This hike is basically the Superstition Mountains' greatest hits. Here's how to do it

Mare Czinar
Special for The Republic
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Garden Valley, on the western edge of the 160,200-acre Superstition Wilderness east of Phoenix, is one of those places that sears vivid images into the memories of those who trek through it. 

Rife with otherworldly scenes of desert life in an environment sculpted out of ancient volcanic ash, the area’s story arc spools out from violent origins, cataclysmic geological events, erosion and resurgence.

Between 25 and 15 million years ago the craggy backcountry was a roiling cauldron of molten rock and white-hot ash that eventually collapsed on itself, forming a series of depressions called calderas.  The grand scale “super-volcano” activity was like what’s incubating beneath Yellowstone National Park right now.

Ringed by mesas, mountain ranges and bizarre pillars and piles of solidified ash or “welded tuff,” the yawning basins have settled into a quiet old age marked by a slow-motion epoch of falling apart.

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How to hike the Second Water Trail in the Superstitions

The Second Water Trail offers an approachable option for exploring this haunting hinterland of rugged terrain and mysterious tales of hidden gold caches and lost souls.

Beginning at the First Water trailhead roughly 45 miles from downtown Phoenix near Apache Junction, Second Water Trail is accessed by following the Dutchmans Trail 0.3 mile to the first signed junction.

Four Peaks viewed from the Second Water Trail in the Superstition Mountains.

Twisting over slickrock and sections of crumbling stone, the trail bends northeast, flanking scoured gorges above the course of First Water Creek.

Recent wildfire damage has left spots of charred cholla and scarred saguaros, but expansive views of the Goldfield Mountains, Superstition ridgeline, the Flatiron and iconic Weavers Needle remain as breathtaking as ever.

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Connect with Black Mesa, Hackberry Spring trails for a longer hike

The trail swings by the junctions for Black Mesa and Hackberry Spring trails, which may be used to build longer loop hikes.

The trail continues through a series of rocky uphill segments that land hikers in the heart of Garden Valley — a sprawling flatland dominated by chain fruit cholla, prickly pear cactus, jojoba, mesquite, hackberry shrubs and fields of wildflowers.

Chain fruit cholla in Garden Valley in the Superstition Mountains.

This once botanically lush plateau took a major wildfire hit, but many survivor specimens and green sprouts pushing out from deadwood hint at recovery.

Here, the massive forms of Hackberry Mesa, Four Peaks and the mountains around Canyon Lake to the north begin to stand out on the horizon. Plant life grows more robust as the route starts a spiral down into a reedy, damp gorge where it intersects the Boulder Canyon Trail, the turnaround point for this hike.

A major geological upheaval notwithstanding, the slow-burn erosion and superficial smudges incurred regularly on the Second Water Trail are barely perceivable over a single human lifetime.

Fires, rock falls, flood displacements and seasonal transitions are like costume changes in a long-running show with ear worm tunes that hijack the mind but somehow never get old.

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Superstition Mountains hike: Second Water Trail

Length: 7 miles round trip.

Rating: Easy to moderate.

Elevation: 1,940-2,420 feet (878 feet of accumulated elevation change).

Getting there: From Phoenix, take U.S. 60 east to Exit 196 for Idaho Road (State Route 88). Turn left and follow Idaho to SR 88, turn right and continue to First Water Road (Forest Road 78), which is about a half mile past the entrance to Lost Dutchman State Park and is signed for First Water Trailhead. Turn right and go 2.6 miles to the trailhead. FR 78 is maintained dirt with some potholes and washboard sections passable by carefully driven sedans.

Details: http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto/recarea/?recid=35525.

Read more of Mare Czinar's hikes at http://arizonahiking.blogspot.com.

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