Rocky Rollercoaster with Poppy Power
If you want to see some serious Flower Power, then do this loop in the Spring at the height of wildflower Season. The scenery and vista views are good all year, but if we've had good winter precipitation then this area is amazing in the Spring. This Loop or a variation of it seems to be popular with hikers at the West End of the South Mountain range. It encompasses three trails. The Alta, Bajada and then the National Trail completes the loop. It's a nice hike and can be done either clockwise or counterclockwise with different starting points. In this description, I will be summarizing the hike going clockwise, starting from the National TH on Estrella Road just East of 43rd Avenue. San Juan Lookout is only open and accessible the first weekend of every month, whereas the actual National TH is accessible 24/7. I will also post the statistics from the "Y" at the San Juan/Summit Road intersection and the Alta TH at the San Juan Lookout Location. This loop has alot of diversity to it. You get your workout and full vista views from the Alta Trail, while enjoying the valley between the Ma Ha Tauk and Gila Ranges. If we have a decent amount of precipitation in the winter months, this area absolutely explodes with wildflowers in the Spring. The views of the Estrella Range are also phenomenal from the valley. If you like loose, rocky trails, then this Loop is your dream come true. There are small to medium size rock practically paving portions.
The National Trail TH is located on Estrella Road approximately 1/8 of a mile East of 43rd Avenue. Please see driving directions for details of this site. Even with limited parking, this is a great place to start the loop. After you park, go through the opening in the barbed wire fence and start hiking! The trail starts with a gradual ascent that steepens slightly as you approach a small saddle. This is a great warm up for the ascent on the Alta Trail. When you reach the Saddle, it is bare rock and you need to turn right, follow the ridge and then pick up the trail going south along a small mountain. There is another trail that connects in this area and descends into the valley. Stay high and follow the trail around to the South and then descend slightly to the San Juan Lookout area. South of the parking lot is the National/Alta Junction. Take your pick. You can elect to get the uphill section out of the way now, or wait until the last 1/2 of the hike. I recommend ascending Alta here and doing the loop clockwise.
The Alta Trail climbs a pretty steady clip. It is full of loose rock, some high steps and light scrambling in a couple of areas on this northwest section. I have found that trails of this type are actually easier to go up than down. When the Alta goes over the top and descends down the backside, there are a series of switchbacks. It isn't as rocky and steep, making for a smoother descent. Be forewarned, the trail going up on the front side is cut right into the side of the mountain and in spots, is very narrow with a steep drop to the deep ravine below. A fall here could be disastrous. You get a small sense of exposure. Another argument for going up this section, instead of down. You will hike uphill until you hit the ridgeline and the area of Maricopa Peak. Then as the Trail winds around the Peak, you start a descent so gradual that you hardly realize it. You actually end up a couple of hundred feet below the Ridgeline and then as you come hiking around a large point, reality hits and you are staring at another good uphill back up to the ridgeline. Once you get past this next ascent, you've got it made. You start hiking on the South side of the ridge, enjoying the vistas of the valley below and the Estrellas to the West. The descent is smooth. Some of the rock on the trail thins out and you are down in the valley in no time. San Juan Road runs the length of the valley right down the middle. Seeing and paralleling a paved road can be a turnoff for some, but this road is only open one weekend a month. The Valley typically stays quiet, with no car traffic to disrupt the solitude you will feel on this Hike.
After you cross the road, you will find the Alta/Bajada trail junction. Take the Bajada Trail south and west to meet up with the National again at the West end of the Valley. The Bajada climbs up and away from the road and runs along the foot of the Gila Range. Going the clockwise direction, you will, in the beginning, be hiking up and down quite a few ravines and drainages on the Bajada. There is a lot of loose rock on this trail so watch your footing. There are very few markers on this trail, but it is well defined and easy to pick up coming out of the ravines. The up and down continues for about 2/3 of the length of this trail and then you move further away from the base of the range. The trail begins to flatten out and does a very gradual descent. The vegetation and flora in the Bajada section of the loop is sparse. Yet quite the sight during wildflower season. Thick carpets of poppies and lupines blanket the valley floor. The sun setting over the Estrellas and the sharp late afternoon sunlight will light up both ranges and provide some wonderful lighting opportunities. You may see some javelina and coyotes in the valley as well. There seems to be a bunch of quail in this section too, I flushed several coveys in the ravines on my hike.
You descend back down to San Juan Road at the West end of the valley and arrive at the Bajada/National junction. Take the National Trail heading North across the road and follow it around the western edge of the Ma Ha Tauk Range. This trail is extremely rocky. It almost seems like they "poured" the rock down to help with erosion. Once around the corner you turn back to the East and arrive back at the San Juan Overlook. From here, turn left and head back up the hill and hike along the hill back to the first saddle and then down to the TH.
Stats for other Starting Points:
From San Juan Lookout: 8.50 Miles 1750 AEG
From "Y" Intersection of Summit and San Juan Roads: 9.50 Miles 1750 AEG
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.