Turtle Mountain, Arizona, February 2018

On February 7 I joined the Southern Arizona Hiking Club on a climb of Turtle Mountain Highpoint northeast of Safford. Turtle Mountain is the 73rd most prominent peak in Arizona with 2004 feet of topographic prominence and 7004 feet of elevation. There were a total of 8 hikers on this outing and it was my second co-lead for the Southern Arizona Hiking Club.

Turtle Mountain from our parking spot below the west side

Turtle Mountain from our parking spot below the west side

The Drive In

The drive into the Turtle Springs trailhead was long and challenging, requiring a capable vehicle with high clearance, 4WD, and lockers. I led the way in my Jeep Rubicon with the outing leader, Gary Fabiano, riding in John Ohm’s 4-Runner. They were to flash their lights if I did not correctly make the turns at junctions.

After the first several miles on the rocky road I we stopped for a break. I remarked on the long drive on a rocky road and Gary said “You haven’t seen anything, yet!”. He also said that if I did not drive all the way to the intended parking spot we would all turn around and go home. Hmmm. We resumed the drive. The road dropped steeply down into a canyon to where Bonita Creek was slowly flowing at the bottom. I got out to check the first creek crossing and returned to Gary to report it was a bit deep. He nodded “Yes”.

So I drove across the creek taking it rather fast to ensure momentum, and got some good splashes up the grill. Then I encoundered another crossing with more and deeper water. I hesitated. Gary wisely decided he needed to coach me across and became my copilot. After some adjustments (4WD Low, lockers engaged) I entered the water and nearly got stuck. Gary coached me on how to get through, then we discussed the mistakes I was making.

From there we climbed steeply out of the canyon and I got some needed coaching on rock-crawling and how to straddle large rocks in the roadbed rather than driving over them and risking a tire puncture. Eventually we reached the “trailhead” and parked. Gary is a very experienced 4-wheeler and had he not been there to coach me I would not have driven anywhere near this spot. I am finally beginning to learn to use the features of the Jeep Rubicon I paid for.

We followed a game trail that helped us to climb this steep and loose slope to a saddle above

We followed a game trail that helped us to climb this steep and loose slope to a saddle above

The Climb

The climb itself was up open slopes and ridges through grass and over rocky ground. Game trails helped get us through a prickly pear cactus garden and up a steep, loose slope to a saddle. From there we hiked more slopes to the summit. The open summit provided views of mountain ranges in all directions. It was a fun team of hikers. My slow and deliberate pace was apparently ideal for the group. Gary liked my routefinding and how I kept the group together. Each club has its own way of doing things.

Looking west towards the Gila Range of Graham County and its highest point, Bryce Mountain

Looking west towards the Gila Range of Graham County and its highest point, Bryce Mountain

The Drive Out

We descended the same route and the adventure of driving out began. Here I learned how to rely on downshifting in 4WD Low and relying on the Rubicon’s differentials to control speed on steep descents rather than brakes. The water crossings were successful, though Gary cautioned me “not to baby it” as we made the first crossing. Then I took the second crossing too fast. So I have much to learn. John had a little struggle getting through the first crossing so he did not make it all appear trivial.

On the steep climb out of the canyon I noted steam rising from under the hood. The engine was not overheating and we decided it was because I had taken the last crossing too fast and water was boiling off the engine. But near the top the Jeep was loosing power and I stopped. Gary quickly checked under the hood and verified that I had not “driven the fan into the radiator” by submerging the fan in water (this has happened twice to him in his early years 4-wheeling). In the end there was no radiator damage and the problem was that I had left the gear in Drive, rather the first gear, before climbing and the automatic shifting was not shifting down as I expected.

The rest of the drive out was uneventful. I was greatly relieved to reach pavement and celibrated in Safford with a large diet Coke for the drive home. I have much to learn about 4-wheeling for when I need it, but have no interest in making 4-wheeling an intentional recreational activity. After washing the Jeep the next day I could see no damage, except for a few scratches in the underbody armor the Rubicon is equipped with.

I am now a “guide” for the Southern Arizona Hiking Club. I have enjoyed hiking and scrambling with the SAHC the past three winter seasons and I expect it will be a good network to share future explorations of Southern Arizona with. Should I ever return to Turtle Mountain, however, I will take the reportedly easier drive in from Morenci.

Paul McClellan

About Paul McClellan

I had the good fortune to have spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, where I discovered the joys and addiction of hiking and climbing in the Cascades Range and other ranges in the Western United States.
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