By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/20/2020
Posted: 4/17/2010
Topics/Keywords: #Tonopah #Arizona #SaddleMountain #Photography Page Views: 3781
I go 4-wheeling in the Sonoran Desert.

About 40 miles west of Phoenix just south of I-10 at Tonopah, are a pair of volcanic mountains linked by a saddle of lower hills. The more dramatic western peak is Saddle Mountain. It is composed of lighter-colored lava, tuff and rhyolite. The eastern peaks are nearly black basaltic lava of the Quaternary Age. I spent today driving my SUV around Saddle Mountain, getting photos and enjoying the solitude.

I spent last night at El Dorado Hot Spring in Tonopah, but this time didn't bother bringing a tent—I simply inflated a queen-sized mattress in the back of the SUV and made it into a bed; then tossed a bag with toiletries and clean clothes into the passenger seat, and set out on my way.

You can see Saddle Mountain from the hot spring. A number of the soaking areas, in fact, are positioned so as to frame it as one soaks.

Saddle Mountain from the east.

I had been to Saddle Mountain once before, shortly after Michael and I joined ANDES, the Arizona Nude Dudes (a gay men's nudist club). I went on a nude hike out here, the last one I ever expect to make in Arizona. While I love the feel of the sun on my whole body, Arizona does not really provide a nude-friendly environment. It's too prickly. Everything has sharp edges and most things have spines. It took three weeks for the scratches on my butt to heal.

So this time I kept my clothes on and concentrated on driving my trusty Ford Expedition as close as I could to the mountain itself.

What's The Deal

Saddle Mountain, despite its proximity to I-10, provides a solitude experience that's hard to come by even in the more remote parts of the state. I did see one other car while I was there, but only one. And I heard nothing: No power lines, no rock music, no shotguns. When I shut down my engine, other than the brittle desert breeze and my own breathing, there were no sounds at all. I would generally recommend the place for its many hikes and secluded side canyons. But it's terrific for a Saturday drive as well.

How To Get There

Exit 94 off I-10 is the Tonopah exit, and puts you right on 411th Avenue. Take it south a couple of miles till it forks, and turn right onto Salome Highway. The scenery from Salome is exquisite in its own right; and yet almost everything you see acts to draw attention to Saddle Mountain, which rises up from the desert floor.

Saddle Mountain.

Another 3 miles or so will get you to the end of the pavement, but a left onto West Courthouse Road is still paved. Continue south until you see the Saddle Mountain trail info kiosk; it's just off the road but visible from it. Or, use your GPS set to these coordinates:

Latitude: 113 3' 30.576" S Longitude: 33 27' 8.59" E

The Drive

Don't attempt this without a high-rise, 4-wheel drive vehicle!

I first drove south of the kiosk, staying on Salome Highway, to a point where I could get a panorama of this chunk of ancient volcano.

Saddle Mountain

From another, slightly closer vantage, Saddle Mountain rose above an agricultural field.

Saddle Mountain beyond a field.

I then turned onto the dirt road leading directly to the kiosk and the mountain.

Saddle Mountain kiosk and off-road trails.

The road splits at the kiosk. I took the right-hand road.

Stately saguaros, Arizona's state tree, stand guard along the desert floor. The yare fairly limited as to the altitude at which they can grow, and do not go high up the mountainside. It being springtime, there were also a multitude of wildflowers.

Saguaro and wildflowers decorate the desert floor.

The kiosk is on the western side of the mountain but the road I took curved around to the south, then headed back towards the eastern side. The mountain is so irregularly shaped that it takes on a completely different appearance from every angle.

Saddle Mountain, south face Blooming ocotillo.

As I mentioned, the desert was definitely blooming. For some reason, I've never noticed an ocotillo bloom before; but these were, their spiny fingers red as if they'd just had their nails done.

Ocotillo spends much of the year looking like a dead bush. Only on close examination can one see the traces of green present in its prickly stems. But when it rains (and we had a wet winter this year), the stems grow tiny leaves, giving them a green appearance. And, as I saw, the ocotillo blooms at the tips are orange-red, and attract bees and hummingbirds of various sorts.

Even though I was alone I wanted "proof" I'd been here. So I struggled with the timer on my camera, which I have not yet mastered, perched it on the side mirror of the car, and ran into the desert as quickly as I could so I could turn around and pose before the ten seconds ran out.

Your blogger in the Sonoran Desert.

The below photo is probably the best I got of the actual "saddle" that gives Saddle Mountain its name.

Saddle Mountain's saddle.

The Quaternary Period spans both the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. (We are in the Holocene epoch now.) Some 10 million years ago Arizona was a hotbed of geologic activity, including many erupting volcanoes stretching from what is now Flagstaff southward. Saddle Mountain is twin cinder cones of a couple of these volcanoes. The ground today is still littered with volcanic chucks spewed out during one eruption or another.

Just so you'll know what to expect, here's a typical stretch of the road I followed. I did not attempt to exceed about 8 miles an hour.

The 4WD road around Saddle Mountain.

One of the cinder cones is still quite distinct and almost intact after all these years.

Saddle Mountain cinder cone.

Here's a clear picture of a cinder field. Imagine running through here 10 millions years ago, trying to dodge the flying rocks!

Saddle Mountain cinder field.

Not everything did, and there are more than a few fossils to be found in these fields. From more recent times are many petroglyphs left by local Native Americans, for whom Saddle Mountain was a useful and unique landmark.

In the other direction, downslope, can be seen some of the currently-farmed fields, with more volcanic mountains receding into the distance.

Downslope, looking west from Saddle Mountain

I suspect the dirt road that I took, to the right of the kiosk, circles the mountain and returns to its left. But I don't know, because I came to a major washout I didn't want to risk without backup.

Road washout near Saddle Mountain.

Besides, it was now getting time for dinner. So I turned around, carefully onto a dry patch so as not to injure any more of the desert than I could avoid, and returned the way I came. Within 30 minutes I was back in a tub, soaking in the lithium-rich mineral waters of the hot spring!