Bushwhack by day, bushwhack by night
Overview: On March 14th & 15th, two friends and I completed a hike from Cottonwood Camp to Lone Pine Saddle Trailhead. This hike traveled from the southwest of the peaks, around the southern extreme, up Alder Creek in the eastern valley and around the northeast side of Brown's Peak. We figure it ended up being between 23 and 25 miles, and took us two very long days to complete. All said, it was very strenuous and a bit more than we had in mind, but beautiful and fulfilling nonetheless.
Getting Started: Friday night we drove up to the Lone Pine Trailhead, which took about two hours to get to from Phoenix. We turned at the marked Four Peaks dirt road off the Bee Line and followed FR143 for 18 miles. This road was in good condition, as our Honda Civic was able to make it just fine. There's a camp site downhill from the trailhead by a few hundred yards that we stayed at, which offered beautiful sunrise views of Lake Roosevelt and Brown's Peak.
By morning, we ate, packed and hit the road in our second car, back down the 18 miles and continued another 8 to Cottonwood Camp along road 401. From here, the ranger had informed me that "the road is in good condition to Cane Spring Trailhead, and that most cars wouldn't have a problem. It's listed as a 4WD road only because it's not maintained." Bluntly, this was not the case. After crossing the creek in my Subaru Outback and traveling another quarter mile or so through a spider web of boulder-laden paths with no signage or reasonable passable route, we backtracked to Cottonwood Camp. We'd already wasted an hour on this road and figured the extra five miles of hike would be a better option than continuing forward with the car. Honestly, you'll need ATV's, dirt bikes, or a very rugged truck to make it to Cane Spring Trailhead.
Hike: While Cottonwood Camp is supposed to be a trailhead itself, there is no marking, no visible trail and no signage. We started off going southeast along a dried creek bed, hoping to come across Soldier Trail (84). Probably a quarter mile in I spotted a cairn, which led us to a good foot path. This meandered up and down some hills for a little more than two miles until we met back up with the 4x4 road, FS401. These two miles offered some of the densest Jumping Cholla vegetation I've ever seen, with the tops of the cacti absolutely littering the trail. We each ended up kicking a couple of these pods, which stuck to our boots and worked their way up into our legs pretty quickly.
Following FS401 another three miles by foot took us to Cane Spring Trailhead and the Alder Trail (82), where we continued along a fairly recognizable trail for another three miles before it abruptly stopped. At this point we were about 8 miles in, and realized that the trail had actually taken us off course. We'd followed it too high and too far north, an easy thing to do when it's the only trail out there. A little bummed about the unnecessary climbing, we had to backtrack a quarter mile or so to where the trail was supposed to head due east and downhill. From here, the next ten miles turned out to offer no trail whatsoever.
We bushwhacked our way to another dry creek bed that led us to Adam's Camp, and every so often we would spot a cairn in the distance. Unfortunately, we could not see the next cairn from the one we were standing at, ever, so we followed compass direction, elevation and the lay of the land. Bushwhacking until we found the intersection of the deceptive "Trail 82" and Alder Creek, we decided it was time to set up camp for the night. We had made it about 11 miles through the brush, and it was getting dark. The eastern slope of Alder Creek offered a good clear camping spot a couple hundred yards up from the intersection point.
As we discussed over our campfire that night, we knew we had about 5.5 miles to go up the creek until we would intersect with the Four Peaks Trail (130). The decision was that we should be able to complete that distance by noon, with a 7:30 AM departure. Unfortunately, again, not the case... we got to the Four Peaks Trail a little after 5:00 PM, scratched, bruised, and worse for the wear. With no trail to follow, we had kept to the creek for the most part. Every so often though, the creek would prove impassable, and we had to go into the desert. Each of these trips helped validate our opinion that the creek is the path of least resistance. Cat's Claw was abundant, and it ripped our arms and clothes to shreds.
After we'd each taken a few missed steps in the creek and ended up soaking our boots, we gave in and decided to just hike through the water whenever it seemed like the easier path. There were a number of waterfalls that were fun to climb, and a few technical spots, but nothing that required the ropes - just a bit of creativity.
While it was the path of least resistance, the 5.5 miles took almost nine hours to complete, way too slow for our plan. This was with lunch on the go, hardly a break and a pretty good pace. At about 5200 feet altitude we knew to leave the creek and climb to Brown's Saddle in the east. I have to say this climb was one of the tougher things I've done. Lush vegetation (fortunately now above the Cat's Claw elevation) meant that each step required forcing ourselves through a bush, grabbing the branches above and pulling ourselves up. Any clearings provided dry sand that broke away with every step, so it was a full body workout to get to the top. And as I raised my arms in celebration as I finally made it, I crashed right into the overgrown barbed wire fence along the rim.
Alas, we were at the saddle and could see the Four Peaks trail off in the distance. The sun was just above the horizon and we had a ways to go still.
In planning the trip, the goal was to take the Four Peaks Trail to Alder Saddle, and then bushwhack the ridge to Brown's Peak, taking Brown's Trail (133) back to the car at Lone Pine Trailhead. This would be a great option for a three-day trip, but with the sun setting and work the next day we decided to skip the summit. We'll be back for the day hike to the top sometime soon.
The last five miles out on the Four Peaks trail were easy enough. We missed a sign at one point that had fallen over, and ended up climbing practically to Alder Saddle before realizing the mistake. A little backtrack to the turn as we flipped on our headlamps, and we continued on. The Civic appeared around 8:30. We all hugged it, called those who were worried about us, and drove home.
Summary: If you're looking for a good, challenging hike, I would highly recommend this one. Make sure you're in shape, mentally stable and ready for work though, or you will not appreciate that recommendation. Nor will you appreciate it if you enjoy the smooth texture of your arms, prior to constant battle with Cat's Claw. To do it right, take three days and hit the summit on day three before heading out at a reasonable hour in daylight. Also, getting to Cottonwood Camp the first night would help, rather than driving there in the morning of the first day. And unless you have very rugged transportation, don't even think about getting to Cane Spring Trailhead. It's a waste of time to even try.
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.