The Four Peaks Wilderness area is located about 15 miles east of Fountain Hills. It was established in 1984 and encompasses 60,740 acres. At its north end are the Four Peaks that can be seen from almost anywhere in Fountain Hills: four jagged, rocky spires that are the four highest points of the Mazatzal mountain range that extends all the way to the west of Payson. The wilderness area itself is tremendously diverse in geology, plants and animals as its elevation ranges from 1900 feet MSL to 7657 at Brown’s Peak, the northmost and highest of the Four Peaks. Opportunities for hiking, camping, photography, equestrian, off-road and other activities are plentiful.
The Four Peaks Wilderness area contains the southeastern end of the Mazatzal mountain range, a mostly northwest-southeast trending range that is approximately 40 miles long and extends to the same latitude as Payson Arizona at its northern end. The Four Peaks themselves are approximately 20 miles ENE of Fountain Hills and can be seen from most of Fountain Hills and from quite a bit of the Phoenix Metro area also. The Four Peaks are such a prominent central Arizona landmark that it is part of the graphic on the standard Arizona license plate. The Wilderness Area can be divided into three zones by elevation/topography. The first zone is the Sonoran desert zone at the lower elevations. This is relatively flat with bluffs and canyons punctuating it. The second zone is the accelerating upslope region of ridges and drainages that builds up to the Four Peaks structure at the top. The third is the Four Peaks themselves: craggy, tortured heaps of shale and quartzite. In many parts of the wilderness area volcanic flows and tuff can be seen. Four Peaks is also known for its Amethyst and is still mined for this mineral.
Because of the large range in elevation, plant diversity is incredible in the Four Peaks Wilderness area. Not only does the elevation range increase variety, but microclimates are created by various factors such as shading, slope direction, soil composition, and access to water. In some areas you can see cool, shade and water loving flowers thriving, yet walk 30 feet up the slope and you will run into cacti and agaves thriving in the sun on a dry ridge.
In the lower elevations the Sonoran desert plants thrive in most areas – iconic Saguaros, Barrel Cactus, Ocotillos, Palo Verdes, Ironwood, and many varieties of Agaves and Cactus. Riparian areas (areas around rivers, lakes, and springs) support their own kind of vegetation, Cottonwoods and Sycamores being common in these areaa. As elevation increases the Sonoran zone gives way to grasslands, Pinon Pine, Gambel Oak and Manzanita among other mid-elevation plants. Higher up you will find Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Fir. Some Aspen can even be found clinging to the north of the Peaks!
It’s hard to believe, but this area has one of the highest concentrations of black bears in Arizona! During certain dry years when foraging is scarce, the bears can make their way to the city and often end up on the news. In addition to bears, other large animals found here are Coyotes, Mountain Lions, Javelina, Deer, and Bobcats. Desert Bighorn sheep have been reintroduced in the general area too. Smaller species include Jackrabbits and Cottontails, Skunks, Ringtail Cats and various rodents. Of course Rattlesnakes as well as other snakes can always be present during warmer parts of the year, so be on the lookout for them. Lizards (including the rare Gila Monster), scorpions, centipedes and millipedes as well as numerous spiders are also found. If you haven’t hiked in the desert before, these creepy-crawlys are generally easily avoided by NOT sitting down without looking or sticking your hands in crevices. In addition to the aforementioned native animals and critters, you may also see cows, as livestock grazing is permitted within certain areas of the Wilderness.
Many of the higher mountain ranges in Arizona create their own weather patterns. During the Monsoon season you will often see clouds forming over Four Peaks and other high mountain tops before they do elsewhere. This is caused by two main factors. The first is that as a moist air mass moves across the desert it may not be near saturation, which is required to form clouds and rain. However, when this mass hits the front of a mountain like Four Peaks it gets pushed up and cools. This reduces the amount of moisture that the air can hold, and if the conditions are right clouds will condense. The second factor is that the sun will heat one side of the mountain more intensely in the morning creating thermal updrafts which help loft the moist air even higher.
A common phenomenon at the tops of mountains is the increase of wind at altitude. At times, wind can be almost undetectable on the ground but can be 30-40 MPH at the top. When the wind is blowing fast in your neighborhood in Fountain Hills or the Valley, you can be pretty sure it will be howling in the higher reaches of the Four Peaks. Also, ambient air temperature drops by 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit per 1000 feet of elevation gained. For example, if the temperature is a comfortable 75 degrees in Mesa, it could a bit over 50 at the top of Brown’s Peak. Added to this cooling-with-altitude effect is the wind-chill factor. The last dangerous weather phenomenon that needs careful attention is lightning. This can be expected as not only do Cumulonimbus clouds often form here first in monsoon season, the lightning they emit also tends to hit the highest and most exposed objects.
When the monsoons come in July through September the clouds, rain and lightning are almost a daily event. Many houses in Fountain Hills are built to take advantage of mountain views as Fountain Hills is surrounded by mountains, but Four Peak’s views are arguably the favorite of most residents. It is hard to beat sitting on your patio watching a Monsoon Thunderstorm develop into its final furious crescendo of lightning and rain pummeling down on Four Peaks and then moving into Fountain Hills.
On many of the cloudy days of winter the Four Peaks are either capped by or ensconced in clouds. After a winter storm there is often a good layer of snow on the Four Peaks. It rarely lasts long but it is spectacular when it is there! All of these effects combine to make the Four Peaks Wilderness a tremendously diverse habitat and beautiful place to observe, but it can also make it dangerous at the top. Please check the weather forecast and be prepared for all eventualities and never travel or hike alone!
In late April of 1996, the Lone fire occurred in the area of Lone Pine saddle. Up to that point it was one of the largest fires (acreage-wise) to have occurred in Arizona history. Campers did not put out a campfire properly and by the time the resulting blaze was extinguished 11 days later, 61,500 acres had burned.
There are a number of trails in the Four Peaks Wilderness area, although many are very poorly maintained:
- Cane Springs Trail #77
- Alder Saddle Trail #81
- Alder Trail #82
- Soldier Trail #83
- Lower Soldier Trail #84
- Oak Flat Trail #123
- Four Peaks Trail #130
- Chillicut Trail #132
- Brown’s Trail #133
- Pigeon Trail #134
The most popular trails are the Four Peaks Trail, Brown’s Trail, and the Pigeon Trail. Although none of the trails go directly to any of the Four Peaks themselves, a hiker can use the Brown’s Trail to get a few hundred feet below Brown’s Peak and climb up a steep rocky chute to Brown’s Peak itself. Please be aware that any springs or water sources are ephemeral so bring plenty of water for your hike. Also keep in mind that all else being equal, air temperature drops by 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit per 1000 feet of elevation gained, and that it can be very windy near the top of Four Peaks. If there are storms forecast or forming get off the mountain quickly! Four Peaks is hammered by lightning during storms.
The views from most of the trails are spectacular! On the west side of the ‘Peaks you can see Fountain Hills and a panoramic view of the Valley. On the other side you get stunning views of Roosevelt Lake and the Sierra Ancha range. On certain trails Saguaro, Canyon, and Apache lakes are visible also. Make sure to bring your camera!