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How to Plan a Backpacking Trip in Arizona's Superstition Wilderness

Arizona Backpacking
by Megan Hill Jun 16, 2023

Arizona is home to some seriously jaw-dropping scenery, like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Antelope Canyon. But those stunners are far from any major city.

Fortunately, just an hour from Phoenix sits an untouched swath of pristine Sonoran Desert: the Superstition Wilderness. It’s known for its red-rock spires and lanky saguaro cacti, as well as fairly small crowds compared to the destinations above. It offers equally stunning vistas, is full of wildlife, and has miles of trails to explore. That makes it an excellent place to backpack, especially if you only have one or two nights to spare or planning a last-minute trip.

Here’s everything to know about backpacking the Superstition Wilderness, plus all the detail you need for permits and planning.

What to expect in the Superstition Wilderness

Saguaro cacti in Tonto National Monument is a National Monument in the Superstition Mountains

Photo: meunierd/Shutterstock

Thanks to urban sprawl, it’s getting harder and harder to find undeveloped areas of the Sonoran Desert around Phoenix. But the Superstitions are fairly close to the country’s fifth-largest city, and the drive only takes about an hour, depending on your entry point.

Superstition Wilderness is populated by ring-tailed cats, coyotes, javelinas (which look like little wild boars), and even mountain lions. The designated wilderness area covers more than 160,000 acres and was originally designated as a federally protected wilderness in 1939. Near the center is the gutted core of an extinct volcano, the eruption of which shaped much of the park’s surrounding volcanic landscape. The arid landscape is filled with several species of cacti, some more than 40 feet tall and nearly 100 years old.

The human history here is storied, too. There’s a legend about a lost gold mine that still intrigues treasure seekers today, and there are “superstitions” about hikers regularly disappearing here. Apache lore even holds that the mountains cradle the entrance to hell. While no one advises you get lost, you should plan to get mentally lost once you set up camp, enjoying the dark sky, bright stars, and quiet beauty that’s hard to find in most of Arizona’s urban areas.

Backpacking route options in the Superstitions

Peralta Canyon East of Phoenix

Photo: Jon Endicott/Shutterstock

Several popular trails and routes run through the Superstitions, including the popular Peralta to First Water trail, an 11.5-mile route that can be done as a day hike or an overnight. The trail is heavily populated due to the relatively easy access. But venture beyond that route, and you’ll likely encounter few other hikers, even just five miles from your car. In fact, there are around 180 miles of trails threading the wilderness, so it’s easy to build your own route by knitting together multiple trails to form a multi-day loop.

It’s hard to go wrong with just about any route here, but consider looping through Peralta Canyon to the Fremont Saddle overlook of Weavers Needle, a popular rock climbing spot. If you take that route to Weaver’s Needle and back, it’s 8.1 miles and 2,550 feet of elevation gain for the full out-and-back. If you’d like to make it into a longer trip, you can do the full Weaver’s Needle loop to make it into a 12.5-mile route.

Other good routes include the Boulder Canyon Loop Trail (18.2 miles, 2,750-foot gain) or the Canyon Lake Trail (15.4-miles, also a 2,740-foot gain), which winds through the western side of the Superstitions. You can also combine multiple routes for an even longer backpacking trip.

When to go

superstition wilderness wildflowers in arizona

Photo: LHBLLC/Shutterstock

Winter (from December to February) in the Superstitions is usually mild, with temperatures ranging from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a good time to go if you don’t mind slightly colder nights. March to May is the peak season for wildflowers and has moderate temperatures, ranging from 50 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also the most popular time to backpack Superstition Wilderness, so it’s likely when you’ll see other people the most.

June to August is hot and dry and generally not recommended for backpacking, given the lack of water and potentially three-digit temperatures. Fall’s temperatures are similar to spring, but the chance of rain is higher.

Hazards and risks

Mountain Superstition at Lost Dutchman SP with an Ocotillo Cactus in the foreground

Photo: Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock

Though they’re close to a major downtown area, the Superstitions are sneakily dangerous. This is a rugged wilderness, with trails that range from well-marked to barely-there washes. Cell phone coverage is iffy, and backpackers should have a physical map and orientation tools.

They’re called the Superstitions for a reason: this wilderness has a Bermuda Triangle-like effect on hikers, and people routinely get lost here. Whether it’s some sort of supernatural force at work, the lure of rumored buried treasure, or just the nature of these mountains, it’s important to take adequate precautions. If you’re uncertain about your abilities, local guide service Arizona Outback Adventures leads guided Superstitions trips that are perfect for backpackers of various ages and experience levels. Start with a day hike before you spend the night.

Permits and regulations

Overnight visitors to Tonto National Forest (where you’ll find Superstition Wilderness) do not need to buy permits in advance. Group size is limited to 15 people and 15 head of livestock, and the Forest Service requires you not stay longer than 14 days. Otherwise, practice “Leave No Trace” principles: tread lightly, respect the landscape and other visitors, and pack out your trash. And remember: it’s okay to leave it better than you found it, and you can pack out trash even if you didn’t leave it there.

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