A lasso with a split the loop option
2013 Note: Official Route modified to park approved access.
Overview: At the head of a small canyon in the southwestern reaches of Phoenix's South Mountain Park sits the remains of a sprawling structure, the history of which appears open for speculation. Known by City Park staff as "Lost Camp," and likely many other terms, the remains sit near evidence of late 1800's-era mining activity, which may help explain it's origins.
Several trails criss-cross the area; and the Park will be developing more. Three heritage trails from the mining days and the National Trail can be linked to form a lasso, with a "split the loop" option. Any combination of the loops yield a trip of 5 miles or less, and it's a thousand feet up the mountain, and down, any way you do it.
The trail head is (removed, as of 2013 use the Pyramid Trailhead).
Hike: (follow posted Offical Route now, the first sentence and a half are old data) Enter the park through the Ironwood tree thicket at the park border and proceed a short ways to a 4-way junction, crossing a drainage as you go. Take a right turn to stay on an old road winding around the toe of the ridge on the left (northwest). This route soon joins another old road that heads northwesterly up canyon. Drop into a drainage and follow the trail to a wide wash entering from the right (north). Guide stones draw you up this side wash; watch for a relatively obscure cairn marking an equally obscure trail joining from the right. This route will take you up out of the wash where the steep trail ahead comes into view. The path winds up the hill, staying in the morning shade on the west side of the mountain, till it breaks out at a saddle offering views of Ahwaukee to the southeast, the South Mountain towers to and peak 2241 to the east.
Portions of this route are something of a huffer, being very steep with no level spots till you near top, where the trail seems to disappear briefly till you crest the top and see it winding ahead towards a junction with the National Trail. At the base of this slight hill one must decide whether to stay left and drop back down the "split" of the loop or head right towards the National Trail and do the (outer) lasso loop.
Dropping down the "split" one finds a steep trail passing a prospect cut into the mountain on the left, then dumping out at the head of substantial mine works with open shafts. Stay out of these holes and off the news; rock flaking is clearly evident on the roof of these openings. Explore the old workings, roads and spoils piles from a safe distance, then find the trail to the southwest back to the wash you came in on. Here you have another choice, you can head directly back to the trail head; or you can follow guide stones and a short trail to the west and join the trail to the remains of the old camp, then head back to the trail head.
To do the outer lasso loop, at the junction on top of the mountain stay right (north) up a gentle slope and then bear left (west-northwest) where you will soon join the National Trail. After 8/10ths mile along the National Trail a not-so-obvious route departs to the left, in the afternoon shade of a small palo verde tree. This trail drops to a level spot strewn with rocks, then bears left and begins its serious descent along the inside of the canyon. The drainage is to the left, the mountain to the right. Heading east, then wrapping around to the right, the trail drops quickly towards Lost Camp. Watch for a narrow spur trail to old mine workings slightly above the trail on the right. There is not much up there but go take a look if you like.
The trail continues its sharp decline till it bottoms out at a wider wash immediately east of the old camp remains. Proceed across and up the other side to explore the foundations, floors and fire place; let your imagination run as to what you are looking at. Local lore holds that it was once a speakeasy, nudist camp, executive retreat, miners' accommodations or ?.
From here the route back is obvious; follow the remains of the road southeast back towards the trail head. Where it crosses the wash, stay right on the trail through the wash and back up onto the desert, avoid the trail that stays to the left in the wash, it is the western reach of the Desert Classic which crosses the wash here. Once out of the wash on the wide trail/road, watch for the route you arrived on which now bears right (south) as you pass the toe of the mountain ridge on your right. Follow this to the four-way junction where you want to stay left a few minutes to the trail head.
From the Ahwatukee Foothills News
- Marty Gibson
We’ve got the mystery, now all we need is the history. Tucked up against the foot of South Mountain near the end of Chandler Boulevard lie the remains of a structure that cries out for explanation and historical context. Or rather, it is we who cry out.
Phoenix’s South Mountain Park Rangers refer to the mystery structure ---a multi-level concrete foundation with two stone fireplaces nestled on a plateau backing up to the mountain and looking south toward the Gila River Indian Reservation--- as “The Lost Ranch”. Easily accessed via a trailhead and natural wash not far from where the road dead-ends at 17th Avenue, the ruins sit roughly a half-mile or so north of the nearest neighborhood. Scores of curious hikers routinely pass it, unaware of just what it is that sits before them.
What was the approximately 2,000 square-foot structure in its heyday ---and when may that have been? Could the building have been a private residence? A miners’ camp? Perhaps a government work project? No one, including the rangers, seems to know. Public records which might explain the circumstances, background or intent of the structure and whoever built it are seemingly non-existent. What is certain is that long ago, someone went to a lot of trouble to build a structure that has partially survived well beyond its original intended purpose. An air of mystery prevails.
In an attempt to unravel the mystery, three local gents who spent most of their lives in and around the Kyrene Farming Community and later Ahwatukee Foothills were consulted. Tom Carney is 91, Jack Owens is 86 and Owens’ cousin, Tom Owens, passed away at age 89 last March. All three are and were pretty familiar with just about everything that went on in these parts from the 1920’s-on, and each does or did possess powers of recall belying their years.
If Tom Owens knew the secret of the ruins he never let on. Owens recalled dancing to a portable radio with a group of friends on the structure’s concrete slab as a young man in the late 1930s and 1940s. Some 70 years later, Owens said that the structure had no walls back then and didn’t look a whole lot different than it does now. Although a lifelong hiker and friend of Owens, it was only recently that Tom Carney viewed the structure for the first time. His rough measurement resulted in his guesstimate of the size of the mystery building at approximately 2,000 square-feet.
Thus, it falls to Jack Owens to provide us with the few tantalizing shreds of information that we know about the place, as handed down to him by his father when Jack was in his teens. Mac Owens, who built the Pima Ranch outbuildings described in last month’s column, was born in 1900 and lived in Phoenix before moving to the Kyrene area in the 1920s. According to Mac, after World War I he and his friends would ride their Indian motorcycles south from Phoenix along 51st Avenue toward the St. John’s Mission on the Gila Indian Indian Reservation, southwest of today’s Ahwatukee Foothills. Having passed South Mountain on the west, the group would turn back around the south side of the mountain and navigate some dirt trails several miles into the foothills.
For the majority of the 20th century, Chandler Boulevard extended west only as far as 32nd Street. Unlike today, The Lost Ranch could be accessed only from the west in Mac’s day, and even then only via horse or motorcycle. No roads were remotely in its vicinity. Mac described horse-and-buggy transportation to and from the structure, which was most certainly a building of some kind and which Mac said had a reputation as a “wild place”. Frustratingly, no further elaboration was provided. Jack was never given a description of the physical premises or who might have owned it, and has no idea of the circumstances that led to its apparent deconstruction and the condition in which we find it today. Mac died in 1969.
And so we are left with just a theory, an educated guess about the ruins which taunt us and leave us with more questions than answers. Who built it? How did he or they get supplies, materials and liquid refreshments in? What became of the roof and walls? While Jack Owens doesn’t know, he believes that the structure very well could have been a Prohibition-era (1920-33) speakeasy. Tom Owens was certain that at least one existed in the foothills of South Mountain, and said that The Lost Ranch very well could have been it. Tom Carney, wryly observing that “there was no building permit for that thing,” doesn’t disagree.
Pre-dating South Mountain Park, established in 1924, the “wild place” of young Mac Owens lives on. Unfortunately, with each passing year the likelihood of ever discovering the true history of The Lost Ranch fades. If only fireplaces could talk.
- Marty Gibson is a 20-year resident of the community and the author of Phoenix's Ahwatukee Foothills by Arcadia Publishing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.