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Look out for birders!
• Maple Camp, 1.6 miles, 5620'
• The trail leaves the South Fork and climbs up a side canyon for the Crest Trail, 3.8 miles, 6160'
• Bowl on the north side of Sentinel Peak, 5.4 miles, 7200'
• West to Crest Trail, 6.8 miles, 8900'
The trail (#243) along the South Fork of Cave Creek in the Chiricahuas starts in riparian woodlands (oaks, sycamore, cypress, ash, and walnut). The trailhead has parking for ten or so cars, and there is a toilet and a scattering of picnic tables. This stretch of the South Fork is an international destination for birders seeking to add the Elegant Trogan, painted redstart, and red-faced warbler to their life lists, among many others. The valley is several hundred yards wide at the trailhead, and, depending on the time of year, there may be no water in the creekbed.
Poison ivy grows well in the South Fork and can look like innocuous sticks if it has not leafed out.
There are five distinct segments from the trailhead to the Crest Trail (#270) that make up the 7 miles and 3600 feet of elevation gain.
The broad and well-used trail climbs imperceptibly (about 400 feet) over the 1.6 miles from the trailhead to Maple Camp. There are six water crossings. In May, these are merely dry and rocky streambeds. Depending on rains and snowmelt (March and July through September), the creek can be high and rushing... if the first crossing is a challenge, every crossing will pose a hazard!
The trail junction at Maple Camp (WP: N31.84985 W109.19837, 5650 ft) has a trail (#240) that climbs steeply up the south side of the canyon toward Horseshoe Saddle and Burro Springs. A ten-minute walk up this trail rewards spectacular views of rock formations that line the South Fork Canyon.
Upstream for about two miles from Maple Camp, big-tooth maples occupy the floor of the narrow canyon. In late October and November, the colors rival the best seen anywhere. There is an excellent place to camp about a quarter mile up the canyon from Maple Camp, and there is a spectacular overlook into the canyon about a mile farther. The trail narrows but is still well-used. Views of balanced rocks and spires abound. The trail climbs gradually (about 700 feet) from Maple Camp to the point where the trail leaves the South Fork and climbs south up a side canyon toward Sentinel Peak and the Crest Trail. Note that the departure point is the last place to find water year-round.
There is an old trail marked on the USGS topo maps that connect the South Fork and Snowshed Trails that I have looked for over the past couple of years. I have found traces of this trail about one mile above Maple Camp on the South Fork Trail. Two drainages come down from Snowshed Ridge, and the trail climbs north and west along the western drainage coming down from Fossil Saddle. From Snowshed Trail at Fossil Saddle, the trail to the spring (seep) is overgrown with many trees across it.
There is also an "illegals" trail that leaves the South Fork at about the same spot as the old trail but goes straight up the eastern drainage to Cypress Saddle. In the Cachor Taylor book, "It is 1 mile (from Maple Camp) to the junction with the old trail up to Snowshed Ridge. The 2 miles, 2000 foot climb to Cypress Saddle, despite its initial appearance, has disappeared for most of its length." (Note that he says the trail goes to Cypress, not Fossil Saddle). Ron Pelech noted an apple tree in bloom in April 2008 on the north side of the trail in this same area.
The trail turns up a side canyon - Burnt Stump Canyon because there is a junction with the Burnt Stump Trail in about 2 miles (WP: N31.83629 W109.22473, 6200 ft) and is easy to follow since it was cleared and brushed in September 2009. The trail follows the bottom of the canyon. The trail climbs about 1000 feet (6200 to 7200 ft) through mixed conifers and aspens. There is a spire - the Column (WP: N31.82809 W109.22676, 6750 ft) on the west side about 3/4 mile above the departure from the South Fork that is worth the journey and a photo. Large debris flows (probably after the 1994 Rattlesnake Fire) in the canyon's upper reaches have filled the canyon floor to such an extent that the trail blazes on one tree are only about two feet above the ground.
N.B. MapSource Topo has the Monte Vista Lookout mislocated about 1/4 mile west of the trail. The latitude is correct, but the longitude is not. The lookout's actual location is N31.82517, W109.31534 (not 109.23153), about 5 miles to the west.
This segment of the trail ends at a large ponderosa marked with trail blazes (approx WP: N31.82197 W109.22900, 7200 ft) where three small drainages come together.
The canyon opens into a bowl (the Burnt Stump Basin) with three drainages. The trail is well-marked and cleared along the right-hand or north side of the rightmost or westerly trending drainage. Again, clearing and brushing in September 2009 make this trail easy to follow. The trail crosses to the south side of the drainage after 1/4 mile and switchbacks another 1/4 mile to the junction (WP: N31.81837 W109.23621) with the Burnt Stump Trail (#366) at 7600 ft. At the junction, the trail to the east goes to Burnt Stump Spring (WP N31 48.822 W109 14.099, the spring typically has water depending on rain and snowfall except for June and early July) and the Horseshoe Ridge Trail (WP N31 48.885 W109 13.958). The trail to the right goes to the Crest Trail. Beyond the junction, the trail is easy to follow (good tread, flagging, and rocks) but has trees across it. The trail climbs with switchbacks, crosses the drainage again, and crosses back to another switchback that eaches the '94 burn. The junction to the burn is about a mile and a climb of 600 ft (7600 to 8200 ft) through mixed conifers that form a good canopy with an open understory. The last bit of trail is at WP N31 49.302 W109 14.606 with 1/4 mile and 600 feet remaining to the Crest.
This last piece of the trail climbs from 8200 to 8800 ft over a less than 1/2 mile across the '94 burn. It is dauntingly open and stark and has a feeling of being above treeline except for all the snags and fallen timber. Grasses, bracken, raspberries, and other flowers and brush cover the hillsides. A volunteer crew cleared this trail segment to the Crest in March 2011. The May 2011 Horseshoe II fire crossed this area with low intensity, so there is significant erosion, but the trail is still easy to find. South Fork - Crest junction (WP N31 49.152 W109 14.874). In late summer, this slope is perfect for raspberries.
The view from the top is unobstructed! There are views into Cave Creek and Portal and out into the San Simon Valley and the Peloncillos. Views to the south are of the southern Chiricahuas and the ranges that run east of Douglas into Mexico.
To reach Sentinel Peak, follow the faint trace of the Crest Trail that runs about 1/2 mile around the southwest side of Finnicum Peak to a saddle and bushwack to the top. Another spring (PK Spring, N31 48.882 W109 14.925) is down a series of switchbacks into Baker Canyon.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.