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Goldfield Mountains - Apache Junction - Arizona

Photo by Mike Plagens

View looking north from Willow Springs Wash in the Goldfield Mountains.

Photo by Mike Plagens

A Jeep road runs down through Willow Springs Wash allowing for easy walking accesss to the area. However, these roads really should be closed to vehicular traffic because they contribute to uncontrolled erosion, introduction of exotic weeds, and irresponsible recreationists who leave rubbish.


Forget the Dutchman's lost gold. The Goldfield Mountains are a true botanical treasure that all can easily find and enjoy. They are located about 8 miles north of Apache Junction via Hwy. 88 (Apache Trail) and stretch westward for several miles. The scenery is spectacular in part because the rocks are formed from colorful and porous volcanic rock that also supports many colorful lichens, mosses and ferns. Another reason is that cattle are no longer grazed here. Several jeep roads allow for easy strolling in the desert hills. Hopefully, as the East Valley grows this area will be protected for future generations to enjoy.

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View Larger Map. The overlook parking area is indicated by the camera icon, Willow Springs Wash by the tree icon, to the west is Usery Mountain (table icon). There is camping available at Lost Dutchman State Park (tent icon). The hiker icon is location of the First Water Trailhead into the Superstition Wilderness.

Field Trip: Oct. 5, 2003 at Willow Springs Wash

Ten naturalists - Native Plant Society and Maricopa Audubon - gathered on Oct. 5th for a trek down Willow Springs Wash organized by Mike Plagens for the Phoenix Chapter of ANPS. We began our trek at the Weaver's Needle Vista, about six miles north of Apache Junction on the Apache Trail. The parking area and viewpoint are on the east side of the highway, looking out on the spectacular Superstition Mountains and a perfect view of Weaver's Needle. Willow Springs Wash passes just to the south of the parking area, which we followed west through a culvert under the highway and on into the Goldfield Mountains. Alternately, directly across the highway from the entrance to the vista is a jeep trail that goes directly down into the Willow Springs wash. The spectacular and colorful geography is due to the series of volcanoes that created the Superstitions and the Goldfields some 15-25 MYBP. Yellows, oranges and brick reds of fused volcanic ash with abundant desert vegetation and lichens made for wondrous scenery. There are at least five recognized volcanic calderas in this area including the Willow Springs Caldera, which we hiked through.

The perimeter of the parking area had a lush hedge of flowering Golden Alkali Bush (Isocoma acradenia), but we soon discovered that without the rain harvesting effect of the pavement, that this area was thoroughly dried and parched: our spotty summer monsoons had completely forgot the Goldfields and matched the omission with one of our hottest summers on record. Prickly pears and even the creosote bush were shriveled and yellowed. We took our adventure in stride, however, recognizing that this is what desert survival really means. The hardies of desert plants become largely dormant for extended periods if necessary.

Despite the extreme dryness we found some interesting plants in bloom. Willows and cottonwoods in the wash itself were stressed for sure, but green enough for us to know that they were tapping deep moisture flowing down from the Superstitions to the east. Sweet Bush (Bebbia juncea) and Golden Aster (Heterotheca villosa) were in bloom and gathering butterflies (6 spp.) to their offer of nectar. Other bloomers found were Wright's Buckwheat (Eriogonum wrightii), Three-Awn (Aristida purpurea), Waterweed (Baccharis sergiloides) and Indian Root (Aristolochia watsoni). We found several other interesting plants that were without blooms, including Carlowrightia arizonica and Crossosoma bigelovii.

Field Trip: Nov. 25th, 2006

Patches of Engelmann Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii) are definately on the decline in this area - possibly the result of cessation of intense cattle grazing - one sign of this decline are many dense colonies of Cochineal Scale (Dactylopius sp.) on the cactus pads. Here is my hypothesis: When cattle were were grazed at high densities prickly pear populations increased because they are generally avoided by foraging cattle at the expense of palatable herbs and grasses. Now the density of prickly pear is high allowing for rapid spread of scales while at the same time cattle-preferred plants are on the come back competing with prickly pears for water and sunlight weakening them to attack by scales and other insects and diseases.

Threats to Goldfield Mountains Ecology & Biodiversity


Common birds generally in order of abundance:

  1. Verdin --Sp,Su,F,W Tiny birds, barely larger than a hummingbird. Drab gray brown with a majestic yellow head.
  2. Mourning Dove -- Sp,Su,F,W
  3. Rock Wren -- Sp,Su,F,W
  4. Gila Woodpecker -- Sp,Su,F,W
  5. Phainopepla -- F,W,Sp
  6. Black-throated Sparrow -- Sp,Su,F,W Lovely birds with a jet-black throat and bib contrasted by bright white eye brows. Beautiful singers.
  7. House Finch -- Sp,Su,F,W
  8. Canyon Towhee -- Sp,Su,F,W
  9. Cactus Wren -- Sp,Su,F,W
  10. Brown-crested Flycatcher -- Myiarchus tyrannulus -- Sp,Su
  11. Gambel's Quail -- Sp,Su,F,W
  12. Ruby-crowned Kinglet -- Regulus calendula -- F,W
  13. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher -- Polioptila melanura -- Sp,Su,F,W
  14. Curve-billed Thrasher -- Sp,Su,F,W

Rock Wrens forage for spiders and insects in and around boulders.


In order of Abundance:

  1. Audubon's Cottontail -- Common.
  2. Coyote -- These animals often forage for rodents, rabbits, stray cats and fruit in the surrounding neighborhoods.
  3. White-throated Woodrat --
  4. Javelina --

Woodrats build huge mounds from twigs and cactus pieces.


In order of general abundance:
  1. Fishhook Pincushion (Mammalaria grahamii)
  2. Buckhorn Cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa) --
  3. Chain-fruit Cholla (Opuntia fulgida) -- Also known as Jumping Cholla.
  4. Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea giganteus) -- many of the living saguaros have their lower portions brown and non-photosynthetic. This is due to scorching by a range fire some years ago.
  5. Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) --
  6. Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) -- several patches upon the hillsides
  7. Prickly Pear -- Opuntia engelmannii -- probably hangers on from the cattle grazing days.
  8. Compass Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) -- Spines tinged with red and yellow.
  9. Desert Christmas Cactus (Opuntia leptocaulis) -- these will become easier to find as the thimble-sized fruits change to bright red through January and February
Photo by Mike Plagens

A Chain-fruit Cholla growing in the Goldfield Mts, Arizona.

Shrubs and Trees

More common species listed first.
This long list of frequent shrubs is evidence of the high biodiversity.

  1. Triangle-leaf Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) -- Leafless after periods of drought or hard frost.
  2. Foothills Palo Verde (Cercidium microphyllum) --
  3. Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) -- large shrubs with leathery, dark olive green leaves
  4. Wolfberry (Lycium spp.) --
  5. Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) --
  6. Salt Cedar (Tamarix pentandra) --
  7. Desert Trumpet -- Eriogonum inflatum --
  8. White Ratany -- Krameria grayi -- purplish cast to woody stems
  9. Brittle Bush (Encelia farinosa) -- Leafless after drought or frost. Leaves are silvery green and flowers are bright yellow.
  10. Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla) --
  11. Flat-topped Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) --
  12. Twinberry (Menodora scabra) --
  13. Brickle Bush (Brickelia coulteri)--
  14. Joint Fir -- Ephedra aspera --
  15. Sweet Bush (Bebbia juncea) --
  16. Desert Senna (Senna covesii) --
  17. Ironwood (Olneya tesota) --
  18. Bigelow Four O'Clock(Mirabilis bigelovii) --
  19. Canyon Ragweed (Ambrosia ambrosioides) - mostly along the washes
  20. Desert Mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum) - Parasitic shrub growing upon various desert trees including Palo Verde and Ironwood.
  21. Desert Rock Pea (Lotus rigidus) -- growing among rocks or boulders.
  22. Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) - peach colored blooms after periods of rain otherwise it is difficult to find
  23. Velvet Mesquite -- Prosopis velutina - mostly along the washes
  24. Cat Claw Acacia(Acacia greggiii) - also mostly along the washes
  25. Desert Hackberry (Celtis pallida) - along the washes
  26. Graythorn (Zizyphus obtusifolia) -- wash
  27. Desert Broom (Baccharis sarothroides) - another wash shrub
  28. Janusia (Janusia gracilis) - a twisty, viney plant
  29. Lance-leaf Ditaxis (Argythamnia lanceolata)
  30. Shrubby Bedstraw (Galium stellatum) -- growing amongst rocks
  31. Goodding's Willow (Salix goodingii) -- amazingly yes -- along Willow Springs Wash
  32. Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) -- a few stressed trees along Willow Springs Wash - some appear to have had better days and are now just hanging on.
  33. Trixis (Trixis californica) --
  34. Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) -- dark evergreen shrub with shiny, resinous leaves and dark wirey twigs.
  35. Turpentine Bush -- Ericameria laricifolia
  36. Turpentine Broom -- Thamnosma montana -- this is the furthest southeast that I have encountered this shrub
  37. Desert Milkweed (Ascepias subulata) -- sandy areas smooth greenish stems w/o leaves
  38. Hop Bush (Dodonaea viscosa)
  39. Alkali Goldenweed (Isocoma acradenia)
  40. Antelope Horns (Asclepias asperula) -- lower than usual elevation
  41. Ragged Rock Flower (Crossosoma bigelovii) -- in the shade of narrow ravines or north facing slopes
  42. Bernardia (Bernardia incana) -- in the shade of narrow ravines or north facing slopes
  43. Goldeneye (Viguiera deltoidea)
  44. Rock Echeveria (Dudleya saxosa) - succulent on porous north-facing slopes
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Pen and Ink by Mike Plagens

A Sketch of Crossosoma growing in the Goldfield Mts, Arizona. The flowers appear in early spring. Sara Orange-tip butterflies are likely to be found at the same time. The butterflies are yellow with orange.

Spring Wildflowers - (observed Feb 21, 1998)

White Flowers

  1. Wright's Buckwheat -- Eriogonum wrightii
  2. Plains Blackfoot Daisy -- Melampodium leucanthum
  3. Lacepod -- Thysanocarpus curvipes
  4. Miner's Lettuce -- Claytonia perfoliata
  5. Bigelow's Four O'Clock;Desert Wishbone Bush -- Mirabilis laevis
  6. Desert Windflower -- Anemone tuberosa
  7. Popcorn Flower -- Cryptantha spp.
  8. Arch-nutted Comb Bur -- Pectocarya recurvata
  9. Ragged Rock Flower -- Crossosoma bigelovii
  10. Rattlesnake Weed -- Chamaesyce albomarginata
  11. Bigroot -- Marah gilensis
  12. Tansy Mustard -- Descurainia pinnata
  13. Flat-topped Buckwheat -- Eriogonum fasciculatum

Yellow Flowers

  1. Desert Rock Pea -- Lotus rigidus
  2. Trixis -- Trixis californica
  3. Brittlebush -- Encelia farinosa
  4. Desert Marigold -- Baileya multiradiata
  5. London Rocket -- Sisymbrium irio
  6. Goldeneye -- Viguiera deltoidea

Orange Flowers

  1. Orange Fiddleneck -- Amsinckia intermedia
  2. California Poppy -- Eschscholzia californica
  3. Desert Globe Mallow -- Sphaeralcia ambigua

Pink/Lavender Flowers

  1. Bigelow's Four O'Clock;Desert Wishbone Bush -- Mirabilis laevis
  2. Desert Lavender -- Hyptis emoryi
  3. Desert Globe Mallow -- Sphaeralcia ambigua
  4. Red-stemmed Fillaree -- Erodium cicutarium

Blue/Purple Flowers

  1. Notch-leaved Phacelia -- Phacelia crenulata
  2. Blue Dicks -- Dichelostemma capitatum

Greenish Flowers

  1. Hop Bush -- Dodonea viscosa
  2. Jojoba -- Simmondsia chinensis
  3. Hairy Bowlesia -- Bowlesia incana
  4. Peppergrass -- Lepidium lasiocarpum
  5. Triangle-leaf Bursage -- Ambrosia deltoidea
  6. Indianwheat; Woolly Plantain -- Plantago ovata
  7. Canyon Ragweed -- Ambrosia ambrosioides
  8. Odora -- Porophyllum gracile

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