This hike has it all. On trail, off trail, bouldering, bush whacking, route finding, water features, artifacts, and solitude. This is a fairly long and grueling hike, but I would highly recommend it to those more experienced and motivated hikers (a.k.a. hiking sickos).
The itinerary takes you from the First Water trailhead south on the Dutchman trail to Parker Pass. From there you take a secondary trail over to O'Grady Canyon and on over Tim's Saddle and down into W. Boulder Canyon. At this point you follow the creek bed south to Willow Sprgs. and a little further to an old stone corral. On the return I remained in the creek bed and followed it all the way to its intersection with Dutchman trail in Boulder Basin and on back to the trailhead.
To get started, follow the Dutchman trail south to Parker Pass (this is the high point of that section of the trail between its start and the Black Mesa intersection). There are some small rock formations beside the trail on top of the pass. The trail to O'Grady Canyon starts by going up through the rocks on your right. There may even be a small cairn on top of the rocks if I can just keep Ranger Lou from from knocking it down!
Although hints of trail and cairn abound, don't be fooled - you're on your own from here. Side note: If you should happen to be intending to return by the same route from whence you came, this is a real good time to take careful note of its point of intersection with the creek bed below. Not that it would ever happen to me, but I can only imagine it would be easy to miss on the way back and the unfortunate soul would find themselves unintentionally following my most carefully planned route back.
Things definitely begin to decelerate at this point. I happened to go when there was a lot of water, which I prefer, but the going would definitely be easier if there were less. Fortunately, unlike the approach to Willow Sprgs. from the south, there is ample room to snake your way along the banks beside the creek bed. Although you'll definitely encounter some bush, I believe you'll find it quite whackable.
About halfway up the canyon to the Springs you will encounter a giant house sized boulder blocking the stream and resulting in a rather spectacular little waterfall (at least for the Supes anyway). I recommend climbing right around and over it to get a good close look, but here, as with a couple other spots along the way, you may notice possible shortcuts for the way back. Moving on, continue to use your imagination and you may find some rather creative little rock ledge routes and such as you make your way through the rugged rock features along the canyon floor. I was fairly proud of myself - I only got my boots soaked about five times.
Willow Springs itself is a bit anticlimactic. You'll find a lone Willow tree next to a shallow pool with Cattails indicating a year round water source. The real reward is a bit further upstream where the creek makes a bend to the left then back to the right creating a small peninsula on the west bank. On this spot there is a bizarre stone circle about a hundred feet across created by the very laborious stacking of rocks to a height of about six feet. Evidently, this was used as a corral by the late Adolph Ruth back in about 1930. Other camps I've seen in the Superstitions make some sense (i.e., Pinon, Piper, Sec. Water Sprgs, etc.), but this one mystifies me in its remote and very rugged location. Not to mention the idea of bringing and keeping horses up there. Whatever.
Old Adolph sure put a lot of back breaking work into his little project and all he got for his efforts in the end was a bullet to the back of the head. A fairly predictable fate in that time and place it seems.
I would have liked to push on a bit further and close the gap left from the point of my earlier failed attempt at reaching the Springs from the south, but I knew I'd just pay for it "with interest" on the return leg.
The return, although long, is very straight forward. Just stay with the creek and it will eventually begin to turn to the east, open up, and eventually run right into the Dutchman trail. As I mentioned earlier, there are a couple shortcuts available along the way that require climbing up onto the terrain above the creek bed thus allowing you to cut a corner. A nice side benefit are some neat views of the canyon features form above.
Someday I may be tempted to try a N/S traverse of the entire length of the canyon, but for now this will do. I was definitely struck with that kind of eerie sensation you get when you know you're someplace where very few humans have been in a very long time. Totally cool!!! No wonder I'm addicted!
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.
FR / Dirt Road / Gravel - Car Okay
To First Water Trailhead From Mesa follow Highway 60 East to Idaho Road. Turn North onto Idaho Road which is SR88 and follow North 2.2 miles. SR88 bends right just past Scenic St. and Idaho continues North. Be sure to go right and stay on SR88. Follow SR88 5.2 miles to the signed turnoff for First Water Trailhead, this is FR-78. Turn right on to FR-78 and follow 2.6 miles to the end.
This trailhead feature restrooms without running water. The large parking area fills up in season. When full utilize the Horse Lot 0.5 miles back.
From PHX (I-10 & AZ-51) 43.1 mi - about 59 mins From TUC (Jct 1-10 & Grant) 136 mi - about 2 hours 16 mins From FLG (Jct I-17 & I-40) 187 mi - about 3 hours 3 mins