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North Maricopa Mountain Wilderness

Summary: Easy hiking in some great Sonoran desert scenery. The sign at the trailhead reads: "The North Maricopa Mountains are an example of pristine Sonoran desert. Congress added the 66,200 acre North Maricopa Mountains area to the national wilderness preservation system in 1990, citing its rugged character, outstanding opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation, abundant desert flora and important wildlife habitat." In January of 2001 the area was added to the 486,600 acre Sonoran Desert National Monument which also includes the: South Maricopa Mountain Wilderness, Table Top Mountain Wilderness and the Sand Tank Mountains. There are two developed hiking trails in the wilderness, the 9 mile long Margies Cove Trail, and the 6 mile long Brittle Bush Trail. Neither offer much in the way of elevation change. Note: if you are doing a one way hike with a car shuttle, be aware that the Brittlebush Trail junction may be difficult to spot from the Margies Cove Trail (I rebuilt the cairns which mark this junction when I was here, but who knows how long they will last).
Directions: Margies Cove West Trailhead: From Phoenix drive west on I-10. Take exit 112 and drive south on Highway 85 for 19.8 miles. The pull off is not marked and is a bit tricky to find. Drive to between mileposts 134 & 135. Just before crossing a small concrete bridge which is marked by a yellow and black striped sign, pull over on the dirt shoulder on the left (east) side of the highway (take care, cars drive very fast on this road). If you miss this pull off, a short distance later you will pass Woods Road on the right (west). From the pull off, follow a small dirt road which parallels highway 85 for a short distance, passing a corral and large metal tank, before bending left (east). There is a gate at this bend that you will have to open in order to continue. Close the gate behind you and follow this well graded dirt road west (ignore any branches or side roads). After 3.8 miles you will see a prominent road which branches right (south). About 50 feet down this side road is a brown sign marking the North Maricopa Mountain Wilderness. Follow this road (which is bumpy in places) 1.3 miles to the end, where there is a well developed parking area with restroom and picnic table.
Brittle Bush Trailhead: From Phoenix drive west on Maricopa Road #238 to between mileposts 10 & 11 (11 is to the east). Turn north on a good dirt road marked with a wooden 'Trail' sign. You will soon pass a large sign for the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Drive 1.3 miles to an old coral, follow the brown plastic 'Trail' signs into the coral then to the left. Stay straight at the junction where the Butterfield Stage Route Trail branches to the right. After another 1.8 miles turn right (following the signs), and 2 miles later stay to the right once again (straight will bring you to a non-functional watering hole for game). In less than a mile you will reach the trailhead parking area next to some low rocky hills.
Road Conditions: High Clearance Vehicle
Navigation: Moderate - Difficult, you will be following an unmarked wash for the middle third of this hike, while it is not terribly difficult to follow, lack of water makes getting lost in this area potentially dangerous
Length: Margies Cove Trail: 9 miles one way, 18 miles round trip
Brittlebush Trail: 12 miles round trip
Date Hiked: December 2002
Weather Conditions: Foggy in the morning, then sunny & nice
Required Skills:
Hike Description: Margies Cove Trail: The Margies Cove trail runs from west to east across the heart of the N. Maricopa Mountain Wilderness. From the west parking area, pick up a map at the register, then head through the brown metal gate and stile and begin following an old road to the southeast (0 miles). The path leads through creosote flats with creosote bush, palo verde & some very large specimens of saguaro (many) and ocotillo (few). A short walk will bring you past an old corral and metal tank, then, after passing through another fence, the trail begins bending more to the east. Since the desert is wide open, you may find staying on the path slightly challenging. Keep an eye out for brown plastic 'trail' signs and large rock cairns in this area. The trail is almost totally flat and remains that way the entire distance. After an hour or so of walking, the path dumps you into a wide sandy wash (fortunately the sand is fairly well packed and not difficult to walk on). At this point the large rock cairns you have been following cease, and it will be up to you to remain on course. You basically want to continue heading east, following a series of dry washes that run between rocky hills. When the author was here, there were several pairs of faint footprints to follow, if hiking after recent heavy rains this may not be the case. After walking the dry streambeds for half an hour or so, the wash becomes a shallow gully, continue through the gully. On the other side, when the hills fade back a bit, look for a small wash on the right and some large cairns. The cairns lead you up out of the wash on the right and follow what might have been an old road. The cairns are found at frequent intervals for the remainder of the hike. The path soon leads you back into another wash, which you will follow to a fence line (there is a gate just to the right of the main wash). Finished with the dry streambeds, the trail heads through the creosote flats once again and soon passes an enclosed, man-made watering hole for game animals (completely dry when I was here). Looks like a failed experiment to use water to attract desert species to a central location for hunters to kill them (Q: we wouldn't want today's modern hunter to suffer the inconvenience of actually having to go look for stuff to shoot would we?  A: not while we're on the trails). Another ten minutes will bring you to the east entrance register, and a short stroll, to the east entrance parking area (9 miles). If you've left a second vehicle here, your hike is over, otherwise, return the way you came (18 miles).
Brittlebush Trail: This trail runs from south to north, intersecting the Margies Cove Trail at about the 5.8 mile point. From the trailhead, walk east past the large trail sign (0 miles). A short distance later you will come to a register (maps may be available here). The path then passes between two low rocky hills, then bends left to skirt another hill, before heading cross country through the creosote flats towards the mountains. The trail looks like an old road in this section. After a bit of walking, the trail reaches the mountains and enters a wide sandy wash (note: you will skirt a prominent mountain just to the right, if you look closely you may see some circular faded petroglyphs on the burnished rock of this hill, please do not disturb). Once in the wash, the cairns and trail signs disappear, stay in the most prominent drainage heading north (look for footprints if they have not been washed away by recent rains). After following the wash for a while, you will come to a brown plastic 'Trail' sign on the left. The path bends left at this point and climbs up into the desert, becoming easy to follow once again. The trail winds its way through the desert for a while, then drops down a short rocky hill into a wash (6 miles). This wash is the Margies Cove Trail. If you have another car spotted at the east or west entrances, turn right or left respectively, otherwise, return the way you came (12 miles).
Rating (1-5 stars):
Nice desert scenery and easy walking, perfect for a winter stroll. I hiked the Margies Cove Trail first, and was unable to locate the Brittlebush junction. The author and his wife hiked the Margies Cove Trail from west to east and back again in about 6 hours. I returned a few days later and hiked the Brittlebush Trail & rebuilt the cairn at the trail junction. Round trip time was 3
hours.
Maps: Pick one up at the trailhead.
Books: Exploring Arizona Wild Areas - Scott S. Warren
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.

Typical view along the
Margies Cove Trail.

Dawn along the Brittlebush Trail.

 

Faded petroglyphs near
the Brittlebush Trail.