How ‘Bout Them Apples? Backpacking to Reavis Ranch

I owe you guys an apology: I’ve put off writing this post for months. I have no real excuse. Two months ago I went on a great backpacking trip with great people. I’m sorry its taken me so long to tell you about it.


This is Puyang.

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Puyang is a genuinely good guy who has been asking me for a year to take him backpacking. He wanted mountains, but with the recent winter weather going someplace high, like Mount Baldy, was out of the question. Instead we needed something at lower elevation that could introduce Puyang to all the best parts of backpacking. He is in great shape, so the hike needed to be challenging (but not absurdly so), and he is a geographer by trade, so a little Arizona-ness would be a plus.

There is only one answer for a situation like this: Reavis Ranch.

Now, I’ve talked about Reavis Ranch before, but this is worth rehashing. If you don’t like history consider this your trigger warning.


TRIGGER WARNING: HISTORY BELOW

Elisha Reavis was, even by the standards of his day, nuts. Born to a well-off family in Illinois, Reavis taught school early in his life. Bored of his perfectly good and comfortable life, Reavis quit his job and became a gold prospector in California in the 1850s. In 1867 Reavis married and had a child, but he quickly got bored of that too, so he abandoned his wife and daughter and moved to Arizona in 1869.

It is probably worth stopping for a second and thinking about what “moving to Arizona” meant in 1869. Arizona had only been part of the United States, as a territory, for 20 years. Before that Arizona was so sparsely populated by peoples of European descent that General Stephen Kearny conquered the entire area without fighting a single battle during the Mexican American War. During the Civil War there were so few Union troops in the territory that it only took 160 men to capture all of Tucson. After the Civil War the US realized they had basically no control of the area and, knowing that they couldn’t actually enforce any laws, they started building forts to “shock” the Native Americans into submission. Even for someone with extreme wanderlust, Arizona in the 1860s was an objectively terrible place. Reavis abandoned his wife and child so he could go there. This should tell us something about him.

Reavis is most famous for founding a ranch deep within the Superstition Mountains.  For non-Arizonans it is probably worth noting that the Supersitions are not very “ranch-y.” Located right on the line between Arizona’s grassland and desert, the Supes are hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and only have a few water sources. Local peoples, primarily Apache, had been living in the Supes for generations, but most subsisted off of hunting, gathering, and raiding other nearby tribes, not ranching. Perhaps most importantly, since there were no major streams for beaver and the chance of attacks from Native Americans were high, European Americans did not travel there often and little was known about the area. None of this stopped Reavis from waking up one day and walking blindly into an enormous mountain range, fully convinced he would find a good place to ranch there. This should tell us something else about him.

Somehow, after weeks of wandering, he managed to stumble into the only arable valley in the region. There he built an enormous ranch house, complete with a library and an apple orchard, which still produces well. As was the tradition of the time Reavis asked exactly no one before declaring the land his own.

However, as you might imagine, the local Apaches were none too thrilled to find that their best hunting ground had been claimed by some dude who showed up yesterday, and they decided to remove him. Reavis fought them for several days, before realizing that he, one man, couldn’t single-handedly kill every person in an entire tribe. He thus decided that the next logical step WAS TO THROW DOWN HIS GUN, TAKE OFF HIS CLOTHES, AND RUN AROUND NAKED WITH BUTCHER KNIFES IN HIS HANDS until the locals (rightly) decided he was too crazy to screw with. Somehow this plan worked, and Reavis survived. Unfortunately Reavis hadn’t really thought the whole thing out: the nearest towns were multiple days away and he eventually died because hiking in and out of the Superstitions every time you need to go to the store is freaking hard.

END HISTORY 


I made up 0% of that story. See, history can be fun, right? Right?? No? Okay. Onto the hike.

Curry and I picked up Puyang about 6AM and headed down AZ88 towards the Reavis Ranch Trailhead. I like this trailhead for a couple of reasons:

1.) Access off of AZ88 doesn’t require 4WD (though a high clearance car is probably necessary).

2.) Trail 109N, which starts from the Trailhead, is the most gradual way to get to Reavis Ranch. Any other route is going to be a lot steeper with a lot more up and down.

However, the drive from AZ88 to the trailhead is pretty terrifying. Exactly one car wide with a sheer cliff on one side, this is not the drive to take if you are afraid of heights.

We hit the trail about 8AM, and the sun was blinding as we started uphill towards Castle Dome.

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After 5.5 miles, we finally reached Windy Pass, on the back side of Castle Dome, and started our long descent to the Ranch itself.

At this point I started feeling nervous. I had promised everyone some Reavis Ranch apples, hyping up their insane sweetness and unique texture for weeks. Golab and I had done this hike exactly one year before, and the apples were everywhere then, but looking around all the broad leaved trees were looking pretty bare.

As we came around the corner from Frog Tanks into Reavis Valley my worst fears were realized. In the distance all the apple trees were bright yellow. The view from our campsite was pretty nice all the same.

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Holding out a little hope, we decided to explore the orchard. A few hours later this was the closest thing we found.

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At least the yellow trees gave us the chance at some pretty fall colors.

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Back at camp we taught Puyang how to pump water before drinking around the campfire getting a good night’s sleep.

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In the morning I woke up and my knee was killing me. It had started bothering me in Aravaipa Canyon the weekend before, and had “pinched” a few times on the walk in. This morning I couldn’t even bend down to tie my shoes. Maybe my knee will loosen up as we walk, I thought.

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Nope. Not at all. My knee hurt every inch of the way. By the end it was debilitating. On the upside, I figured out it is possible to waddle downhill without bending your knee if you try hard enough.

Which brings me back to why it has taken so long to write this post. Two months and countless doctor’s appointments later it has been decided that body needs time off. My winter hiking season has been replaced with bi-weekly physical therapy. In the words of my doctor, “You can either hike this winter or the rest of your life. Your choice.”

This is somehow a hard choice. The first day of our trip Puyang asked me what my other hobbies were. Taken aback, I paused and then Curry burst out laughing. “Max doesn’t have other hobbies,” he said. Two months without hiking later I’m still trying to figure out what my other hobbies are. In two more months and entire season of my hiking prime will be gone. It’s been hard.

All that being said, this trip was a great one to go out on. It had everything I love: good hiking, amazing views, great people, and a chance to introduce someone to backpacking. Looking around the trails it’s pretty obvious that backpackers are a dying breed. Hopefully we’ve got one more in our corner now.


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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

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20 thoughts on “How ‘Bout Them Apples? Backpacking to Reavis Ranch

  1. Sounds like a fun trip, despite the apple debacle. I never like hearing about a fellow hiker getting knocked out of the game by an injury. Hopefully the knee will heal up quickly, and spring is right around the corner!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Rich–

      Thanks for reading! A hammock would be possible, anchoring on some of the Apple trees or possible the Sycamore near the creek. Be warned though, the grass grows really high (waist or higher) throughout the ranch area so you be getting poked all night long.

      Have fun!
      Max

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  2. Hi…like your writing style, but there are inaccuracies in your story of Reavis. Read some of Tom Kellenborn’s (world’s foremost Supes historian) articles to get up to speed. No one knows where Reavis’ shack was, and he died circa 1896 (?). As you say, his body was found on the trail, but the SOUTH trail via AZ60 (a more beautiful approach IMO), and his grave can be seen there. The ranch house wasn’t built until the 1930’s. The history of the Reavis Ranch area is, nonetheless fascinating….there is ample circumstantial evidence to suggest Reavis may have actually been murdered!!!

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    1. Hi, Patrick–

      Thanks for your note. I’m a fan of Mr. Kollenborn’s work– that’s why I linked to it in the post! Just to be clear, I never said he died on the north trail, just that he died because hiking in and out of the Supersitions all the time is hard. However, hiking in and out of the Supersitions was also dangerous in the 1890s, and I’ve heard rumors that he may have been murdered as well. Kollenborn doesn’t bring up murder in his “The Final Days of Elisha Reavis,” which I’ve always taken as the definitive account of his death. As with most things that happened in the the mountains in the 1890s, we’ll never know for sure.

      Thanks for the info on the new ranch house– I always assumed the one that the big house was the one Reavis built! I wonder how he fit his library in a little shack?

      Thanks again,
      Max

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  3. Max, great post and amazing history!! I had been researching and checking out various Arizona abandoned orchards. Will have to make it to Reavis ranch sometimes. Have you run into any other orchards while hiking? Thank you!
    Kristina

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kristina!

      Reavis is the only one I know of right off hand. Arizona has a narrow band of elevation that is the right temps for apples (even Reavis can loose it’s apples if there is a late freeze) but I would guess there have to be a few others out there.

      If you aren’t dead set on the apples and are looking for a hike in the same area, I JUST got back from the West Pinto trail out of the Miles TH and it offers a lot of the same– big views, old ranches, and sycamores that are changing colors right this moment– with much smaller crowds.

      Liked by 1 person

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