Appreciating the natural wonder of Wind Cave Trail - East Valley Tribune: Outdoors

Appreciating the natural wonder of Wind Cave Trail

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Posted: Thursday, November 22, 2012 6:30 am

When something’s in your own backyard, it’s easy to take it for granted.

Not so with Wind Cave Trail, a 3-mile out-and-back hike up Pass Mountain on Mesa’s northeastern fringe. A quick trek with a satisfying payoff, it’s nearby enough to hit after work or early on a weekend.

Although it’s one of the most popular routes in the Valley, according to Interpretive Ranger Brennan Basler of Usery Mountain Regional Park, it’s possible to hike Wind Cave without company — and with plenty of appreciation for its small but endearing natural wonders.

To get there, follow the main road into Usery Mountain Regional Park (Usery Park Road) about one mile, to Wind Cave Drive. Turn north (left), and park at the trailhead. (Parking may be scarce during peak weekend hiking hours; if so, park in designated spaces back out on Usery Park Road, and hoof it back to the trailhead.)

From there, you can see where you’re headed: Look up and to the far right of Pass Mountain’s signature band of yellow rock. Wind Cave is the place where there’s a shadow.

The trip up the mountain can be rigorous, as it gains about 840 feet in the 1.5 miles to the top. There is no hand-over-hand climbing on the path, but some spots are strewn with boulders large enough to require big — and careful — steps.

You’ll know you’re halfway when you reach 20 rock steps — a fine place to turn around if you’re short on time or on wind. From there, the going gets more strenuous, though it’s a hike your body can easily and quickly adapt to if you do it regularly. If not, pace yourself. There are plenty of spots on the way up to pause for a breather.

Judging from the steady stream of hikers I encounter most times I hike it, I’d say Wind Cave is at least as heavily used as the East Valley’s Peralta Canyon or Siphon Draw trails — probably more so, since it’s closer to town. Still, I’ve found myself alone on the trail weekday mid-mornings and evenings, and early on Sundays. Other hikers I know occasionally tote a loaf of banana bread and a thermos of hot cocoa to the cave for a tranquil sunrise breakfast before heading off to work or school.

The trail’s payoff starts just below Wind Cave, when you enter that strip of yellow volcanic tuff. There, the trail runs alongside the pale, holey rock and, before noon, is shaded from the sun, giving the briefest feeling you’ve entered a cooler, darker place, if only for a few footfalls.

It’s there I’ve spotted a large King snake and, in the spring, an Eastern Collared Lizard, iridescent in his emerald and aquamarine skin.

From there, it’s a short last push to the cave, which isn’t a cave, really, but a cool hollow in a cliff, where you can sit on smooth rock, beneath a rock overhang, looking out over the landscape you’ve ascended. Basler says that on a clear day, you can see 70 miles. To the southwest, you might make out Sonoran Desert National Monument. Looking west, it’s downtown Phoenix. To the north, ripples of far-off and wild mountains fade into sky. The sky itself is quite a show if you time your climb for sunset.

But views aren’t the only thing to see. Curiosities include the decidedly un-desertlike plants growing out of moist crevices in the rock and a colony of bees, hard at work on honeycombs that hang overhead like thin paddles of fungi. Bees fly in and out of the rock wall where you’re likely to sit or stand, but in nearly five years, I’ve never seen the insects bother a single person who paid them no mind. Basler says the Wind Cave bees have hived there for at least 40 years.

More appealing creatures, for some, are the chipmunks. Sit quietly long enough, and you’re bound to see at least one or two scampering about. The stone benches at the palo verde tree are a good spot to focus your attention and your camera.

Wind Cave Trail is open yearround inside Usery Mountain Regional Park, at 3939 N. Usery Pass Road, Mesa. There is a $6-per-vehicle fee to enter the park. There are restrooms, a water fountain and picnic tables at the trailhead. A Nature Center at the park’s entrance sells last-minute supplies, like water, hats and granola bars.

For information, call (480) 984-0032 or visit Maricopa.gov/parks/usery.

If you go

What: Wind Cave Trail, a 3-mile-roundtrip hike to a hollow in a cliff on the edge of northeast Mesa

When: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Where: Usery Mountain Regional Park, 3939 N. Usery Pass Road, Mesa

Cost: $6 per vehicle

Information: (480) 984-0032 or Maricopa.gov/parks/usery

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or azajac@evtrib.com

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