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Table Top Mountain Day Hike
34 miles West of Casa Grande
November 27, 1998
by Jeff Cook

This hike – like Quartz Peak, another BLM trail – is located in a wilderness area, and finding the trailhead involves a long drive on typical bumpy, dusty, “primitive” Arizona roads. Once the trailhead is reached, however, there is abundant reassurance that you’ve arrived. The Table Top trailhead includes picnic tables, a large information display, parking “for ten vehicles”, and most important of all after a long bumpy ride, a vault toilet. One intuitively prepares ones self, both physically and mentally, before entering such a facility, even when there is running water – which in this case there was not. But upon entering the toilet, I was shocked to find that it was not only sparkling clean and odor free, but there were actually two rolls of toilet paper installed, neither of which appeared to have ever been dropped down the well. This alone, in my mind, makes the trailhead worthy of National Landmark status.

Front row: Ben, Elaine, Alexis
Back row: Jon, Rick, Jeannie, Jeff, Tony, Richard.

Eleven people went on the hike altogether; aside from myself there were Jeannie and Tom Van Lew and their son Jon, Richard DeSouza, Rick Scott, Ben Velasquez and his son Alexis, Rudy Arredondo, Elaine Cobos, and Tony Grundon. We left the parking lot of the Home Depot just south of Ray and I-10 at 7:30 am, and an hour later were on Veekol Road. From there it was about 15 bumpy miles past beehives and intransigent cows, then through the Arizona scrub to the trailhead. The roads shown on the USGS map for Table Top Mountain appear to be relatively accurate, for a change, at least if you follow the route given on the AZ BLM trail description. There was one other truck at the trailhead when we arrived. The air at the trailhead was thick with bees; while they were fortunately relatively docile honeybees, we nonetheless wasted little time in picking up our packs and heading down the trail.

On our way to Table Top Mountain
For its first half mile, the trail is an old Jeep road, winding along the flat valley floor between two small mountain peaks that stand like ancient sentinels before the steep face of Table Top Mountain two miles beyond. Alongside the trail are scattered a surprisingly large number of dead Teddy Bear Cholla and Saguaro, many of which appeared to have been struck by lightning. Among the living are countless of the same and other varieties of cactus, Palo Verde, creosote, and numerous other types of desert scrub, grass, and chaparral. The trail is lined and bordered with a colorful assortment of stones, many of which do not appear native to the area.

The Jeep road ends after about half a mile at a large sign-in and information box. We signed in, and read a few of the comments left by previous hikers. One that caught our attention claimed to have made it to the top, still 3 miles away and 2000 vertical feet above, in 2-1/2 hours just a month after having heart surgery. Needless to say, that set the mark to beat for our determined team. We were the only ones who had signed in for nearly a week, despite the trail being heavily marked with bootprints.

The trail is much less distinct beyond the box, but still well trodden. Among the larger rocks alongside the trail are blocks of nearly black lava and basalt, long slides of which can also be seen on the steep slopes of the smaller mountains surrounding the main peak. There are also large irregular boulders of severely deformed and partially metamorphosed rock, which have a strong layered structure consisting of schists and two or three other minerals.

Flat as a table — well, almost.

About a mile from the trailhead, the trail starts to hit some steeper stretches, crossing a few washes and then climbing up onto a low, flat ridge between two washes. The rocks encountered were still widely varied, including basalt, scoria, schists, red shale, chalcedony, feldspars, sandstone, jasper, quartz, and the occasional vein of what appeared to be limestone. It is difficult to imagine that all of these were quarried in the TableTop area. The trail gradually steepens a bit more, and begins climbing through a shallow, rocky chute that somewhat resembles a little man-made streambed lined with basalt talus. This eventually reaches the foot of the mountain after a long 2-mile hike.

To this point the group was still all together, with the exception of Rudy, who arrived late and had not yet caught up with us. But once on the switchbacks, we quickly separated into three groups – the Sprinters, including Ben and the two teenage boys; the Moderates; and the Molasses Brigade, of which I am always proud anchorman. My pace on this particular trip was expectedly slow, (1) having had nothing to eat since Thanksgiving dinner 18 hours earlier, and (2) not having any of my usual fast-digesting energy sources with me. But the weather was beautiful, the strengthening morning sun now disappearing behind a thickening sheet of cirrus and altocumulus, and the temperature in the low 70s with a refreshing 5 knot breeze that freshened as we climbed higher.

Hikers on the downgrade.

Rudy passed us a little way into the switchbacks, and thereafter was seen only at a distance. The trail here was constantly steep despite the switchbacks, similar to the Quartz Peak Trail, which is also BLM. The trail climbs 1500 feet in the last 1.5 miles, which corresponds to a climb ratio of 5:1. At one point the trail crosses a massive descending ridge of gray boulders which looks like it had to have been piled up intentionally, but which might possibly be of volcanic origin.

After some more of the deformed, metamorphosed rock and lots of red shale, the trail climbs into the thick capping layer of basalt that is largely responsible for the mountain’s distinctive shape. We rested for several minutes at one point to watch a hawk which sat perfectly motionless a few hundred feet overhead, his wings spread wide, expertly riding on the rising air currents sweeping up the side of the mountain as he scanned the ground below for a likely-looking meal. (No, wait, he’s watching us – maybe we’d better get moving again!)

Atop the basalt layer is a rounded mantle of sediment a hundred or so feet thick, upon which the trail gradually levels out and then ends on the rock- strewn top of the mountain. A 6-foot high wood pole planted marks the top where the trail ends. We crashed out on the rocks of our choice as we arrived, and had our lunch. The slowest of us had made it in 2 hours and 20 minutes, beating the guy with the new ticker by ten minutes – thus validating the ludicrous theory that we ourselves were, more likely than not, still among the living.

The view from the top is excellent, though restricted from the North to the Southeast by the bulk of the mountain. Despite its name, Table Top Mountain’s top is really more like a gentle U- shape, opening to the West. The trail ends on one prong of the U, on the southwest side. The other prong appears to be higher by some 30 or 40 feet (though I haven’t verified this on the adjacent USGS map) and blocked much of the view in that direction. It would have been at least another half mile or more to get to the other side, so no one was interested in giving it a try. Except Rudy, that is, who apparently had already claimed the North Peak by the time I arrived on the summit, and had headed off in search of some new adventure.

Among the sights visible from the summit are the Sand Tanks to the West, the Sierra Estrella to the North, and the Picacho Mountains and looming Santa Catalinas to the Southeast. To the South, Kitt Peak is visible, along with the striking summit block of Baboquivari jutting up against the hazy horizon. Closer by, the lower peaks surrounding TableTop were all visible from above, their sides streaked with black lava rock slides.

After about half an hour on top, it was time to start back down. As with the trip up, the group broke into the same three subgroups, the Sprinters arriving back at the trailhead a good 45 minutes before the Slowpokes. But in the end they received sufficient punishment for their haste; for not only did they miss out on some striking geology along the way, but they had to contend with an almost Hitchcock-esque bee situation at the trailhead, as well. By the time the rest of us get back an hour and a half after leaving the summit, they were more than anxious to get out of there. Several had even taken refuge inside one of the vehicles, where the bee density was only slightly lower than outside.

We eventually shooed them out, loaded up, and were on our way. As we were leaving, a pickup pulling two horses in a trailer pulled into the lot; those horses must have enjoyed the lumpy ride in. We never did see the owner of the red truck, or anyone else for that matter.

In summary, it was an interesting hike, but very long. It should not be attempted in warm weather unless one can reach the trailhead by about 7 am, as there is almost no shade available. The trail is steep and covered with debris on the switchbacks, though the footing is much better than it had been on Quartz Peak the previous April. I would recommend this trail for anyone who enjoys a long, moderately demanding hike through Arizona’s arid desert mountains.

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updated October 19, 2017