Friday, January 6, 2012

Hiking Waterfall Trail at the White Tank Mountains

Waterfall Trail White Tank Mountains.

The appeal of a waterfall at the end of the trail probably makes the White Tank Mountains Waterfall Trail one of the most popular trails in the county (link to White Tank Mountains Park).  While the end goal might be reaching a waterfall, the scenery along the way can make the trip quite enjoyable.  Added to that, remnants of an ancient culture, easy accessibility, and a relatively short round trip, all make a good quality hiking experience for just about anyone. This year one of my new year resolutions is to hike 150 miles and to blog about it here.  I hopefully will be giving you a short nature guide tour on-line.  I want to visit each of the parks within the Maricopa County Parks system.  Which maybe will be just interesting and maybe will be helpful to you if you hike the Sonoran Desert.  Also, it might just inspire you to go hiking and do a little nature walk of your own.  This hike ticks off two of the 150 miles.
The hill or mountain side on the White Tank Mountains Waterfall Trail is rocky and drier than the adjacent bajada.  It therefore has more of an abundance of palo verde, brittlebrush and barrel cactus.
Beginning at the parking lot, the trail is very flat and universally accessible.  The first half mile or so hikes along a granite mountain or hillside to the left, and a relatively flat bajada, or alluvial fan, to the right.  Looking closely, there are some obvious differences between the mountain side and bajada.  The mountain side being obviously more rocky has a greater abundance of palo verde trees, barrel cacti, and brittle bush.  These plants are more highly adapted to rocky and droughty conditions of the hillside than to the deeper soils that absorb more water below.  On the bajada side there are far fewer rocks and much deeper soils.  Deeply rooted Ironwood trees and creosote brush take hold in this deeper soil.  There is also an abundance of triangle-leaf bursage, an indicator of a well developed soil, typically with caliche, a hard calcium deposit a few feet under the surface. 
The upper portion of a bajada along the White Tank Mountains Waterfall Trail.  Here the deeper bajada soils support more deeply rooted plants such as ironwood and some creosote bush.  Triangle-leaf bursage is also abundant and indicates a well developed soil, likely with caliche.  
At the end of the flat paved portion you will finally reach Petroglyph Plaza, an ancient art and story gallery of the Hohokam Indians.  These petroglyphs were carved into the black veneer that covers most of these large blocks of granite.  The black veneer is technically called “desert varnish” and is quite common on desert rocks that have been exposed to the atmosphere for long periods of time.  Bacteria form the varnish by carrying out a chemical reaction with dust that falls on the rock, forming the black covering.  The thicker and blacker the varnish, the longer the rock has been sitting in one location.  Most of the petroglyphs were made around 1000 years ago and too be honest we really don’t know what most of them mean.  Their meanings were lost with the Hohokam culture when they abandoned the Whitetanks about 700 years ago.
Petroglyphs found in the Waterfall Trail canyon.
Hiking past Petroglyph plaza the trail becomes a little rougher but still not bad.  Here, you start to walk along the wash that is fed by the waterfall during heavy rain.  The area around the trail becomes extremely rocky and rough.  All of the plants present earlier on the trail are still common but sort of mixed together.  In addition, jojoba is found in abundance, which seems to prefer cooler rockier areas with slightly more water, which is exactly the case in this canyon.  If you look in the wash there is also the presence of mesquite and cat-claw acacia, both of which take advantage of flows of water in the wash that happen maybe a few times each year.  Ironwood trees are oddly in abundance in this area, and are likely a result of their deep roots taking advantage of water from the wash infiltrating deep into the soil. 
This is typically what the "waterfall" looks like.  The pool at the base of the falls is all that is left after a month or so without rain.
Finally, after a mile of hiking the end of the trail and the head of the canyon is reached.  Unfortunately, searching for the waterfall at the end of this trail is little better than searching for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.  At least with this trail the narrow rock walled box shaped canyon is quite a spectacular site, but the waterfall is rarely flowing.  The falls run only after sufficient rainfall, say an inch or more, and typically run no more than few days after that.  But when the water is flowing it is quite a spectacular site with water gushing and shooting narrowly over the cliff far above.  Once the water enters the wash bed though it quickly sinks into the deep sediments but continues to flow downslope.  While plants and animals on the surface can’t really take advantage of this water lost into the sediments, deep rooted plants such as the mesquites and ironwoods easily absorb the water months after all traces of water on the surface have disappeared.  The waterfall and its wash therefore explain the abundance of these plants further down the canyon and along the bajada.  
The wash below the waterfall.

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