Sierra Ancha (meaning “broad range” in Spanish) is a mountain range located in the central region of the US state of Arizona. The mountains, along with the surrounding ranges, mark part of the transitional zone of southern Arizona. There are 86 named peaks in the range with Aztec Peak being the tallest at 7,733 feet (2,357 m) tall and most prominent peak with 2,493 feet (760 m) of prominence.
Sierra Ancha, which translates to “broad range” in Spanish, is a sweeping mountain range found in central Arizona. The range lies within Gila County, covering land in Tonto National Forest, Sierra Ancha Wilderness and Salome Wilderness.
Geographic features that surround the range include Roosevelt Lake to the south, Cherry Creek to the east, Pleasant Valley to the north and the Tonto Basin to the west.
Sierra Ancha, along with the Bradshaw Mountains, Black Hills, and Mazatzal Mountains mark part of the transition zone between the desert lowlands of southern Arizona and the Colorado Plateau portion of northeastern Arizona.
The range lies within the central portion of the Tonto National Forest. While sections of the range feature a forested landscape, there are also large sections free of tree coverage. Many of the tallest peaks in the region offer panoramic views of the range and surrounding national forest.
Deep canyons cut across the range, especially in the eastern flank. The relatively remote landscape features minimal amounts of trails and roads, making the range one of the most rugged and inaccessible regions in the state.
The box canyons are met with towering peaks covered in pine trees and rocky buttes. Elevations in the Sierra Ancha range from around 2,100 feet (640 m) along the shores of Lake Roosevelt, up to the summit of Aztec Peak.
Prominent streams in the range include the Salome Creek and Workman Creek. Salome Creek is protected by the Salome Wilderness.
Additionally, Sierra Ancha is located near numerous other regions for outdoor recreation. Some of these include Superstition Wilderness and Four Peaks Wilderness to the south, Salt River Canyon Wilderness to the southeast, and the Mazatzal Wilderness to the west. A portion of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lies north of range.
The Sierra Anchas lies within the Tonto Basin, which began forming between 1.5 to 2 billion years ago. Sedimentary deposits were left behind as the seas that once covered the region began retreating.
The Mazatzal Revolution uplifted and folded the landscape through a series of tectonic shifts. Around 10 to 30 million years ago the once flat plain was uplifted abruptly, creating the series of ranges and basins that define the Basin and Range region.
The Salt River, which lies just south of the range, along with various other waterways, further carved out the landscape, creating deep canyons and basins. A substantial amount of erosion took place around 400,000 years ago, marking the Sierra Anchas as one of the most rugged regions in the state.
Rock found in the range consists of shale, quartzite, and dolomitic limestone. The unique color of the cliffs is due to the Dripping Spring Quartzite and Troy Quartzite. Their purplish and white-pinkish appearance is visible due to the surrounding rock being less resistant to weathering, leaving behind these colorful rocks.
Basement rock primarily consists of Proterozoic Ruin Granite while the summit of Aztec Peak features Cambrian sandstone, similar to that found in the Grand Canyon.
Major peaks within the range include Aztec Peak, Armer Mountain, Jess Peak, Chubb Mountain, and Black Mesa.
The dramatic changes in elevation in the range allow for a wide variety of both flora and fauna to thrive. Plants commonly found in the Sonoran Desert landscape can be found throughout the lowest elevations in the range. Hikers are likely to spot palo verde, saguaro, and creosote bush.
Mid-elevations in the range are populated by juniper and oak scrub. At elevations above 6,000 feet (1,829 m) the range is home to extensive patches of ponderosa pine, found throughout much of Tonto National Forest. The highest peaks feature patches of Douglas fir.
The surrounding network of wilderness areas and national forests provide an ideal habitat for black bears, coyotes, bobcats, cougards, ring-tailed cats, racoons, elk, white-tailed deer, pronghorns, and even javelinas.
Numerous bird species inhabit the landscape with common species including bald eagles, barn owls, American kestrels, Great blue herons, greater roadrunners, and long-eared owls. The waterways are stocked with rainbow trout, brown trout, and brook trout.
The land surrounding Tonto National Forest has a long history of human inhabitation dating back thousands of years. Numerous Indigenous tribes lived throughout the region.
From 500 to 950 CE, the Sierra Anchas were surrounded by three distinct Indigneous cultures: the Mogollon which spanned to the east, Hohokam to the west, and the Sinagua to the north. The Salado culture appeared around 950 CE and spanned for roughly 100 miles (161 km) around the range.
The Hohokam people were traditionally hunter gatherers but their culture slowly developed to include farming, trading, and craftsmanship. The inconsistent and often lack of rainfall in the region led the Hohokam people to build hundreds of miles of irrigation canals in the desert landscape beginning at many of the major rivers.
Lack of rainfall during the fifteenth century led the Salado, Hohokam, and other Indigneous peoples to leave the region, with many of them never returning. Many of the descendants of these Indigneous people and Tribes are part of the contemporary Pima, Hopi, and Zuni tribes.
Some Indigenous peoples stayed near the Sierra Anchas. As settlers began arriving in the area, Indigneous people who had remained in the area were forcibly removed from their native homelands.
The Apache and Yavapai people were forced onto reservations during the nineteenth century by the US Army. Today, nearby reservations include the Tonto Apache Reservation of the Tonto Apache Tribe, White Mountain Reservation of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, San Carlos Apache Reservation of the San Carlos Apache Nation, and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Reservation of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation.
Following the brutal removal of the Indigneous Tribes from the area, settlers began moving into the region. Many of the early settlers were miners and Mormon missionaries. Cattle and sheep ranches began to grow while the city of Phoenix steadily grew in size following the completion of the railroad through present-day Arizona.
The surrounding Tonto National Forest was established in 1905 in order to protect the Salt and Verde river watersheds. The Sierra Ancha Wilderness was established as a primitive area in 1933 and later became a wilderness in 1964. The Salome Wilderness was designated in 1984.
The Sierra Anchas are home to minimal trails for outdoor adventure. Here are some of the top hiking areas to visit in the region:
The Jug Trail lies in the southern portion of the range, within the Salome Wilderness. This route winds through the desert landscape just north of Lake Roosevelt. Hikers pass along many creeks and streams throughout the trail.
Situated in a slot canyon, the Jug Trail acts as a natural waterpark by featuring multiple rock waterslides, swimming holes, and waterfalls. Those wishing to explore the slot canyon should carry proper gear and ropes to ensure safety. The out and back trail is 6.5 miles (10.4 km) in length and features 905 feet (275 m) of total elevation gain.
Hell’s Hole Trail lies in the heart of the Sierra Anchas. As elevations increase, hikers transition away from the desert landscape and into the forested hillsides of the range. The route passes along numerous creeks and streams with multiple descents and climbs throughout.
At higher elevations the trees begin to thin, giving way to sweeping views and red rock buttes. The out and back trail is 10.8 miles (17.4 km) in length and features 2,693 feet (820 m) of total elevation gain.
Though the summit of Aztec Peak can be reached by road, a trail also winds through the landscape in order to reach the summit. This trail climbs gradually throughout before reaching the flat butte, marked by a lookout tower.
Hikers have unobstructed views of the surrounding peaks, ridgelines, and canyons along with red rock formations and forested hillsides. This out and back trail is 3.2 miles (5 km) in length and features 823 feet (250 m) of elevation gain.
Looking for a place to stay near the Sierra Anchas? Here are some of the best cities and villages to check out in the region:
Payson is a small town situated just northwest of the Sierra Anchas. The town lies near the geographic center of the state, leading to its nickname as “The Heart of Arizona”. Payson is surrounded by Tonto National Forest and home to around 17,000 residents.
Its close proximity to the Mogollon Rim has also dubbed the town the name of “Rim Country”. The Mogollon Rim stands at around 7,000 feet (2,134 m) and drops off by over 2,000 feet (610 m), providing a dramatic landscape for the region.
Outdoor activities in Payson include hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, camping, fishing, bird watching, and rock hunting. Those who visit the region should also be sure to go stargazing at night as the limited amount of light pollution makes Payson one of the best places in the state to view the night sky.
Located in the greater Phoenix area is the city of Mesa. The suburb lies just 20 miles to the east of Phoenix and marks the closest major city to the Sierra Anchas. Mesa is home to around 520,000 residents making it one of the most populated cities in the state.
Despite its large population, Mesa is surrounded by national parks and national forest landscape, making it a hub for outdoor recreation. Common outdoor activities near the city include hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and trail running, along with various watersports on the rivers and lakes of the region.
Explore Sierra Ancha with the PeakVisor 3D Map and identify its summits.