The SuperLoop in McDowell Sonoran Preserve. This quickly becoming one of my favorite routes for more than one reason. I'll detail those reasons below.
Simply put, the loop begins at any one of the trail entrances on the WEST side of the preserve, at the Gateway Trailhead near Thompson Peak Parkway and Bell Rd, Scottsdale, or any of the other nearby access points to this part of the preserve. I nearly always start at the main trailhead with the designer ramada, restrooms, big parking lot, landscaping etc. But there are access points within a half mile or so either north or south of there with less parking, less facilities.
I hiked this route just one week ago in the opposite direction (counter clockwise). Today I'm going clockwise. In either direction, the toughest part of the trail, in terms of elevation gain, is approaching Bell Pass. It's a little more grueling if you approach via the counter clockwise direction. But either way, the last click or so up to Bell Pass is steep. There's less loose rock on the clockwise route, so in that sense today's route is a tiny bit simpler. Of course a steep route UP, when traveled the other way is a steep route DOWN. It's an upper thigh burner going down, moreso in today's clockwise version.
I begin on the Gateway Loop Trail, at the Ramada. Dozens of hikers are starting out there. Some travel just a couple tenths to the wheel chair access nature trail, some another couple tenths to the simplest loop part of the trail, still others venture on to the rest of the Gateway Loop or beyond. As you'd expect, the fitness and experience level of hikers generally(?) increases the farther you get from the trailhead. I say generally with a question mark because some times you see some people quite a ways out on the trail who you wouldn't expect - ie people in sandals, no water, inappropriately dressed etc.
This hike was on a Saturday, likely the most busy day of the week for any trail. There were a lot of ladies in full sweat pants and shirts. Lots of ladies wearing a lot of perfume (attracts the bees away from me!). Lots of young people with a cellphone in one hand, texting as they hike. The quintessential Scottsdale hipster hiker was there - a low 20s something good looking, well groomed guy, designer sunglasses, cellphone in one hand, Starbucks cup in the other. Another comical curiosity was a pretty big, overweight guy, wearing sweatpants, carrying a big open bag of BBQ potato chips. He was munching a chip every couple of strides.
OK, so I get through the "people of Wall Mart" part of the trail and I'm now on the Windgate Pass Trail on the way UP to Windgate Pass. Much more serious hikers and Mtn Bikers are on this portion. A refreshing amount of older people, some in their 60s and 70s, in amazingly great shape, were on this part of the trail. Several MSP Stewards were coming down, most of them are older (older than me at least, I'm 56). One lady came down with a full leg immobilizer splint. I asked "How are you doing?" She replied, happy as can be "Great! How 'bout you?".
Approaching the summit to Windgate Pass from this side, there's a lot of loose, broken granite. The elevation gain is pretty constant and not over grueling, but the loose rock demands your attention. The 105 lb girls that run up and down these trails in their spandex and minimalist shoes have an easier time than this 230 lb aging geezer with bad joints. They seem to bound up and down the trail like a gazelle. My style is a little more "Wild Boar" than gazelle.
At the summit I pause for a couple of minutes and talk with a couple, older than me, who had come in from the Fountain Hills side 8 miles to this point and were planning on continuing on to 13 miles one way for a 26 mile out-and-back total! This from a couple of probably 65 y/o retired people from New York. I add the bit about New York because it seems to me, for some reason, that everyone from NY tells you so within about the first eleven seconds of any conversation. This physically fit couple were no exception.
Onward and DOWNward...From Windgate Pass summit, I then descend down the back side of the mountain on Windgate Pass Trail, traveling generally EAST. This portion, the eastern slope, of the trail is more packed desert soil and sand, less broken rock than the western slope. I find that to be the case on all the trails in the MSP. So bounding down like a gazelle...OK, walking quickly like a wild boar...I descend just about one mile to the (cue Carnac the Magnificant) "Fork in the Road". Trail marker BP9 (Bell Pass 9) is where you can choose to turn right (SOUTH) and take the Bell Pass trail to Bell Pass, or turn left (NORTH EAST) and join the East End, Windmill, Coachwhip et al trails that lead to Tom's Thumb, McDowell Regional Park, Fountain Hills etc. I turned right and headed toward Bell Pass.
Now traveling generally SOUTHWESTERLY and UPHILL toward Bell Pass, I have about a 1.3 mile trip uphill to Bell Pass. The elevation gain is just over 600 ft. The first 2/3 or so of this leg are relatively flat, just a mild gain. The last 1/3 or so are the majority of that 600 ft gain. But the trail is in very good shape. Packed desert soil, the most gorgeous views you could ever ask for and responsible, polite hikers and bikers to share the trail with. I moved aside for one mtn biker who was descending. He thanked me and added "I'm by myself". That seemed like a helpful thing for him to say. I always try and move aside for bikes (or anyone) and often bikers are in pairs so I'll stay sidelined till the 2nd one passes. I thanked him and added "There's one slow mover going down hill behind me". That may help keep the biker from suddenly confronting the other hiker guy and having to make a panic stop.
Reaching the summit at Bell Pass - That's always a conquestial feeling (is conquestial a word?). It's tough getting up there for most anyone. For an old and out of shape, overweight guy like me, it's a little tougher than for you young whipper snappers with low BMI. So I pause a couple of minutes. Helped a couple by taking their cellphone photo of the two of them. Rehydrate, breathe, allow my heart rate to come down a bit, then begin the steepest DOWNHILL part of the hike, WESTWARD off Bell Pass toward Gateway Trailhead.
As I mention a lot, this side of the mountain is a LOT of loose rock. In many places I'm forced to literally walk OFF trail on the edge to avoid the scree in the middle of the trail. Just about a tenth of a mile down the trail I sensed a little tenderness on my right heel. I wished it would have disclosed itself while I was at the summit, but I was now on the way down so I found a (sort of) convenient spot to pull off my right boot and sock and apply some moleskin. During my little M.A.S.H. timeout, one of those beautiful gazelle girls with running shoes bounded UP the trail and said hi. Oh how nice it must have been to be young, strong and flexible. I'm sure I was once. I just don't remember.
Bandage now in place, I continued RAPIDLY downhill. I always like descending rapidly as long as I can remain in control. Once I get out of control I become about 250 lbs of Newton's second law of motion. But I'm in control of this leg. I've been here before, once in the rain and hail. The weather is great, traffic is low to non-existant, my feet/joints/lungs aren't protesting (much).
The descent is a little over 3 miles. The first 1/4 or so is most of the elevation loss. The remaining 3/4 is mostly crossing two washes. So your climb goes down-up-down-up a couple of times. Nothing severe, and overall it's pretty much a literal "walk in the park".
After that 3 miles you join the most traveled part of the trail system, the Gateway Loop Trail. You're on the south side of the loop now, heading clockwise, generally WEST toward the Gateway Trailhead, 1.6 miles away. I passed a handful of hikers on this leg. It was a little after 1300 Juliet by now. Weather was warming up, most casual hikers had long since come and gone. I have no bones to pick with casual or inexperienced hikers. I just don't want to have to come across someone heavier than me, more out of shape than me, who has suffered a heart attack, heat stroke or face vs cholla accident.
Back at the trailhead I empty my pockets of the miscellaneous trail trash I'd picked up along the way. I brought down one trail side bag of doog poo someone had irresponsibly left. It amazes me that people will bring a bag, scoop the poop, then just LEAVE it. For those interested, it's a misdemeanor to leave dog poop, or to hike with your dog off leash, or to hike off trail. The Scottsdale PD is occasionally on bike or foot patrol on these trails. They also sometimes wait at the trailhead and cite/arrest violators. I'm only too happy to see this happen. Argue if you like about the "big brother" nonsense. Allowing your dog to run off leash in the wilderness with rattle snakes, jumping cholla, coyotes and other threats is just plain inhumane. Personally I'm glad to see violators get sanctioned. During the last part of this hike I heard coyotes. This is rare for mid-day. Typically that means they've taken a poodle or something. They're usually sleeping this part of the day. Every year, several family dogs as well as sheep, goats, cats and sometimes even a horse are taken by coyotes here. Essentially every one of them could have been avoided by a little consciencous thought on the part of the animal owner. The coyotes and rattle snakes are doing what comes naturally. The humans are doing what comes stupidly. Enough soapbox...
Hike Like You Love Your Dog AND Your Part of the Wilderness -
Sgt Lumpy - n0eq
Mexican Poppys everywhere. Big fields of them, not just a few clumps trailside.