Once in a while I find a hike that has a little bit of everything, with enough variety to please most of the hikers in our small group of family and friends. Hackberry Springs-Garden Valley Loop is such a hike. The 5.5-mile hike, which starts at First Water Trail Head, is a combination hike. It’s a little bit of up and little bit of down; there are washes, canyon walls, flowing springs, colorful flowers, rocks for scrambling and plenty of views. Find the turn off to First Water Trail Head (FR 78) just north of Lost Dutchman State Park from SR 88.
Starting at First Water Trail Head, the first section of trail follows the old Jeep road downhill to an intersection with Dutchman’s Trail. Veer to the left, now following Second Water Trail for 1.5 miles. At this point, the landscape is rolling hills and washes, typical of the Sonora desert. Once you pass a side trail leading to the right (Black Mesa Trail) you’ll notice a small mound of large stones. We’ve read that this may be the site of an Indian ruin. Keep walking for a couple of hundred feet past that mound and you’ll soon see another intersection. Again, stay to the left, and you’ll be heading to Garden Valley.
Garden Valley actually isn’t really a valley, more like a grassland plateau. It seems out of place in the otherwise rocky, craggy, wash-filled Sonora desert of the Superstition Wilderness. It’s a vast, wide-open misnomer. Garden Valley? There’s really not much growing here except scrappy desert broom, creosote bush and skeletal remains of a dearly departed “teddy bear” cholla. Follow the trail across this plain to the knobby hills heading northwest on the left. As the landscape opens up to an exhilarating expanse, you’ll notice a couple of structures across the valley. These are the remains of First Water Ranch, an old corral, windmill and some fence posts.
Continue along the trail around a large rocky crag. You will finally be rewarded by descending to a large creek area filled with brambles of acacia, palo verde, mesquite and hackberry, all dwarfed under a shaded canopy of cottonwood trees at the base of 200-foot cliff. When you reach a large clearing in the brush, start listening for running water of Hackberry Springs. Okay, so maybe it’s more of a trickle. It’s actually just a few drops seeping from a pipe jutting from the base of the cliff. Proceed ahead a few feet and you’ll see large shaded area of boulders — a perfect spot for a rest stop and picnic.
To complete the loop, continue to follow First Water Creek about 0.25 of a mile, until it veers directly south (to your left). Suddenly, you may be searching for the map in your pocket, wondering if you’re still on the trail. You should probably stop for a minute, since boulder-hopping and map-reading don’t mix. After you get your bearings, you’ll know you need to continue to persevere along the creek for another mile. Soon you come up and out of the creek bed, and you’ll see the abandoned corral and decapitated windmill that you spotted earlier from across the valley. Here you pick up a rutted-road trail, which leads you back to the horse staging and first parking area. You’ll remember you passed this in your vehicle, on your way into First Water Trail Head on FR 78.
I found one website, Arizonesis.org, that has a good description of the area with details about flora and fauna.
Note to readers: I found several completely contradicting descriptions of the Garden Valley Loop. Plus looking at various maps, there appear to be many paths leading in to Hackberry Springs, so please use several resources when researching your hike.