Close to 50 miles north of Tucson, I-10 traffic rumbles past Picacho Peak, an isolated mountain jutting into the sky west of exit 219. Can drivers and their passengers not wonder what’s involved in reaching the summit? Shouldering a pack at the trailhead for the peak’s Hunter Trail recently, I would soon answer the question.
Immediately, and almost continually, Hunter Trail ascends. The climb begins at 1,980 feet elevation and gains almost another 1,400 feet before reaching the 3,374-foot summit. But climbers will hike more than 1,400 feet total. The trek includes a section of trail where the elevation gain is lost while climbers are forced to descend close to 300 feet before heading upward again.
Constructed in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the difficult and strenuous trail begins with a series of switchbacks across the northeast face of the peak. About a half-mile in, the trail reaches 2,280 feet altitude and stands at the base of a vertical wall. The trail now traverses along this wall in a southeasterly direction, reaching a steep drop-off, at which point a U-turn is made, and leading the final stretch up to a saddle, or low spot, at 2,960 feet. From here, the hum of highway traffic and Union Pacific train whistles can be heard in the distance. The views are extraordinary.
At this point, climbers are situated a mere 400 feet from their goal, the summit. It has taken less than an hour to reach the midpoint of the 2.1-mile trail. However, Hunter Trail isn’t that accommodating. Instead, it goes down before it allows climbers to go back up. Steel cables have been installed along the peak walls to assist hikers on the westerly descent. Gloves are recommended. Then, 300 feet below the saddle, the trail hooks left around a cliff face, attaining a point where climbers can once again gain altitude.
Much of the remaining climb is extremely exposed, and so caution is strongly advised. Thankfully, a large portion of the trail here is cable-assisted and hikers are safeguarded by heavy wire mesh. A fall here would have disastrous results.
With only 100 feet remaining to reach the summit, Hunter Trail winds more gently and safely through a landscape dotted with barrel cactus and desert brush. Minutes later hikers can go no higher. From the 3,374-foot pinnacle, you can easily identify nearby mountain ranges, such as the Sawtooth, Silver Bell, Santa Catalinas, Tucson, Tortolitas and Santa Ritas. Outstanding views are enjoyed in all directions.
At the start of my trip there last Wednesday, only two vehicles are parked at the trailhead. By the time I reached the top, the parking lot below is full. I won’t be alone up here for long. Soon other climbers arrive. Jim from North Dakota. Muriel and David from Ontario. Keith from Illinois. Before I leave the summit, much of North America will be represented: Tennessee, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Vermont, Minnesota, Arizona. The long-distance award is earned by a gentleman from France. Enjoying the company of other hikers is always a treat, sharing stories of climbs and hikes we’ve accomplished.
With even more folks arriving, it’s time to depart. Going down will not be any easier, with legs and ankles soon to suffer. Continued caution and care will be needed to complete a successful day on the trail. I cautiously descend the cable-aided sections as well as the dangerously exposed spots and, before long, the steep climb leading to the saddle is underfoot.
An information board indicates Picacho Peak was formed by volcanic activity 22 million years ago. The stone composition is lava flow interlaid with strata of gravelly sedimentary rock, an extremely rough texture you don’t want to fall onto. Interestingly, geologists have yet to locate the volcano responsible.
The 4.2-mile adventure is concluded in close to four hours under beautiful blue skies and in temperatures in the mid 70’s with windless conditions. Answering my earlier question, the hike is extremely rewarding but exhausting.
It would be nice to report the spring flower bloom will be good since Picacho Peak State Park is one of Southern Arizona’s premier destinations; sadly the dry conditions will result in virtually a no-bloom year. A few Mexican Golden Poppies are blooming along the highway shoulder but nowhere else. Hopefully, next year will be better.
Several thousand people climb the peak annually, primarily between October and April. The fee to enter the park is $7.
For additional information, contact 466-3183 or visit AZStateParks.com.
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