I really enjoy the area around the Cabin Loop trails, but the east loop is about 16 miles, and the west loop is 19 miles (including the very undesirable/impossible hike adjacent to FR300), so I have been looking to create my own loops in the are that are a little bit shorter since 15+ miles tends to be a little longer than I typically choose for a dayhike. There's a lot of options with a continual series of parallel ridges and valleys running north-south offering a wide variety of terrain, most of which is relatively easy to traverse even when there is no official trail.
A couple of years ago, I set out to find another loop hike off the east side of the Cabin Loop and found the amazingly beautiful Buck Springs Canyon. (See hike description here
.) I created an off-trail loop from the south end of BSC westward and then north to intersect with the Barbershop trail. There's currently no GPS track on HAZ for that route, but I'll get to that soon enough.
This time I decided to do a similar loop heading north in Buck Springs Canyon, starting at the Buck Springs Cabins. Unlike Upper Buck Springs Canyon, below the lower spring and cabins, the canyon tightens and is no longer the expansive meadow the upper 3 miles provide. But there's an old roadbed that parallels the creek on the east side and provides an easy hiking surface since the canyon itself is dry and rocky. At about the 1.5 mile mark, there's a fork in the road (which is relatively difficult to see if you're not looking since the area is quite sparsely treed and the road hasn't been used in many years). We veered left since the map shows the right fork leading away from the canyon.
We ended up getting into the canyon and deciding to cross to the other side since hiking in the bottom was very slow. In retrospect, I would have stayed above the canyon on the east side for at least another half mile to a mile before crossing. Not a big deal, but I had wanted to see more of the bends in the canyon a little beyond where we crossed. After a steep ascent up the west bank, we found another old roadbed the led us to one of my pre-marked waypoints at Jones tank. (Now about 2.5 miles) This tank was almost completely dry, but sits along a nice clearing that would probably a lot greener in spring and after the monsoon rains revitalize things.
The old roadbed paralleled the drainage uphill another half mile before intersecting FR137. We crossed and started heading down the opposite drainage toward an unnamed spring/seep along another old closed road at 3.3 miles. This spring is not marked on the map, and in fact, there was no surface water, just the visible signs of moist ground, green grass, and other "happy" plants! Perhaps during a wetter year, or different times of year there may be surface water here? We headed north on the old road for a short stretch before heading down an amazingly well-traveled wildlife trail into Yeager Canyon. The canyon was wide and dry, despite obvious signs of water flowing here sometimes. Utilizing another wildlife trail, we hiked up out of the canyon to another waypoint I had set at Backhoe Tank #6. This is a huge tank in a very healthy looking area of Ponderosa forest. 3.8 miles so far.
From Backhoe Tank, we headed uphill and crossed FR321/Dane Ridge before heading straight down a beautiful fern-filled drainage to Moonshine Spring at 4.4 miles. Moonshine Spring has multiple seeps in an area about 100 yards x 50 yards. It has an exclosure fence around it, but it has not been properly maintained so there was ample evidence of elk and deer inside the exclosure fence. Since this is a very dry year and monsoon rains have not yet begun, I would count on there being water here all the time. It's not a pretty bubbling spring, but if filtering, there's water to be had.
From here, we headed down Moonshine Draw along another old roadbed and veered left a couple hundred yards below the spring. The old road slowly swings a complete U-turn, marking the northernmost point of this loop. At the 5-mile mark, just after heading back in a southerly direction, you encounter West Moonshine Spring. There was no visible surface water here, but obvious signs of sub-surface water existed in the form of lots of healthy green grass.
After proceeding up West Moonshine Draw for about a quarter of a mile*, we headed west over a small ridge and began heading down into Dane Canyon. We startled an elk resting in a dense thicket of pines and he took off running. This section of hiking was the only actual "bushwhacking" required all day as the pines are quite dense. Luckily, it was probably only about 50 yards before we intersected with the U-Bar Trail. (5.5 miles hiked)
(* If you head west to Dane Canyon directly from West Moonshine Spring, you will miss the U-Bar trail and drop all the way into the bottom of Dane Canyon. If you make this hike, it's a good idea to mark the U-Bar trail on a GPS so you know where it crosses Dane Canyon)
From here, it was easy sailing. It was exactly a mile to Dane Cabin (and the always reliable Dane Spring), and 2 miles from the cabin to the Barbershop Trail. During that stretch we enjoyed some light rain, and one seemingly close lightning strike. The breeze kicked up and it was a refreshing half-hour or so.
At the intersection of the Barbershop Trail, the sign indicates that it is .5 miles to the Buck Springs Cabins. As the crow flies. Maybe! There's no question that following the trail is a bit of a challenge in this area, but it really is quite well marked if you look, despite the fact that most use is NOT on the trail. There's an old roadbed, and it seems that most people follow that, rather than the trail. There were cairns and red ribbons attached to tree branches. Not to mention that trees are marked every 20-30 feet! Anyway, avoid the switchbacking old road on the west side of Yeager Canyon, and look for the trail markers. After crossing Yeager Canyon (where there were pools of filterable water) the trail heads up a very steep section that once had switchbacks across it. Unfortunately, several trees have fallen, and the result is a straight up climb. At the top however, the trail becomes clear again, and traverses the hillside until encountering another old roadbed. Here the trail follows the road for about a hundred yards before continuing uphill again. Here again, the trail is quite easy to find if you are looking. Cairns and strategically placed logs will direct you.
Finally, the trail crosses FR137 and heads down to the Buck Springs Cabins trailhead and parking area where you started. This last stretch between FR137 and the cabins has no visible trail whatsoever, but you can see the cabins through the trees. Trail markers on the trees are nice, but it doesn't seem that anybody has hiked in the same spot ever. Oh well!
Ended up being a bit shorter than I had though, 9.1 miles. But elevation changes were minimal and the forest quite open, even for off-trail hiking, so we made very good time. 72F back in the car, probably had dropped into the upper 60s during the rain shower. 111 upon return to Tempe at 6pm.
GPS reports 9.1 miles, 2:33 moving and 1:18 stopped. Other than a couple of 2 minute breaks, we only stopped at Dane Cabin for about 15 minutes, so there's no way the stopped time is right. In any case, it took just under 4 hours, but we moved at a pretty good clip all day. Generally an easy hike with only very short stretches of ascents while traversing some of the shallow canyons.