The ‘Sacred’ Superstition Mountains

For 25 million years, its shadows have marked time for many peoples

By Kathryn Coe
Photo By: Trish Van Housen

Violent volcanic activity formed the rugged cliffs, flat plateaus and jagged valleys of the Superstition Mountains. For the past 25 million years, the changing shadows of this mountain have marked the passing of the days for a variety of creatures living in a range of slowly changing environments.

At sundown, the play of light across its surface turns the peaks golden, serving as a reminder that this mountain was held to be sacred by the native people who lived here. This mountain was said to be where their ancestors waited as time and generations passed. The petroglyphs, painstakingly made, and the Circle Stone atop the mountain also provide support that this mountain was sacred. Until we can read the circle stone or the petroglyphs, as Tom Kollenborn suggests, we will know little about the beliefs of the people who are now gone.

We do know that the people who passed through this area long ago may well be relatives of the people who continued their journey into Mexico and South America. We know from archaeological sites scattered along the path that these people of the Paleo-Indian period carried with them a particular tool kit, an understanding of the use of fire, a knowledge of the art of making petroglyphs and their religion.

The idea of sacred mountains was carried with them. Popocatepetl, one of many mountains to the south, was sacred; in their valleys, crests and caves are petroglyphs and ritual sites. Further south, in the Andes, the peaks and volcanos were said to once have been stars that, when they fell to earth, became hills. The ancestors, who live in these hills, were said to regulate the functioning of the earth, giving water in periods of drought and serving as a portal to the other world.

Mountains, however, are worshiped around the world; such worship is not unique to the people in the Americas. Nor is it unique to a certain kind of mountain. While many of the sacred mountains were created by volcanic activity, the Andes were created by the movement of the earth’s plates. Some sacred mountains are tall, reaching high to the sky (the average elevation of the Andes is 13,000 feet.), some are not so high (the highest elevation of the Superstitions is approximately 5000 feet). Some are located in harsh deserts, populated by plants and animals fighting hard to survive. Others are located in rain forests, covered by a vast number of animal and plant species.

The Greek Gods were said to rule from the top of Mount Olympus. It was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from God. Even today, in our largely secular world, mountains often are seen as a symbol of our highest good. Expeditions to Mount Everest and other high peaks around the world are symbols of great struggle and determination and effort and triumph. Maurice Herzog, who led the 1950 French expedition into Annapurna, described the experience as a spiritual one that filled him with astonishing happiness.

It is unclear why mountains have such an effect on all of us. Perhaps it is their height and mass, which makes us remember we are a small part of a very big world. Perhaps it is because climbing them is a challenge. Perhaps it is because of their beauty.

Observing a sunset in the Himalayas, Edwin Bernbaum (1998) wrote, “I lingered outside my tent to watch the light fade off the surrounding peaks. Across a pool of dark clouds, the highest summits burned with a red glow that seemed to warm my body, as if I were standing before a fire. The light blazing on their snows gradually cooled to pink, then suddenly went out, and the peaks appeared to turn into gray mounds of ash. At that moment, just as I expected them to take on a cold, hostile cast, a lavender glow, shading to green near the horizon, rose in the sky to the north, over Tibet, and I felt a friendly presence envelop me, as if the mountains themselves were extending me their welcome.”


  1. Having traveled through Europe and a vast majority of our great country, the mountain range that fascinated me the most and continues to fascinate me to the point of having to move as close to her in Apache Junction as my finances would afford are the Superstitions… they are ever changing and almost magical in their nature. They were the inspiration for many of the poetry in two of my published works of poetry and the backdrop for my first novel “A Dog Named No”. Friends who finally come to visit also remark that there is something very special about the Superstitions…

  2. Volcanic activity, 25 million years,
    I have friends that hike that mountain collected all kinds of sea shells they found up there, and there is probably a lot more, Do you wonder how they got there?

  3. Hi Helen, yes people agree that much of the Superstition Mountain range was formed about 25 million years ago by volcanic activity. I can’t find much about shells in the Superstition Mountains, but do know that the Hohokam, who lived at its base, obtained, through trade, shells that came from the Pacific Coast and the Gulf of California. Unfortunately that is all I can find right now. I will keep researching this.

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