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McFadden Horse Trail #146, AZ

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Difficulty 3 of 5
Route Finding 2 of 5
Distance Round Trip 8.25 miles
Trailhead Elevation 5,681 feet
Elevation Gain 1,840 feet
Accumulated Gain 2,184 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 5.5 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 19.17
Backpack Possible - Not Popular
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Horsing Around in the Sierra Ancha
19  2020-04-06
Horsing Around in the Sierra Ancha
18  2019-10-16
The McFaddens & Elephant Rock Arch
25  2017-09-30 RedRoxx44
9  2017-04-29 chumley
20  2016-08-24
15  2016-08-12 dieanotherday15
12  2015-09-19
McFadden Super Loop
Page 1,  2,  3
Author PrestonSands
author avatar Guides 169
Routes 148
Photos 5,615
Trips 1,493 map ( 7,566 miles )
Age 43 Male Gender
Location Oro Valley, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Apr, May, Sep, Oct → Any
Seasons   Spring to Late Autumn
Sun  5:13am - 7:37pm
Official Route
7 Alternative

Battle for the saddle
by PrestonSands

The McFadden Horse Trail #146 takes one across the flattened, horseshoe-shaped top of McFadden Horse Mountain, at the northern end of the Sierra Ancha Wilderness. A challenge in route finding, this trail rewards you with a prehistoric ruin and a spectacular view of the rugged Cherry Creek area. This description begins at the bottom end of the trail along Highway 288. One can also access this hike via the Cienega Trail #145, which joins up from Forest Road #235. That option adds another 4.5 round trip miles to the statistics listed for this hike.

McFadden Horse Mountain derives its name from William McFadden, who had been a part of a vigilante group during the Pleasant Valley War. McFadden later settled in the Sierra Ancha, founding the Circle Ranch on McFadden Creek, at the western foot of the mountain that bears his name.

At the end of the McFadden Horse Trail, one reaches an overlook of a prehistoric ruin known as Elephant Rock Fortress. Elephant Rock Fortress, according to Richard C. Lange, author of Echoes In The Canyons, "has several levels of surrounding walls and perhaps four rooms on the highest level. Only undecorated, heavy plain ware was found at the site, and it seems to be prehistoric."

From the trailhead pull off spot at milepost 288 on state highway 288, the McFadden Horse Trail passes a small trail sign while charging up a steep ponderosa slope, following an eroded jeep trail. Quickly gaining elevation, the trail reaches a ridge top at one-half mile, which it follows to a junction with the Cienega Trail in a small saddle at one mile. A sign for the McFadden Horse Trail marks the junction, and the trail renews its vigorous climb by switchbacking up the ridge, where one can look across to the Armer Mountain area. Grey limestone along this stretch, composed of stromatolites (fossilized algae) soon gives way to orange quartzite. The ridge quickly transitions into a sloping bench of ponderosa and juniper, and the trail passes a sign for the Sierra Ancha Wilderness.

Leaving the bench, the McFadden Horse Trail zigzags up the increasingly steep western rim of McFadden Horse Mountain, finally reaching the top at about 1.9 miles (33.88639 N, 110.94503 W), where there is a fine view to the west of the entire Mazatzal range. The previously distinct footpath now disappears, and one must now rely completely on cairns for the remainder of the hike. Fortunately, the cairns are numerous and well placed.

The McFadden Horse Trail heads east from the top of the rim and soon turns south, gently climbing among tall pines. The trail arrives at a sign for the summit at 2.4 miles, where there is a summit cairn and register (33.88011 N, 110.94213 W). The trail continues heading southeast from the summit, gradually curving northeast, and then north, as it rolls along a rocky mountain top of agaves and junipers.

At just over 3 miles, the McFadden Horse Trail suddenly drops off the mountain top (33.88279 N, 110.93558 W), and heads straight downhill through tall pines to cross the head of a small drainage at the 7200-foot contour.

Turning north again at the drainage, the trail climbs atop the ridge that forms McFadden Horse Mountain's eastern arm. The trail follows the gentle ridge northward and occasionally offers a peek over the massive cliffs to the right.

By 4 miles, the ridge has narrowed considerably, and the trail appears to come to an end at a rocky overlook. Keep heading down the spine of the ridge, and you will come to the very end of the trail in one-tenth of a mile, at a spectacular and somewhat terrifying overlook (33.89519 N, 110.93253 W). A notch in the ridge separates you from Elephant Rock. One can look across the gap at the crumbled walls of Elephant Rock Fortress, behind which lies the vast expanse of the Mogollon Rim. The best view, perhaps, is below, where the eastern edge of the mountain falls away into Cherry Creek's abyss. Massive cliffs and jagged formations of colorful Precambrian quartzite make for a truly unforgettable view.

There is only one way back. Just follow those cairns.

(Page updated on 2009-09-01)

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2006-06-17 PrestonSands
    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.

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    FR / Dirt Road / Gravel - Car Okay

    To McFadden Trailhead
    Getting to the McFadden Trailhead is easy if you can remember this phrase: "288 on 288". In other words, the trailhead is at mile marker 288 on Highway 288. From Highway 188, you'll turn on Highway 288 and go 30-35 miles. The trailhead is on the right side of the road, just across from a green mile marker sign that says "288". The parking area has room for 4-5 cars.

    From PHX (I-10 & AZ-51) - 2 h 30 min (127 miles)
    From TUC (Jct 1-10 & Grant) - 3 h 12 min (150 miles)
    From FLG (Jct I-17 & I-40) - 3 h 39 min (184 miles)
    90+° 8am - 6pm kills
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