Please note: If you are following along in guidebooks, this is the “alternate way” to Tip Top. Recent land-use changes has affected this area. While the oringal road is still open, the river is dredged along private property and often has deep water. It is open, but we’ve found it easier and a little more fun to take the southern alternative crossing to get to Tip Top. The ghost town of Gillette and the Burfind Hotel is now on private property and can’t be accessed. Respect all signs around the Agua Fria, that is where most of the land has changed hands.
How to get there: From the I-17 and Loop 101 Interchange in Phoenix, head north along I-17 for 21 miles. Take exit 236 (Table Mesa Road) and turn left. Turn right after 0.1 miles and follow Table Mesa Road north for 0.7 miles. Staging is off to the left. If this is full, there are several more designated places to stage further up the road.
The trail: Leave the first staging area and head northwest along the graded road. Stay straight at 0.5 miles where a private road leads to a Cemex Facility. Cross over an underground natural gas pipeline and stay right again at 1.0 mile where the trail forks (more staging is available here). Ignore lesser roads until the main trail splits again at 1.7 miles where you will stay left. Right is the former path to Tip Top and while it is still open, the river can be deeper here. Going left here takes you on a slightly more scenic route to the Agua Fria. Continue past more staging at 2.7 miles. The trail begins to wind as you pass through a gate at 3.3 miles. Immediately after, the trail descends a rough hill as it drops toward the Agua Fria. Stay right at the bottom of the hill at 3.7 miles. The trail then enters the Agua Fria and crosses at 3.9 miles. Always be cautious around water crossings. Most of the Agua Fria is blocked off by boulders and/or fences so follow tire tracks through the trees where you cross. Just after the river you climb a sandy hill that can be challenging for 2-wheel drive vehicles. At 4.0 miles you’ll come to an intersection with a posted board that has trail information. You’ll want to turn left here but if you took a right back at 1.7 miles, you would end up here as well. The trail climbs past private property on the right and then drops into a creek bed that is usually more challenging but moderately easy. At 5.1 miles off to the left is a side trip to an old Native American fort. It is less than half a mile to the fort and when you’re there, you can park and hike up to the fort, which provides a commanding view of the surrounding area, including the Agua Fria River. Return to the main trail if you took this side trip.
Continuing on the main trail winds through the mountains as it climbs. Make an important left turn at 6.7 miles just before a corral. Cross over a pretty good washout at 7.1 miles as the trail turns left uphill. Longer wheel based vehicles may have trouble here depending on if the trail has been recently fixed. The trail rapidly climbs towards a high spot on the trail at 8.2 miles. Great views at this spot make it a good place to camp or have lunch. After this, the trail begins its hardest descent towards Cottonwood Creek. Your brakes will get a workout and you will often need careful tire placement as this hill is quite rocky. Remember – you have to come back up this so if you don’t like what you see going down, stop while you’re ahead. After dropping over 500 feet in just a mile, you’ll cross a rocky creek at 9.3 miles. The trail follows along Cottonwood Creek and passes through an old corral at 10.0 miles. The trail continues to cross back and forth across the creek before ending at the town of Tip Top at 11.7 miles. Off to the left immediately are the first brewery in Arizona as well as some other foundations sprinkled around. Take time to explore the area and check out our history page on Tip Top for more info.
Further exploring: Tip Top contains many hidden treasures. Building foundations dot the hills of the canyon. A head frame and fenced off shaft can be reached via a difficult trail that goes off to the right just before getting to Tip Top. Past Tip Top is the 76 mine, less than a mile further upstream. There is another unknown mine several miles past Tip Top, but requires a capable vehicle as there are many washouts and several steep hills. Refer to Google Earth Track (KMZ file at the top of this page) to see where these places are on a map. There are also several other extreme trails (Terminator, Crapshoot) that leave the easier trail just after the Agua Fria that offer drivers the chance to test their vehicles.
Summary/Trail Rating: Overall, the trip to Tip Top is a fun way to spend a day and an incredibly history journey. To Tip Top and back is just under 25 miles and should take anywhere from 4-6 hours to complete. The trail is rated a ‘6.5’ mainly due to its steep and rocky hills as you descend close to Tip Top. The trail just before this and all the rest of the way to Tip Top is significantly rougher and less traveled. High clearance and 4-wheel drive are a must. Other modifications such as lockers will help. Travel prepared as the last portion isn’t well traveled. The trip to Tip Top is worth the rough journey.
Status: Open | Trail Type: Out & back | Length: 25 miles round trip | Approx. Time: 4-6 hours
Ride across the Agua Fria, past a Native American fort and travel over rough mining roads to the ghost town of Tip Top, Arizona. Once among the top 3 most populous cities in Arizona, Tip Top offers hours of exploring old buildings and mines spread out along 2 miles of Cottonwood Creek.
Page last updated: 5/14/2015
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