Travel Hooray – Arizona Hiking: Deer Flat


A tree burnt by the Sears Fire teeters above Buck Basin

It’s been
a rough year for Deer Flat.  Pressure
from an extended drought and the

Sears Fire
in the back country north of Cave Creek has altered the terrain on the breezy, mountain-bound
rangeland.  But the place has grit and “good
bones” so it wears the effects of these most recent punches like just another pair
of black eyes that will heal. 

A calming scene near the top of Deer Flat

Deer Flat
sits at the top of a rise among the prominent peaks of Humboldt Mountain (5,204
feet and easily spotted by the big while FAA station on top), Willow Spring
Mountain (4,914 feet)  and Maverick Butte
(4,870 feet)—the enduring bone structure that defines the area.  Forest Road 1099, a rough OHV route that’s
been adopted by the Tonto Recreation Alliance, a non-profit volunteer group
that works with Tonto National Forest to educate the public about responsible
off-highway vehicle use and resource conservation, provides access through the
rugged desert space.

Milkweed pods dry in the sun on Deer Flat

Humboldt Mountain (center horizon) soars above Deer Flat

The hike
begins with an easy walk through grassy foothills just outside of the scar of
the Sears Fire which burned more than 14,000 acres of Tonto National Forest this
past October.

Open grasslands and junipers define Deer Flat

Cacti and scrub line FR 1099

A hiker gazes back at the New River Mountains from Deer Flat

As the road makes a gradual but constant ascent on a rocky,
wobbly track, amazing views of the New River Mountains to the west and peeks at
Scottsdale’s Pinnacle Peak to the south get bigger and better with each foot of
elevation gained.  At near the two-mile
point where a drought-dry stock tank sits off to the right, evidence of the
fire begins to creep up. 

Pinnacle Peak visible in distance from the road up to Deer Flat

Evidently, the
road served as a fire break that spared a scenic expanse of junipers and scrub
oak north of its rough-cut route  where glimpses
of hazy peaks jutting above the horizon hint at the combination of destruction
and resilience that lies ahead.  The
final slog to the hike’s high point culminates at the edge of Buck Basin with
jaw-dropping views of the Verde River Valley more than 2,000 feet below.  The road curves sharply southward on a ledge
above the precipice where the blaze took a heavy toll.  At this writing, the cause of the blaze is
still under investigation but its path of blackened stubble and acres of ash
bear witness to its intensity. Skeletal, charred trees and cacti fried to a
crisp teeter creepily over scorched earth backed by distant views of the familiar
profiles of Weavers Needle in the Superstition Wilderness and Four Peaks in the
Mazatzal Mountains. 

Catclaw acacia grows abundantly on Deer Flat

From this dizzying,
desolate platform, the vivid green corridor of the Verde River can be seen winding
unscathed at the bottom of the gaping basin as it flows south between Horseshoe
Reservoir and Bartlett Reservoir.  The
road continues for a half-mile to South Deer Flat Tank, another parched water
hole tucked into a ravine that makes for a good turnaround spot. 

The area around So. Deer Flat Tank is now prone to flooding

Fire damage around the tank is severe and its
location in the folds of mountain foothills puts it at risk for flooding. Avoid
hiking here during or immediately following storms because without deluge-mitigating
vegetation water will run in torrents and you could be trapped, injured or
swept away.

The hike follows Forest Road 1099

Much of Deer Flat escaped the Sears Fire


the aftermath of fire and ongoing drought, a hike up to Deer Flat remains a
stunning adventure.  Bemoaning memories
of “what was” while hiking through a burn scar like this one might offer
cathartic release, but it’s a buzz kill and also misses the big picture. 

The Sears Fire scar meets FR 1099

viewed through the lens of geological time, human memories are short, fickle
and finite.

Cycles of
drought, fire, flooding and climate change may abruptly alter vegetation and surface
characteristics in relatable time frames of days, months, years or centuries. This
is the stuff we remember. But the underlying bone of resilient geological
land forms hold steady.

Morning light in Tonto National Forest

Beautiful desert vistas abound on Deer Flat

Their appearance evolves over eons of jolts and erosion.
Observing these gradual transformations requires imperceptible timelines and more
memory than we have. So, just enjoy the moment.

Maverick Butte (right) stands tall over Buck Basin

5.7 miles round trip


3,585 – 4,493 feet


From Loop 101 in North Scottsdale, take the Pima/Princess
Road exit and go 13 miles north on Pima Road to Cave Creek Road.  Turn
right (east) and continue on Cave Creek Road (a.k.a. FR 24, Seven Springs Road)
to Forest Road 1099 located between MCDOT mile markers 9 and 10.  The road
is signed but is easy to miss—it’s on the right.  There’s a dirt parking circle a few yards in.  Roads are maintained dirt suitable for all


Tonto Recreation Alliance





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