To the native people of North America, the number four has been the symbol of perfection from time immemorial. The four directions, each with its sacred meaning and spirit power, inscribe their symmetry on many Indian designs. Christians see holiness in the number three, representing a Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead.
For Native Americans, the number four also signifies "the Godhead," and when it appears in nature, there is sacredness attached to that site. It is said the ancestors of the Hohokam, migrating northward, came to the place where they saw the sacred number four blazoned before them on the mountain. That is where they stopped to establish their civilization.
My heart leaps for joy every time I see the Four Peaks, because they symbolize the unique wonders of these central Arizona mountains. If I were younger, I would like to do as many a young Tonto Apache has done, and make a vision quest up there. Young men would often go into the wilderness and stay, fasting, until they experienced the presence of the Mountain Spirits and received an understanding of their special God-given power. One Tonto elder told me that anyone could have a real vision if he would go to a mountain and fast for three or four days. I am sure that four days without food or water would cause visions to abound.
The native who has discovered his personal gifts during such a search upon the mountain will stand for the better part of a day now and then staring at the mountain to recapture that inspiration. Perhaps an eagle or raven had visited him. Lightning often brings an epiphany. The central highlands and Rim country of Arizona have the second highest number of lightning strikes in the United States. Perhaps for us, the Four Peaks can be a reminder that all need to re-focus periodically, and remember who we are and what gifts we have been given to use for the good of the community.
This mountain range was home to the Yavapai and Tonto Apache people for several centuries before Europeans began to control its passes. The labyrinth of mountains and canyons in central Arizona presented an impenetrable barrier to early explorers and lent themselves as an Apache stronghold. The native people were able to carry on their life ways without interference even as the California gold rush was under way, and prospectors skirted to the north and to the south. As we watch today's massive engineering feat, a divided highway spanning canyons and climbing mesas, we can understand why the area between the Mazatzals and the Mogollon Rim was about the last stronghold for native people on the continent.
On April 27, 1996, a wildfire, dubbed the Lone Fire, licked its deadly way around the Four Peaks and the accompanying wilderness. For over a week it raged, destroying animal and plant life in its path and striking fear into the hearts of Tonto Basin ranchers. More than 60,000 acres burned, making it the second-largest recorded wildfire in Arizona history. If there is a benefit from the fire, it is that foresters have been given an excellent opportunity to observe the short-term effects of such an event on the flora and fauna. The Four Peaks are one of those unique "sky islands" that need constant study.
Before the fire, the Four Peaks were documented as having one of the highest black bear densities in the United States. The loss of the coniferous forest is bound to have hurt that population.
Forest Road 143 can still take one across the mountain range on the north and west sides of the Four Peaks wilderness. High clearance and four-wheel drives are a necessity. There are 40 miles of hiking trails on the mountain, but it's sad to say that a camper's fire started the Lone Fire at the northern-most peak. It is named Brown's Peak (no relation). Inquire at the Payson Ranger Station, (520) 474-7900, for trail maps and hiking suggestions.
The 7,645-foot Four Peaks mark the southeastern end of the Mazatzal Mountains. At the other end of the range, west of Payson, North Peak dominates at 7,449 feet in elevation. In between is mighty Mount Ord, around which the Beeline Highway winds its way between Payson and the Valley. That trip headed toward Payson begins with a breathtaking view of the Four Peaks, looming, calling, menacing and bewitching. The trip ends with a backward look at these same Four Peaks, though from Payson they look more like a clenched fist.
No matter how often one views this sacred mountain of central Arizona, it captures the imagination and thrills the soul.