wash. Eroded rock cuts will begin to appear. If you look over towards the 4WD trail, you will notice a park bench
- perfect for a rest!.
- Wash and 4WD path converge
near a marker indicating "2 Miles"
- A rainwater cistern
for game will appear. Desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, and javelina are local inhabitants. You may be lucky and see some game having a drink!
- Happy Camp Cistern is a remnant from the Butterfield Overland Stage days. This was the only source of water between Maricopa Wells and Gila Bend, with water being shipped in from Gila Ranch Station to fill the tank
. There is another BLM trail box making it an option to end your hike at this juncture. Continue your hike following the wash to the immediate south tracking the 4WD trail.
- Butterfield Stage Trail sign will appear along with a marker indicating "4 Miles"
- Butterfield Trail Troop 75 sign will appear. Multiple washes converge along the path
. Best to follow the 4WD path from here out. Wash tracking to the north was too over grown to allow for successful passage!
- "5 Mile" marker along 4WD path. This area is particularly thick with spring flowers
- "T" intersection with 4WD trail heading north
. Continue along the west path.
- Trail heading west ends at the convergence of another 4WD trail
. There are multiple historic markers denoting the trails.
In my opinion, this area contains the best examples of signature saguaro forests close to Phoenix's southern city limits. The Sonoran Desert National Monument was declared during the last stages of Clinton's presidency in 2001 (January 17th, 2001 to be exact). I applaud this act of preservation to counterbalance the fate of other saguaro forests consumed by Phoenix's urban sprawl! This trail offers multiple recreational possibilities and I try to take advantage as often as possible. Enjoy!