Myths and legends run wild in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. This one is no myth. Yes, there’s an actual waterfall at the end of Massacre Grounds Trail. No, it doesn’t flow at all times.
If you want to see this spectacular sight in the high desert, you’ll need to time your visit well. Water only flows over the main fall, and several smaller ones, after recent rains. How soon after? My buddy and I went about a week after a 3-day storm subsided, and the falls were still flowing.
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Below I’ll answer some common questions about Massacre Ground Trail that often come up.
Quick tips for hiking Massacre Grounds Trail to the waterfall
- Best to go after heavy rain or snowfall, especially in winter or spring
- To reach the trailhead, take Apache Trail (Hwy 88) north from Apache Junction to First Water Rd.
- Go east (right) about a mile and look for a parking lot with trailhead on your right.
- No charge for parking and no permit required
- Look for the trail leading east from the eastern end of the parking lot
- Each time you meet a fork in the trail, stay right on the way up; left on the way down
- Total distance out and back: 5.7 miles (9.2 km)
- Elevation gain 925 feet (281 m)
- Water: Bring at least 2 liters per person
- Dogs are allowed to hike with you, if they’re on a leash
- Hiking this trail after noon in summer is not advisable due to extreme heat
When is the best time to see the waterfall at Massacre Grounds?
Timing your hike to view the falls can be hit or miss. Your best bet is to go in winter or spring, shortly after a few days of rain and/or snow.
In the summer months, a light rain usually gets soaked up by the dry ground and produces no runoff at all. In the winter or spring, a similar shower could produce waterfalls.
Unlike some waterfalls in Arizona, there is no creek or river here to check the water flow of. I had good luck by following reports of other hikers who belong to the Arizona Hiking Group on Facebook.
Massacre Falls history
Why is it called Massacre Grounds?
Massacre Grounds Trail gets its name from the fabled gruesome deaths of a team of Mexican miners seeking gold in the area. According to legend, they were slaughtered by Apache Indians.
The beginning of the trail is located near Lost Dutchman State Park – named in remembrance of a German immigrant by the name of Jacob Waltz. After he died at the age of 83 in 1891, a candle box containing high-grade gold ore was found under his bed. He is now known as the infamous Lost Dutchman.
As the story goes, Waltz gave some neighbors a complicated map to the gold deposit. To date, nobody has found it, but many have died trying, including the mining crew after whom Massacre Grounds is named.
What’s it like today?
When I experienced the hike for my first time in January 2020, there was no sign of a massacre; just plenty of vibrant life. The plants lining the trail exploded with color; mostly green. Yellow flowers had already emerged from the silver-leafed Brittlebush plants that dot the landscape.
Birds, bees and squirrels were zipping around. My hiking partner and I even saw a massive bird of prey perched on a rock that towered high above the falls. We suspected it was a bald eagle, but the lighting and our line of sight prevented us from confirming it.
What causes the black color on the fall?
One of my friends asked me this question on Facebook. I had no clue, so I decided to research it. One possible answer was black algae. It’s often found in swimming pools when chlorine levels are too low. Another possibility is this explanation I found on nps.gov:
Desert varnish is the thin red-to-black coating found on exposed rock surfaces in arid regions. Varnish is composed of clay minerals, oxides and hydroxides of manganese and/or iron, as well as other particles such as sand grains and trace elements. The most distinctive elements are manganese (Mn) and iron (Fe).
Bacteria take manganese out of the environment, oxidize it, and cement it onto rock surfaces. In the process, clay and other particles also become cemented onto the rock. These bacteria microorganisms live on most rock surfaces.
The sources for desert varnish components come from outside the rock, most likely from atmospheric dust and surface runoff. Streaks of black varnish often occur where water cascades over cliffs.National Parks Service website
If you have an educated explanation, please leave it in the comments box at the bottom of this post.
Is Weaver’s Needle visible from Massacre Grounds Trail?
Weaver’s Needle is not visible the whole time while hiking Massacre Grounds Trail. However, there is a scenic lookout point about 1/4-mile before the falls from which you can see Weaver’s Needle poking up out from the landscape to the east. More about Weaver’s Needle>>
Is horseback riding allowed on Massacre Grounds Trail?
Yes, horses are allowed to travel on Massacre Grounds Trail. Based on evidence my buddy and I observed on our way to the falls, it’s fairly popular with horsemen (and women).
Bonus: The parking lot is large enough for vehicles to pull in with stock trailers and exit without any complicated maneuvering.
Hiking to the waterfalls at the end of the scenic Massacre Grounds Trail is a unique Arizona experience. The falls don’t run year-round, but if you time your visit well, you’ll witness something truly special.
Graphical overview of Massacre Grounds hike:
Have other questions? Post them in the comment box below and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Tap the map below for directions to reach the Massacre Grounds Trailhead.