Four Peaks Motherlode Traverse

Summit of Peak 3

Nestled less than fifty miles from Phoenix, Arizona is the Four Peaks Wilderness of Tonto National Forest.  I have written about previous experiences in Tonto National Forest.  It’s an expanse of 2,873,200 acres that contains eight wilderness areas.  Tonto is home to a diverse array of picturesque landscapes.  You'll find deserts in the Superstition Wilderness, jagged mountains like Mazatzal Peak and the Four Peaks and also the Pine Forests of the Mogollon rim.  In Arizona the Four Peaks is the namesake of our most popular brewery and you’ll even find these rigid peaks referenced on our state’s license plate.  They give Phoenix and Scottsdale an attractive eastern backdrop.  The peaks stand towering above the surrounding desert each over 7,500ft tall and having over 3,200ft of prominence.  Suffice to say, completing the Four Peaks traverse has been on my hiking list since I moved to Arizona two years ago.

Photo by Jsayre64

When my friend Yuan asked if I wanted to join his wife Karen and their friend Hongxia on their trip, I gladly obliged.  Yuan knew that my experience as a climber should make finding passable routes easier.  Yuan had attempted this daunting traverse twice before and was turned down both times.  Previously, I had hiked the first peak (Brown’s Peak) and caught a glimpse of the highly exposed edges of the other peaks.  The issue with the Four Peaks is a combination of route finding, exposure, and lack of time.  You are dealing with 300ft to 500ft vertical drops all along the traverse; hiking here becomes a mix scrambling and rock climbing class 3 and 4 terrain.  In order to not be rejected a third time, Yuan did some extensive research into route finding using  We decided to start the traverse from peak 4 and summit the peaks 4, 3, 2, 1 this is the classic approach known as the Four Peaks Motherlode.  With the planning set we opted to leave Phoenix early Sunday morning at 4am.

The road to the trailhead is an adventure in itself, a high clearance vehicle is suggested unless you are apathetic to underbelly of your car.  With the our early start we arrived to the trail head as day was just breaking, we began our approach with the crisp high desert chill biting at our light jackets.  Shortly, after following the well marked trail, we arrived at the saddle and proceeded on the Amethyst Trail.  We past the old mine, to the base of the first couloir of the fourth peak.  All of this took less than 2 hours; our group was in good spirits the morning chill kept us moving briskly. We were just about 3 ½ miles in and nearing the halfway point, I was thinking to myself we were going to knock this hike out in record time.  Little did I know what was ahead.

The couloir had a fork about a third of the way toward to the peak.  Now the route finding begins, I think to myself.  We opted to test our luck on the left side and hiked up the class 3 route till it quickly turned into a class 4 scramble as the exposure increased.  Leading us to a vertical wall of rock we decided that we made a wrong turn at the fork. This is was just the first of many chaotic route finding adventures. The right-ward fork was much more promising and let us to the first summit within an hour of scrambling through the brushy, rocky, boulder field.  

The views from the first peak are absolutely breathtaking.  You can clearly see the winding canyon lakes along the salt river, Weaver's Needle and Flatiron of The Superstition Wilderness.  The Mogollon Rim, Humphreys Peak are also clearly visible. From this summit you can see all eight of the wilderness areas of Tonto National Forest stretching over 150 miles.  I can’t recommend the hike to peak 4 or to peak 1 highly enough, any Arizona hikers will love this beautiful experience.  It will give you a chance to see over half of the state from a very unique perspective.  

From this point on things get significantly more strenuous.  The down climb to saddle between peak 4 and peak 3 took half an hour and the highly exposed trek to the summit of peak 3 another forty minutes.  At this point we were around 6 hours in to the traverse. The remaining 3 miles of the hike took another 11 hours of grueling routing finding and slow climbing.  In order to ensuring the safety of all of the members of the party and to accommodate to everyone’s ability level we took our time finding safe routes up and down.  Being the only rock climber in the group give me the responsibility of finding routes that everyone could pass safely.  I diligently assisted the team as we safely scaled each of the remaining two peaks and down climbed the loose rock of the exposed boulder fields late into the night.  Everyone did a fantastic job keeping the moral high even though we ending up being out hours past our expected return time.  I am glad I was able to share this epic 18 hour adventure with such highly motivated friends.  I am also eager to try and beat our time on a subsequent attempt.  The allure of Tonto National Forest beckons me for another round. 

Video Karen and Yuan made of the climb.