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Copper Camp Loop - Tonto National Forest

Summary: A long semi-loop hike, on and off trail, into a little visited section of the Mazatzal Wilderness. This hike can be done as a day hike, but due to the length and difficulty, it is better suited to a 2+ day backpacking trip. Strong hiking ability, good route finding skills and a tolerance for thorny plants are a must.
Directions: From Phoenix drive northeast on State Highway 87 (Beeline Highway) towards Payson. Just past mile marker 222 you'll see a sign for Mt. Ord (right) Sycamore Creek (left). Turn left, crossing the divided highway towards Sycamore Creek onto a paved road. Drive 1.1 miles then turn right, crossing a cattle guard, onto gravel Forest Road (FR) 201. Drive 1.2 miles on FR 201 to a split in the road just past a cattle guard. Turn left onto the rockier, gravel FR 25 (high clearance desirable). After 2.6 miles the road splits again with FR 25A going straight and FR 25 to the left. Turn left, remaining on FR 25 as it climbs 2.2 miles up a series of switchbacks to an old corral and the Mormon Grove Trailhead.
Road Conditions: High Clearance Vehicle
Navigation: Difficult
Length: 20.4 miles (5800 ft elevation change)
Date Hiked: February 2006
Weather Conditions: Sunny and warm
Required Skills:
Hike Description: Pick up the 'trail' (really an old road) next to the corral and begin following it up the hill (GPS Point CC1, 0 miles, 4900 ft). After 10 minutes you'll reach a signed junction: Saddle Mountain Trail #91 heads straight, the Little Saddle Mt Trail #244 goes left. Stay straight on the Saddle Mt Trail as it ascends steadily up to the base of Saddle Mountain (a landmark you'll see at regular intervals throughout the hike). Ignore a use trail which takes off to the left (I believe this leads to the Saddle Mt Spring) and stay on the main trail as levels off and skirts the base of the mountain on the east side. A bit of hiking will bring you to a signed junction with the Sheep Creek Trail #88 which heads left, while the Saddle Mt Trail continues straight (3.5 miles). Turn left on the Sheep Creek Trail as it drops down to cross a dry wash, then travels along a chaparral covered slope before dropping steeply down into the forested drainage of McFarland Canyon (with a nice, if dry, campsite) and the junction with the right branching Thicket Spring Trail #95 (4.4 miles, 4920ft). Stay straight on the Sheep Creek Trail as it makes a gentle and pleasant ascent of McFarland Canyon. After about a mile you'll reach an old corral. Walk right through the corral to pick up the trail on the other side and shortly afterwards you'll arrive at a signed junction with the Copper Camp Trail #87 (GPS Point CC2) which stays straight, the Sheep Creek Trail (which you'll be using for the return trip) branches right (5.2 miles, 5170 ft). Stay straight on the Copper Camp Trail as it continues up McFarland Canyon a while, then climbs out of the canyon on the right to travel through a scrubbier area, becoming somewhat fainter as it does so. The path eventually climbs to a grassy ridge with nice views down to the right of Saddle Mt, the rugged wilderness area to the north and Horseshoe Reservoir in the distance. After traveling the ridge a while the trail begins a long descent along the grassy slope of the ridge, becoming rather faint near the bottom where it crosses an area of shale (keep an eye open for cairns which occur at frequent intervals). As you near the wash below the trail bends left to cross a minor wash, then travels along the right hand bench along a faint trail that is overgrown with cats claw (ouch!). The path only deteriorates as it continues down the drainage of Copper Camp Creek winding its way in or beside the drainage (as a landmark, you'll pass an old chimney in this area). Water soon appears under foot and when the brush becomes very thick, look for the trail to climb out of the drainage on the right and form a more distinct track on the bench (the cats claw remains an issue, however). Eventually you'll pass a few signs of human encroachment (metal fence posts, rusted barrels) and soon afterwards you'll reach Copper Camp with the remains of a corral (GPS Point CC3, 9.7 miles, 3170 ft). It's here that the cross country portion of the journey begins (this route is shown on the Forest Service map referenced below, though little of the old route remains). From the corral look directly across Copper Camp Creek to the opposite bank. Your route is the easiest path along the obvious ridge that climbs to the ridge far above. If you are carrying a GPS, you can set it to 'Go To' GPS Point CC4. Cross the stream and climb the hillside to gain the ridge and begin hiking in a northeasterly direction. The path levels off somewhat where the ridge bends to the east (stay on the path of least resistance), then begins climbing even more steeply to the northeast. Near the top of the ridge you will see 3 rocky sections, which are progressively larger the further they are up the hill. Climb directly over the first hump. At the second, a faint section of the original route exists to the left of the rocky section that provides a relatively easy path through. Stay to the right of the 3rd and largest rocky outcrop where another section of the faint route may be found. Eventually, after considerable effort, the top of the ridge is gained (GPS Point CC4, 11.3 miles, 4870 ft) at a large cairn. At this point you'll be overlooking a grassy basin, dotted with a few juniper trees. Walk down into the basin in a northeasterly direction roughly aiming for a point on the map to the left of Sheep Creek Seep (left of GPS CC5). The best route in this section is the one that avoids the brush. After descending a while, the large drainage of Sheep Creek will come into view with two drainages coming off of Cypress Ridge (that meet below you to the left) in the way. Cross these drainages at the most shall point you can find, above the point where they meet. After climbing out of the second drainage, head more to the east (right) aiming for a point where two forks of Sheep Creek join. At the junction you will find the remains of an old corral and the Sheep Creek Trail (GPS Point CC5, 13.4 miles, 3950 ft). Turn right on the Sheep Creek Trail (if you don't see it immediately, don't worry, it crosses Sheep Creek several times, walk up the creek and you'll eventually pick it up). There was water in the creek when I was here and a few pools, though several of them were thick with algae. Though it obviously sees little use, the Sheep Creek Trail is easy to follow. Initially the path is overgrown with cats claw, but as you ascend the drainage becomes less brushy, more forested and the path more pleasant. The nice hike soon comes to an end, however, as the trail climbs out of the drainage on the right and begins climbing at a very steep and relentless grade. The path climbs the hillside beside the drainage, gaining elevation all the while. At one point a saddle is reached and the path levels off for a short distance, only to begin its brutal ascent once again. It's here that this hike officially kicked my butt. I believe I was even heard to whimper a little bit, before the path mercifully leveled out after gaining some 1600 ft of elevation. The trail then descends at a moderate grade along a series of ridges covered with manzanita, dwarf pines and juniper, eventually making a steep descent into McFarland Canyon and the junction with the Copper Camp Trail (GPS Point CC2, 16.2 miles, 5170 ft). Turn left on the Sheep Creek Trail and retrace your steps the remaining 5.2 miles back to the Mormon Grove Trailhead and your car (20.4 miles, 4900 ft).

GPS Coordinates (UTM):
CC1 = 453596mE 3755502mN
CC2 = 451896mE 3759002mN
CC3 = 445842mE 3758763mN
CC4 = 447381mE 3759767mN
CC5 = 449212mE 3761849mN

Rating (1-5 stars):
The author completed this hike solo at a fast pace (becoming ever slower as the day wore on) in 9.5 hours. If doing this hike as an overnight backpacking trip, Copper Camp might make a good place to camp since there is running water, and the steep off trail ascent could be done first thing the next morning, rather than in the middle of the day when temps are at their highest.
Books: Hiking Arizona's Superstition and Mazatzal Country  - Grubbs, Bruce
Maps: Map of this route. Map 1 (east), Map 2 (west)
Mazatzal Wilderness Tonto National Forest, USFS
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.

Near the start of the hike. Saddle Mountain.
View descending
towards Copper Camp.
Copper Camp.
Looking back down the ridge
towards Copper Camp.
Heading cross country
towards Sheep Creek.