William Wrightson, civil engineer and entrepreneur, was instrumental in Arizona gaining Territorial status in the mid-1800s.
Soon after he visited Washington, D.C., in support of the measure, President Abraham Lincoln officially designated Arizona a territory. Sadly, not long after Mr. Wrightson’s return to the West he was killed by Apaches.
Recognizing his lifetime of achievements, the tallest peak in Southern Arizona, 9,453-foot Mount Wrightson, bears his name. Thirty miles south of Tucson, its distinctive pyramid shape dominates the Santa Rita Mountains. Once known as Old Baldy, the name was officially changed in 1930.
East of Green Valley, Madera Canyon Road ends at Roundup Picnic Area, at which point Old Baldy and Super trails lead out of the canyon toward the summit. At slightly over 5,400 feet altitude, the trailhead sits 4,050 feet below the peak. Both trails rejoin at Josephine Saddle, 2.2 miles via Old Baldy and 3.7 miles on Super Trail. Hikers have the option of steep and shorter or more gradual and longer. Neither is easy.
As the valley west fills with morning sunlight, the adventure begins along Old Baldy Trail. Tips of tall ponderosa and Douglas fir trees are touched by sun rays. Beautiful white bark of sycamore trees brighten Madera Creek, auburn leaves yet to drop. Shade from high peaks and sunlight drape the slopes on the canyon’s north side.
Dozens of trails crisscross the 25,260-acre Mount Wrightson Wilderness, superbly maintained in this heavily visited area. Views of the massive stone topped mountain are glimpsed through openings in the forest.
Arriving at Josephine Saddle 90 minutes later, the strenuous activity has warmed this hiker, despite temperatures in the mid-40s. Josephine Peak, Josephine Canyon and Josephine Saddle are all named for Josephine Pennington, who survived a kidnapping by Apaches.
It was at this point in November of 1958 that three Boy Scouts lost their lives in an unexpected and intense snowstorm. A wooden memorial marks the tragedy, remembering the boys, ages 12, 13 and 16. A recently released book, “Death Cloud over Mount Baldy,” chronicles the story.
Departing Josephine Saddle, hikers again have trail options to Baldy Saddle. Opting for the 3.3-mile Super Trail, the ascent continues in a counter-clockwise loop around the peak. Gaining 1,700 feet in just 1.8 miles along Old Baldy Trail convinces me to take the longer Super Trail route.
Under a canopy of tall pines, the trail is comfortably carpeted in pine needles. Large pine cones litter the ground trailside. To the west stands 8,585-foot Mount Hopkins, honoring Gilbert Hopkins, an assistant to Mr. Wrightson who was also killed in the Apache attack. Brilliantly white in the clear skies, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, constructed in 1968, stands on the summit.
Steadily gaining altitude, the path climbs above the pines into an open area covered with low scrubs, oaks and manzanitas. Mountain ranges in Mexico are clearly seen to the south. Passing a side trail leading to Josephine Peak, Super Trail has reached 8,000 feet elevation. Eastern views now overlook Sonoita, Elgin and the vast open grasslands of Sands Ranch toward the Huachuca and Whetstone mountains.
Definite advantages in choosing this trail are the extensive and vast open views along its entire length. Slightly less steep, though 1.5 miles longer, the views make for an exceptionally pleasant journey. Beware. It’s still no walk in the park.
Another trail, Gardner Canyon Trail, drops quickly to the east toward the trailhead off Highway 83. Westward the massive rocky peak of Mount Wrightson blocks much of the western sky. Several huge rock slides cross the trail, requiring caution to pass, evidence that over time much of the mountain has tumbled down.
Throughout the journey, excellent signage marks key locations. Encouragingly, at this point only 8-10ths of a mile remain to reach Baldy Saddle, where the final climb toward the summit begins. Now hiking along the north face, sunlight no longer reaches the path, with temperatures dropping significantly. Looking toward the peak during a break, a smooth blue/green area catches my eye. Scrambling up the slope for closer investigation, one of the many active springs is found, ice encasing large boulders.
From Baldy Saddle the summit stands 9-10ths of a mile south, 700 feet in elevation remaining. Initially the trail passes comfortably through tall pines. Large, beautiful sap-covered pine cones are scattered across the forest floor. A quick glimpse upward shows there is still much more climbing to do.
Here the only other hikers seen throughout the day, a couple from North Carolina of all places, pass during their descent, encouraging me with “you’re almost there.” Soon the trail encounters a rock wall. An engineering marvel to construct, the very narrow trail switches back and forth, gaining precious elevation. From this point on, look around only if you’re not walking; walk only if you’re not looking around. Falling at this point to the rocky trail below would have disastrous consequences. One final U-turn at the peak’s southern point and nothing but open skies are seen. Fifty yards further and one can go no higher.
From the top of this Sky Island, views are spectacular. Nothing blocks views in all directions. Climbing a stone and concrete foundation, remains of a long since removed lookout tower, the effort over the past five hours has absolutely been worth every step. Having last seen Whipple Observatory shortly after leaving Josephine Saddle, it’s shocking to now see it 1,000 feet below. Good perspective on the last 4.3 miles.
With only slight breezes wafting past, time on the pinnacle is treasured. Unfortunately, 2 p.m. has arrived, Roundup Picnic Area lies five miles away, and with sunset due shortly after 5 o’clock, the descent must begin.
Thirty minutes later, Baldy Saddle is reached. My daypack, which I had squirreled away in some trees to ease the final climb, is gathered, and steep Old Baldy Trail is underfoot. With close to 7.5 miles already hiked, the steep, rough and rocky path is painfully felt on ankles and knees. Views to the west toward the Sierrita Mountains beyond Green Valley are extraordinary, but attention needs to be paid to the trail.
In 2005, the Florida Forest Fire raged throughout the wilderness. Blackened tree trunks stand in evidence of the destruction. New growth covers the forest floor, pine trees barely two feet tall, telling a tale of forest regeneration.
Pausing briefly at Josephine Saddle, only 2.2 miles remain. Shadows are rapidly climbing the slopes as the light fades in the forest. Bright sunlight illuminates Mount Wrightson’s pinnacle as the adventure ends. In diminishing light at the trailhead, a rewarding day exploring miles of trails on Southern Arizona’s highest mountain has been enjoyed. Honestly, this has been one of the toughest I’ve experienced. Still a great day!