Hilltop Ruins - Part I
By Matt Marine
Almost crushed from above
The loud rumble of a boulder falling came from thirty feet directly above me. I looked up to see a bunch of large rocks balancing near the edge of the overhang, each one looking as though a small breath of wind could send it tumbling over to crush anything stupid enough to be below it.
Which, in this case, was me. And Cat-dog.
I freely admit that I almost crapped my pants. It had to be in the top ten scariest moments in my life.
My eyes scanned the overhang, looking to catch any movement in the boulders, fooling myself that I could move out of the way before it crushed me or Cat-dog. Deep down, I knew there would be nothing either of us could do – the footing was so tenuous that each step had to be carefully planned. Moving quickly was not an option.
Remembering that Cat-dog had barely escaped being run over by a tumbling boulder less than an hour ago sent my heart into double time. It was the second time I had placed her in danger during this adventure and I mentally kicked myself for it. I caught her eye and without saying anything tried to tell her not to move.
Cat-dog stared back at me. She seemed to sense the danger and froze in place. I held my breath for what seemed like minutes. Watching. Waiting. Nothing moved. No other sound reached my ears – except for the wind – which was what had probably caused one of the rocks above me to shift.
We were under a slight overhang of a shear rock face that we were attempting to scale in order to get to the prize above – a series of hilltop Indian ruins near Oak Creek Cabin.
After about thirty seconds, I began to feel a little more hopeful that Cat-dog and I were not going to get squished at this time, but I was done – at least for now – and began to make a hasty retreat to a safer area.
Once we were clear, I yelled at Mike and Angel who were about 75 feet behind me, “We may need to find another way to the top.”
They looked disappointed. They had not heard what I had thought was certain death coming from above. And I was quickly recalculating our odds of making it to the top of the cliff top spire.
When we had left our Jeeps about an hour ago and looked down the spire from the plateau above, I had given us a 50-50 shot. Now, it was down to 20-80.
A weekend for exploring
It was the Sunday before Easter weekend and I had met Mike and Angel at the Oak Creek Cabin trailhead a little past eight in the morning. They had camped near Parker Creek Canyon, while Cat-dog and I got up at 3:30 am to get ready to make the three hour drive from Tucson.
It was a beautiful morning – sunny, with a cool breeze. Perfect weather for exploring. Our main goal was to take the trail (Forest Road 189) to Oak Creek Cabin, with secondary goals of investigating some cool looking adits and seeing if we could hike to the hilltop ruins Mike had found on Google Earth.
After airing down our tires, we decided to make a go for the ruins first since it would be cooler in the morning. We headed down FR189 with high hopes. The ruins were only ½ mile from where we could park the Jeeps. And although we knew that some sections of the hike would be steep, it was only ½ a mile long each way. How hard could it be?
Famous last words.
At least the drive along FR189 was easy. And beautiful. Bright yellow and orange flowers along the side of the road had started to bloom. The trail wound its way through some scenic canyons that I would have enjoyed exploring on foot. But that would have to wait for another time.
After a while we turned off FR189 and headed down a side road. This road gave us some beautiful views of Roosevelt Lake and the valley beyond. When we reached the jumping off point, we parked in an open area and began to get ready for the hike.
It was warmer now and I packed a few extra bottles of water since I knew it would be even warmer on our return trip. Mike and Angel put on their new snake guards and looking at the thick grass and cactus we would be walking through, I was more than a little jealous.
Given the terrain we’d be walking through, I was happy with my decision not to bring our other pup, Gidget. Her coat seems to attract anything that has a sticker and she would have been miserable in the heat. Cat-dog’s slick coat does very well at shedding sticky things off.
Hiking the cactus-laden plateau
The hike would be broken up into four sections. The first section, a little less than a ¼ of a mile would be along the shallow plateau that we had parked on. The second section was a very steep descent of about 600 feet in less than ¼ of a mile. At the bottom of the hill was a small saddle and a short climb to the base of the spire that held the hilltop ruins, which made up the third and fourth portions of the hike.
After everyone was packed, we started our adventure. The cactus (mostly prickly pear) was thick as shag carpet. There was no way we could walk in a straight line. Many times would we end up in a cactus cul-de-sac, with no way out and have to retrace our steps back fifty feet and try a different direction.
And poor Cat-dog. At least we had boots. With the carpet of cactus, she was having to be very careful where she placed her paws. Still, she managed to get a few spines in her paws and we had to use the tweezers to pull them out.
We found one spot where we could not find a way past a line of prickly pear and I had to carry her for about twenty feet as I carefully stepped through the cactus garden.
As we made our way along the plateau, Mike noticed a large cairn. It was perhaps four feet tall and could be seen above the cactus. We continued another 100 yards or so and there was another large cairn. After a while, we found a third one. But this one was different than the other two. It was a double cairn.
The cairns were built unlike anything I had seen before and I began to wonder why anyone would build them way out here. The only reason I could think of would be to provide guides to the ruins, even though no trace of a trail could be seen.
I guessed it was the Indians, using them as guides to the hilltop outpost when it was still active. We pressed on toward what they seemed to be leading us to.
When we reached the start of the descent, we got our first view of the ruins and what was to come.
“That’s a long way down,” Angel said.
The spire which was our main objective seemed very small and unobtainable from this height.
“A very long way,” I echoed.
Mike took out his binoculars and we took turns looking at the spire and the surrounding cliffs.
“What do you think?” Mike asked.
“50-50,” I said, full of more optimism than I felt. The surrounding cliffs looked unscalable without climbing gear and technical experience (none of which I had) except for a possible route of the east side. The east side showed a possible narrow path up and over some small rock outcroppings. The problem with this path was the loose rock and the narrow ledge. Both of which made me think twice about attempting it. Especially when the drop is 200 feet to the canyon floor below.
But we wouldn’t know until we got down there, so we began our descent. At first, it wasn’t too steep and other than the cactus, the going was fairly easy. Then it began to become steeper and steeper. Soon, it was so steep that we couldn’t see the bottom of the hill we were climbing down.
We began to have trouble with our footing on the steep and rocky slope and started to switchback in short hops as much as we could to minimize the amount of sliding we’d do. It was a little unnerving being less than 10 feet (horizontally) from the closest person, but they were more than that distance above or below you.
Not only was it unnerving, but it was dangerous as well. As we made our way down a particularly rocky and loose section of the hill, my foot dislodged a rock about twice the size of a soccer ball. Although Mike and Angel were behind and above me, I quickly realized that Cat-dog was about thirty feet down the hill from me.
The rock tumbled down the hill directly for her!
“Cammie!” I yelled to get her attention.
She was behind some cactus, so I could only see bits and pieces of her silver and white coat. I didn’t know if she heard me.
The rock was gaining speed as it careened down the hill.
“Cammie!” I yelled again, my voice shrill with panic.
I barely saw her turn to see the boulder crash through the cactus. It was almost on top of her.
My heart stopped. I didn’t think she could move out of the way in time!
Click here for Part II of the Hiiltop Ruins Adventure!
Part I video
Pictures from the Trip
What the ruins look like on Google Earth
Me, looking down at our destination at the top of the rock spire
The road to ruins
Mike, Cat-dog and I picking our way through the prickly pear
50-50 chance of making it to the top
So close, but yet so far (see the ruins on top?)
Closer view of the ruins from above
A rock cairn marking???
Closer view of the cairn
That's a long way down!
Cat-dog checking out the way forward
Another view of the spire we would have to climb
I bet they had wonderful 360 degree views from the top
This is what we had to climb up to get on top
Taking a moment's rest
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
No member comments yet.