Navajo County High Point Trip Report

Black Mesa (8,168 ft)

Date: August 4, 2001
Author: Adam Helman

Black Mesa of Navajo County is the most remote county highpoint in Arizona insofar as distance from major cities and from other county highpoints in the state. As the names imply, Black Mesa (8,168 ft) is a large flat expanse sitting perhaps 1,500-2,000 feet above the surrounding lands of the Navajo Indian Reservation.

The standard approach entails a 2 mile drive from route 160 up to the mesa rim, followed by a further 12 miles on the mesa top along a series of dirt roads. From that point a six mile cross-country hike leads one to the highest point on the mesa at the extreme northeast tip thereof.

In the effort to secure Navajo County prior to a contemplated Arizona state completion on a future date (again, this county is NOT readily fit into a trip visiting other AZ county highpoints), I decided to spend my weekend reaching it's highpoint out of my home in San Diego, California.

The flight from San Diego to Phoenix after work Friday evening (August 3, 2001) was delayed one hour. After arrival in Phoenix at roughly 10 P.M. I rented a standard passenger vehicle and drove north along route 17 to Flagstaff in some 2 hours 10 minutes (I would not drive that fast for the remainder of the trip, since the gasoline mileage suffered considerably). During the drive I enjoyed a show of lightning along the north and northwest skyline.

Three motels in Flagstaff were either full or too pricey so I feel asleep on the auto back seats by 1:30 A.M.

I awoke feeling halfway rested at 4:30 A.M. and decided to continue north along route 89 despite having noted that I would pass by the village of Cameron prior to when an office there opens up to allow for purchase of a pass from the Navajo Nation that sanctions one to legally wander the highlands of Black Mesa.

After a three hour drive I was atop Black Mesa and following the road log as described by Andy Martin. I approached the gate at mile 7.3, described as fully open in the previous trip reports, only to find it locked.

There was a series of no less than 4 padlocks, with intertwining metal chains, along the left side of the gate. On the front of the gate, seemingly slapped on because it had an air of hasty construction to it, was a diagonally placed wooden plank with the most blatant condemnation by a landowner of our hobby that I had ever witnessed:


It was 8:30 AM and I considered my options. With an additional seven miles to hike from a locked gate, I was looking at a 26 mile hike. Given the summer heat my three quarts of water was insufficient - let alone that I would be returning by dark.

I then considered a re-attempt the following morning by calculating when I would have to finish in order to make my 7:55 PM flight home the following (Sunday) evening: I would have to return to my vehicle by 2 P.M. after a 26 mile day hike. That implied a 1-2 A.M. starting time along a road at night that required an automobile odometer to accurately navigate during daylight hours. Furthermore I had never previously been along said stretch of road.

I examined my maps and decided a direct approach up the sheer northern face of the mesa rim at a point where a notch is formed by a gulley just west of point Kayenta. This appeared from the map to be the least steep portion of the mesa rim.

I returned to route 160 and drove roughly 15 miles east to a point where I could survey the mesa rim near the contemplated climbing route. I left the highway along some dirt tracks in the effort to shorten the horizontal walking distance to the sheer mesa rim. I earned perhaps one-half mile this way. It was 9:30 A.M. when I began hiking.

After about 45 minutes I was atop a small plateau that was an extension of the mesa proper and just 500 feet above the valley floor. The effort, which involved class 2 with some class 3, gave me confidence to continue climbing up to the mesa rim itself.

The shallower section originally planned upon was hidden behind a obstructing rock wall. The only way to view my potential route up close was to veer far off course to avoid an extremely steep 300 foot drop and re-ascent through a depression that reminded me of a meteor crater.

Looking around, I spotted another route which appeared to be doable since it seemed to avoid the most sheer rock formations by tracing out a zigzag pattern around them and eventually leading to a tree-filled ridge. which led to the rim proper. I decided to check it out.

I managed to surmount a long, horizontal band of vertical rock by hiking a 30 degree slope immediately to the west. I then traversed the length of the vertical rock band along a 45 degree rocky slope immediately above it - using tree branches at times to steady myself.

The plan was to continue around a protruding rock horn and access the ridge line that from a distance appeared to contain only trees. The ridge APPEARED to have a 30 degree slope and APPEARED to lead straight to the rim perhaps 600-800 feet higher still.

I tried at least three times to find a path that led to the (now fabled) ridge. Each time I was thwarted by class 4 rock formations wherein a fall would quite possibly be fatal.

Time to turn back. Major problem - I could not find my way down from above the rock band. I stayed calm even though I realized that nobody knew of my novel route and so it would be a while before any rescue attempt could find me (or my remains?).

I thrashed to-and-fro for nearly one-half hour along the entire length of ground from where I might have ascended above the rock band. Finally I found a spot that, although requiring a four foot jump down, would not present any real danger.

I decided to just forget about going around the crater-like depression for the originally planned route up the gulley: for I understood now that although at a distance (and hence on the scale of any map) the territory has a tolerably shallow AVERAGE slope, it it arranged in a staircase fashion with sections of vertical rock faces separating shallower ground.

Furthermore there was now thunderstorm activity in the area and it would be quite stupid to reach the highpoint under those conditions.

So I headed directly down a wash and reached the valley floor in short order. The final several hundred horizontal feet to my vehicle was now a field of mud - and I accumulated a full inch of mud under each of my boots. The misadventure had consumed a hair under 4 hours.

I changed into tennis shoes because the rental agency would surely charge me for cleaning an interior filled with muddy boot marks.

The dirt tracks were now impassible by my passenger car seeing as they were filled with water along much of their lengths. I elected to drive parallel to the tracks over foot-high sagebrush in the effort to avoid getting stuck in the mud and then walking to Kayenta some 2-3 miles east for the assistance of a tow truck. I am certain the car agency did not anticipate such treatment of their vehicle!

At a Kayenta gas station I finally ate my summit lunch food (I had not eaten anything all day yet) washed down with a Starbuck's chilled mocha "Frappuccino". It was about 2 P.M.

I considered a re-attempt the following day but realized that the weather would probably not cooperate then either.

The drive back west along route 160 saw flooding in several places. Navajo Nation patrol officials enforced long lines of car caravans with only one direction of traffic allowed to move at a time.

A seriously heavy downpour including some hail topped off the afternoon. At least I wouldn't have to get the car washed any more!

The following morning I awoke at 3:55 AM in a Cameron motel room, gave my boots a bath in the shower stall, and headed south for the Phoenix area. My intention was to locate small mountains as "targets of opportunity" which I would climb in the early morning prior to the most hallacious of the heat. Small was the keyword: I wanted to save mid-day for lunch at a fancy restaurant, located in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, that I had learned of years before ("Windows on the Green").

I successfully climbed two 500 foot tall hills (class 2 both) which appealed to me by the nature of their shapes. The first was located immediately to the northwest of the intersection at exit 236 on route 17 about 30 miles north of Phoenix. There was a seven foot cloth "X" on top likely used for airplane navigation.

The second was on route 74 as it leads west to route 60 on the way to Wickenburg. I had spotted it a month earlier during my trip for the Maricopa and Gila county highpoints and had settled in my mind that someday I would climb it. It looks impossibly sheer from the east and yet there is a class 2 route up the (hidden) southwest face.

I changed in a Phoenix gas station bathroom labeled "out of service" (so nobody would knock on the door as I "showered" my torso using the sink faucet's water). The day's activity had made me very sweaty: Trotting in 100 F weather is not too fun. I did so on the second hill, when, upon just reaching the summit (such that I could be spotted from all directions), I had heard gun shots in the distance.

I learned later that I had been on a private gunnery range complete with barbed wire fence that I slithered under by the roadside. Getting shot at is not too fun either: more likely (and hopefully) either the timing of the gunfire was coincidental with my summit arrival, or they were merely warning shots ("get off this property").

I called the restaurant ... drats: they only serve dinner starting at six. My flight was 7:55 PM so I had sacrified the Camelback, or perhaps Pyramid Peak (three miles east of route 17 just 20 miles north of Phoenix) for nothing (except two hills I suppose).

I drove through downtown in a vain attempt to find something interesting to do. Unsuccessful, I returned the car and was exchanging my ticket for an earlier flight by 12:55 PM. A 1:15 flight was available but my duffle bag would not make it in time. So I chose the next not-totally-full flight at 4:55 PM (which ended up being delayed one-half hour), and had a nice meal in the airport at terminal 4's only decent restaurant.

What a way to spend the weekend!