First things first, let’s talk names. The hike I’m going to tell you about would best be described as the “Second Water to Boulder Canyon to Cavalry to Dutchman Trail Loop.” However, if you’re looking it up on AllTrails – a super popular hiking app – you’re going to see that it’s called the “Calvary Trail“. While the difference between “Cavalry” and “Calvary” probably isn’t enough to get you lost here, it’s worth noting that this is why it’s always good to consult a second source of information before setting out on your hike. Websites and Apps like AllTrails are super helpful for giving you an idea of hikes in your area, but they’re not perfect – don’t rely solely on one source of information to keep you going the right direction safely.
Ok, off my soapbox and on to the good stuff…
The Superstition Mountains, just east of Phoenix, AZ are a wonderland for southwest hikers. I’ve only scratched the surface of the hiking and backpacking opportunities here, but I immediately fell in love with the varied terrain, intersecting canyons and unique rock formations.
If I’m being honest, I think it took me so long to start hiking trails in the Superstitions because there are an almost overwhelming number of options. You’ll find lots of Instagram posts about the most popular ones – Flat Iron, Weavers Needle, Peralta, etc. but I haven’t found a ton of great information about a lot of the longer, more remote treks. So, I’m going to try to review them as I go and hopefully this helps you feel a little better prepared adventuring out into the Superstitions yourself.
I’m going to call this route the “Cavalry Loop” – simply because the Cavalry Trail was the most remote and hardest-to-get-to part of the loop – and because the AllTrails version of “Calvary Trail” was my inspiration for the hike. You can follow along with my route (mostly) at https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/arizona/calvary-trail. Or on the Tonto National Forest map.
The hike starts from the parking lot at the end of First Water Road, which according to Google Maps is also called Service Road 78. It’s about 3 miles of dirt road after you turn off of the main road, Highway 88. It’s been pretty dry for weeks here (early Feb, 2020) and it was hard packed and would have been a bumpy but ok drive for most vehicles. Can’t say the same if it’s been raining though, so definitely use caution and do some research before you go. There’s a nice sized parking area which was pretty empty at 8:30am on a Wednesday, but could be busier on weekends. There’s also a restroom (outhouse) which is always nice.
About .25 miles from the start you’ll need to make a decision… hike the loop clockwise or counter-clockwise. I chose clockwise, starting with the Second Water Trail #236. The first couple of miles flew by, up a small climb onto what I’m going to call a desert meadow. It was flat, the trail was wide and easy to walk on and there were a variety of spots that would make great camp sites 50 yards off the trail.
Note: In most places it’s suggested that you camp much further away from a trail, but I noticed that there were a number of very distinct camp sites with stone fire rings that were well used just yards off of the trail throughout the entire hike. Perhaps there’s a different philosophy in this particular area, but definitely be respectful of all Leave No Trace principals as you camp and hike.
Around mile 2 you meet a junction with Black Mesa trail #241. This is your first opportunity for a shorter loop if you prefer – approximately 8 miles total, connecting at Dutchman Trail #104 back to where you started. I was in for the full experience so I kept going on Second Water.
The next 2 miles were a little more challenging with some really rocky trail which made for tough footing, but you eventually head down a narrowing descent that opens up into Boulder Canyon. Turn right (Southeast) on Boulder Canyon Trail #103.
From here you immediately start a zig-zagging path over and back across the aptly named Boulder Canyon river/creek 10 or 11 times. With our current water levels, it was easy to step from boulder to boulder across the water without getting wet. In wetter times of the year, I’d guess you spend a lot of miles with wet trail runners after this part. It was one of my favorite parts of the hike and so fun to see water flowing in this part of Arizona. The trail was pretty easy to follow, but keep an eye out for the rock cairns on opposite sides of the bank. If the trail suddenly goes from well worn dirt to some grass, you probably missed a turn.
Around mile 5 is your next trail junction and option to continue on the Boulder Canyon Trail #103 if you want to choose a shorter hike. Instead, I continued on with a left onto the Calvary Trail #239.
The Cavalry Trail is 3.2 miles, stretching from Boulder Canyon to LaBarge Canyon. You’ll cross back and forth over the LaBarge Canyon river about 5 times, carefully choosing rocks to stay dry. The trail is narrow in places, but much of this stretch was nice and flat and easy to make good time.
A mile or so into the Cavalry Trail section I rounded a bend and was stopped in my tracks by an amazing view of the red rock cliffs that (I think) are Malapais Mountain – whatever they are, they’re spectacular.
There are a number of camp site locations throughout the Boulder Canyon and Cavalry Trail sections with a small rock fire ring and room for 1 or 2 tents that would be great backpacking destinations, pretty close to water when it’s flowing.
Near the 8 mile mark, the Cavalry Trail meets the Dutchman Trail #104.
Take the tight right turn and about 1/3 mile later you’ll reach your last optional trail junction. The AllTrails route takes you along the Dutchman Trail all the way to the end of the hike. This option appears to be pretty flat with only 300 ft of elevation gain over the next 2.7 miles. I opted for a slightly shorter route, taking Bull Pass Trail #129. It’s only 1.6 miles, but gains about 500 ft of elevation up and over the pass.
The first part of Bull Pass trail was very narrow and fairly overgrown with desert shrubs – definitely one of those stretches where I was super happy I was wearing full length pants, but the saguaros were quite beautiful. It follows alongside a nice meandering flow of water a few feet wide until it begins to climb quickly. The climb was quick but strenuous with some loose rocky areas, but the views from the top were worth every bit of huffing and puffing as you look out over the entire valley you just hiked through.
Bull Pass Trail rejoins Dutchman Trail #104 and I stopped for my second snack break in a spot with tremendous views of Weavers Needle. Once you reach Dutchman Trail there are about 4 miles left back to the starting point.
Admittedly by this point I was a bit tired and my legs were moving a bit slower, so the scenery was beautiful, but not as exciting to me as the first 10 miles of the trek. The trail alternates between easy sandy walking and rough, rocky path which keeps you on your toes – or else you’ll definitely stub them. Just a couple more creek crossings and you’re back at the last junction onto Second Water and back to the parking lot.
Overall I clocked about 15.6 miles in just over 6.5 hours with 1,982 feet of elevation gain. My GPS watch is notoriously always off by a bit, but the mapped distance of my route should have been 14.5 miles.
I really enjoyed the Cavalry Loop. By far, not the most challenging hike in the Superstitions, but the distance does make it moderate-difficult for sure. The elevation gain felt relatively gradual aside from some short sections, and the views were spectacular. I’m looking forward to my next trip out to the Superstition Mountains to tackle some more of it’s remote backcountry trails.