Friday, April 6, 2012

Desert Canyon: Ford Canyon Trail White Tank Mountains

Ford Canyon Trail is my favorite hike in the White Tank Mountains.  The rugged terrain, diversity of landscapes, and mixture of easy and challenging sections makes this hike worth repeating.  For my recent hike I took a loop from the parks Ramada Picnic and parking area starting with the Waddell Trail, to the Ford Canyon Trail, then to the Willow Canyon, and finally returning to the parking lot by the Mesquite Canyon Trail.  Entire length is just over nine miles.  For this particular post I will be highlighting just the Ford Canyon section starting at Waddell Trail and ending at Mesquite Canyon Trail.

The trail approaching the canyon ascends a gently sloping bajada.  This bajada is beautifully surrounded by mountains to the north, south and west, opening up to the basin desert below.  Millenniums of decaying granite in the mountains have been carried down through the Ford Canyon, depositing a composite of alluvial fans, and forming the bajada we can see today.  This particular bajada appears to have been extremely stable being the surface is relatively flat and shallow rooted triangle-leaf bursage and cacti indicate a layer of caliche just below the surface.  The area also, though not grazed for three decades or more, still shows evidence of trampling by cattle.  This trampling is evidenced by the large and nearly barren areas where the soil is too compacted to support plant life.  After a relatively short hike up this bajada you enter the canyon.
Saguaro Cactus along the Ford Canyon Trail.

Ford Canyon is the roughest hike in the entire White Tank’s park.  But its rugged nature is exactly what makes it so appealing.  Within a short distance into the canyon you will begin hiking and even climbing over house sized blocks of granite.  Large sections of the canyon have nearly vertical drops of tens of feet just off the edge of the trail.  The wash bed in this section of the canyon is not nice, sandy, and smooth.  It also is extremely rough with lots of high drop-offs and large sections of smoothly worn granite.  The ruggedness of this canyon is witness of the decay of this mountain.  In extremely ancient times, all of these blocks of granite, the house sized blocks down to the sand sized fragments, were all part of one massive unbroken mountain-sized block of granite.  Pressure from movement of the surrounding geology began to crack and break this block.  Very likely Ford Canyon began as one or many small but long cracks in this mountain sized block of granite.  Extreme desert heat caused further cracking and breaking down of the rock enlarging the initial cracks.  Water flowing into and through the crack or cracks eroded and dissolved the rock, enlarging it further.  Plant roots working their way through smaller surrounding cracks continued to enlarge the initial crack.  All of these processes continue their work to this day, and continue to form the present day Ford Canyon. 
Canyon in the White Tank Mountains.
The many large drop-offs in the canyon means many large waterfalls, which unfortunately only flow for a few hours a year and only after large rainfall events.  I only hiked through this canyon once, during a heavy rainfall with the wash flowing and water dropping over the many falls.  Unfortunately, but dramatically, much of the canyon was shrouded in fog so I could only see portions of a few of the waterfalls.  The combination of rain, fog, and sound of flowing water through the canyon is a desert rarity.  Typically, the desert is peacefully quiet with only the sound of occasional calling birds, giving it a strong sense of solitude.  Further up in the canyon there are many holes in the unbroken granite bedrock where water accumulates and can hold many months after rain.  When the rest of the desert is dry after months without rain these water holes will often still hold water and become magnets in the landscape for wildlife.  In a recent hike I found and abundance of water in many different holes, even though there had been no rain for a month.  The surrounding landscape was nearly bone dry and the high density of mule deer and javelina hoof prints around these holes attests to their importance to these animals.  

Part 2 will be continued on Monday.  So far I have hiked 101 miles this year.  Unfortunately, I haven't added any miles to this over the past three weeks due to a busy schedule.  Hopefully this weekend I will be able to put in a few miles though.  

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