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Sierra Ancha Cliff Dwelling Bushwhack, AZ
mini location map2021-08-21
13 by photographer avatarJohn10s
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Sierra Ancha Cliff Dwelling Bushwhack, AZ 
Sierra Ancha Cliff Dwelling Bushwhack, AZ
Hiking avatar Aug 21 2021
Hiking9.84 Miles 2,514 AEG
Hiking9.84 Miles   7 Hrs   55 Mns   1.55 mph
2,514 ft AEG   1 Hour   33 Mns Break
Linked none no linked trail guides
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During the Tonto National Forest closure earlier this summer, I spent some time researching the locations of a few of the lesser-known cliff dwelling sites in the Sierra Anchas and came away a pretty good idea where two or three of them were located. We set out today looking for one specific site that I'd spotted from a long distance on a previous hike. Even though I'd seen it from far away, getting over there was sure to be always looks simple from a mile away, but the brush and the terrain are rarely simple up close. Studying topo maps, I drew up a route and hoped for the best...

After all the rain this summer, the Sierra Anchas had more water than I'd ever seen and plenty of wildflowers. The trail was extremely overgrown, to the point that it was almost nonexistent in a lot of places, and I had hedge clippers out most of the day, clearing a path along the way. The last stretch of trail before we exited toward the ruins was rough, with several areas where rocks and trees had fallen across the trail toward steep drop-offs and talus slopes.

Shortly before we left the trail, I noticed a large cave up in the canyon wall that I recognized from an old photo I came across during my research, a location that has another cliff dwelling. The cave was so high in the wall and the trees and brush on the steep slope leading up to it were thick enough that we couldn't see anything inside, but we decided to explore that on the way out and continue toward our first destination.

The on-trail portion of the route was already overgrown, but the off-trail stretch was essentially a wall of thorn-covered branches that felt like nature's version of a barbed wire fence. As soon as we left the trail, we were crossing a rocky slope covered in thick thorns. I continued trimming branches as we inched along, but that killed our pace. We were approaching our turnaround time, and I could tell the bushwhacking would take more time than we had today. My partner waited in a small clearing while I pushed through more brush and continued exploring in the direction of the ruins for a few more minutes. The brush finally opened up a little, and I ended up ~0.15 mile from the waypoint I'd marked, but it was still going to take a lot of time. I couldn't see through all the trees up toward the cliff wall with the ruins, but I suspected it was a few hundred feet above and further along the wall. Close, but not enough time today...

As I headed back into the brush toward my partner, I heard a rattle and saw a fairly large rattlesnake 5-10 feet away. It wasn't coiled and slithered away. Going through all that brush today without being able to see what we were stepping on most of the time, we got very lucky that we didn't have any closer encounters with snakes than that...

We bushwhacked back to the trail and headed back to explore the cave we'd spotted on the way in. Given our time constraints and the steep approach, my partner stayed behind while I started up. The first 15 feet of the climb were the most challenging, with lots of loose dirt and rock...higher up, the slope leveled off slightly and there were more trees to grab onto. When I reached the base of the cliff, I found a metal memorial sign to the left of the cave that said, "Herb, 56 99, Outdoorsman." If anyone knows the history behind the sign, I'd love to hear it.

The cave was enormous, but the opening was ~15 feet up from the base of the cliff and not easily accessible. Standing directly below it, I still couldn't see inside. The vertical wall just left of the cave looked reasonably climbable, with quite a few hand and footholds, and someone had piled rocks at the base of the wall for better access to the footholds. I'm sure decent climbers would have no problem going up, and I desperately wanted to make the climb, but being up there by myself, I figured it wasn't wise to take any chances and risk a crippling fall, lest I end up with a memorial next to Herb's :).

[ youtube video ]

I looked for alternate routes into the cave from the right side and from directly below it, but that vertical wall on the left looked like the best option...but not today. Based on the research I'd done, I think there's two-level cliff dwelling in that cave, so it was disappointing to get so close and walk away...another site I'll have to come back and visit on a day with more time and when I can bring partner(s) up there so we can try to make the climb. I need to plan a camping trip out there to give myself a full day to explore without the long drive at both ends of the day.

By the time we wrapped up the hike, we'd covered almost 10 miles, many of those very slowly through thick brush. At the end of the day, I was covered in blood, scratches, and tattered clothes...I looked like I'd spent the day in a small room with a bunch of angry cats :). Even though we came up short on both sites (~0.15 miles from the first site, and ~10 yards below the second one ](*,) ), I always enjoy days like these, exploring hard-to-reach destinations. And finding a second ruins site en route to the first one was an unexpected bonus...I'll hopefully be back soon to try it again.
Indian Paintbrush

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