12,633 Feet (Highest Mountain in Arizona)
Trail from the Arizona Snow Bowl Ski Area
November 20th, 2007
10.1 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 3,300 Feet Elevation Gained
Humphreys Peak in Arizona is part of a dormant stratovolcano that was most recently active from 1 million to 400,000 years ago. It is thought that it once was over 16,000 feet tall, but a huge blast blew out one side and more than 3,000 feet of the summit in a cataclysmic blast similar to Mt. St. Helen’s most recent eruption. Arizona’s seven highest peaks are all on the rim of this ancient volcano; Humphreys is the tallest at 12,633 feet. These peaks are collectively known as the San Francisco Mountain massif.
The San Francisco Mountain massif as seen from Hwy. 180 northwest of Flagstaff. Humphreys Peak is concealed behind Agassiz Peak in this image.
The mountain is sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Havasupai Indian tribes, who believe that it should only be climbed for ceremonial purposes or to gather medicinal herbs. San Francisco Mountain has the only tundra in Arizona, and one endangered plant (the San Francisco Groundsel) is found nowhere else in the world. It is important to stay on the trail above timberline in order to help preserve this plant; a $500 fine for off-trail hiking serves as a strong reminder. Below timberline, there are a wide variety of trees. Aspen, Blue Spruce, Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine Fir, Corkbark Fir, White Fir, Douglasfir, Ponderosa Pine, Piñon Pine, and Bristlecone Pine trees are found in distinct habitats. The Bristlecone Pine grows higher than any of the other trees; isolated, stunted specimens grow as high as12,100 feet on this mountain.
I was staying at my in-law’s house east of Phoenix, so I started the long drive to Flagstaff well before daylight. Signs in downtown Flagstaff directed me to the Arizona Snow Bowl Ski Area, which is about 6.5 miles northwest of town on Hwy 180. I turned on Snowbowl Rd, and drove about 6.5 more miles to the trailhead. It was paved all the way to the dirt parking lot.
It was 28° at the trailhead when I arrived. The trailhead was at about 9,300 feet. It probably would have been possible to drive to the ski lodge and start from a higher altitude, but I chose to take the standard route. There were several porta-potties at the edge of the parking lot. A couple of hikers from Sedona, Mike and Dan, parked next to me while I was gearing up. They told me that they were going up a gully to investigate the crash site of a B-24 bomber that wrecked on the mountain in 1944. Nobody else was in sight when I started down the trail.
Arriving at the trailhead
A pair of signs at the trailhead gave some information about the trail and the tundra in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness.
The trail started in an open meadow that is part of the Hart Prairie. It passed under the chairlift for the ski slope, and headed northeast towards a forest of Spruce and Aspen. The San Francisco Mountain massif rose behind the extensive old-growth forest.
The trail passed through the meadow for about 0.3 miles before it entered the forest. As the trail entered the woods, I passed a sign that indicated that I was entering the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. In the Hopi and Zuni belief systems, Kachinas are spirits who live in the San Francisco Mountains and in other high places.
After I hiked through nearly level woods for 0.9 miles, I came to a fork in the trail. The right fork went towards the ski lodge, and the left fork went towards Humphreys Peak. I signed the trail register at the fork, and proceeded towards the summit.
The forest was dense and dark, with a lot of fallen timber in various stages of decay. The lower portion of the trail was easy to follow as it ascended the slope gradually in broad, sweeping switchbacks. The weather was pleasant, and the wind was barely perceptible. The forest was absolutely silent; even the birds and squirrels were quiet.
Humphreys Peak Trail at 10,239 feet
At 2.08 miles and 10,408 feet, I encountered the first boulder field. This boulder field is in the gully where the B-24 crashed in 1944. The debris field was at least 0.3 miles above the point where the trail passed by the gully. I missed a switchback, and made the mistake of heading across the boulder field. There were stone cairns among the boulders, and I could see where the lichen was worn off of the rocks. It was obviously a trail, but not the right one. From the middle of the boulder field, I had a great view of the valley to the west. I also had a good view of the clear blue sky when a rock rolled out from under me and I landed flat on my back. My navigational error only cost me about a tenth of a mile before I discovered my mistake. I used my GPS to find the next switchback.
At 11,135 feet, I saw the summit of Agassiz Peak through a break in the trees. Agassiz Peak (12,356 feet) is the second highest peak in Arizona. It is closed to hikers at all times unless it is covered with snow. Backcountry permits are required to hike any of the peaks in the winter.
As I gained altitude, the trees became shorter and more sparsely distributed. Some of the Bristlecone Pines had immense trunks, but were no more than 10-12 feet tall. At 11,400 feet, a sign advises hikers to stay on the trail and that camping is prohibited.
The switchbacks became tighter as I approached the saddle between Agassiz Peak and Humphreys Peak. When I reached the saddle at about 11,800 feet, some interesting views opened up. To the southeast, there was Agassiz Peak and the Weatherford Trail. The Weatherford Trail descended into the Inner Basin and skirted some of the slopes of San Francisco Mountain’s high peaks.
Looking back to the west over the saddle. This sign directs hikers towards Humphreys Peak, the Weatherford Trail, and back to the Snow Bowl Trailhead.
The bumpy ridge between the saddle and Agassiz Peak
The Inner Basin looked lush and green compared to the dry volcanic dust on the saddle. Surface water is scarce on the San Francisco Peaks, but there are several springs in the area. The Inner Basin was once the caldera of this massive volcano.
San Francisco Mountain’s scenic Inner Basin
When I looked to the northeast, I could see the long arc of Humphrey Peak’s summit ridge. It was barren, to say the least. There was scarcely a blade of grass on the rocky ridge. From the saddle to the summit was almost exactly one mile.
Humphreys Peak’s rocky summit ridge
The trail beyond the saddle dipped down a few feet and headed northwest towards the first of three false summits. The surface was almost entirely dusty gray volcanic cinders. Humphreys Peak is known for its high winds, and it was starting to live up to its reputation. I had enjoyed the nice weather, and was only wearing a base layer with a long sleeved shirt. I had a soft shell jacket, a hard shell jacket, heavy hat, and warm gloves in my backpack, but there was no sheltered spot where I could layer up. I pressed on, hoping to summit before the wind and the cold became too unbearable.
Dusty gray volcanic cinders on the west slope of Humphreys Peak’s summit ridge
The trail was well above timberline at this point, but there were still some stubborn trees clinging tentatively to life. One windswept Bristlecone Pine served to illustrate that the 40-50 m.ph. sustained winds were the rule, not the exception on this inhospitable ridgeline.
Huge gusts of wind picked up the volcanic grit and small cinders and pelted me from time to time. I kept my head down and moved onward towards the first false summit. This false summit appears as Pt. 12,098 on TopoZone maps. Just beyond Pt. 12,098, I could see the second false summit, Pt. 12,297. Pt. 12,297 is also known as San Francisco Mountain; it is listed as Arizona’s third-highest peak. Somewhere around the first false summit I passed Mike and Dan, the hikers from Sedona who I had encountered at the trailhead. They were well equipped for chilly weather, but were still suffering from the effects of the relentless wind.
From the second false summit, I headed northeast towards the third false summit and the true summit. The wind became intolerable; my lips were chapped, my fingers were stiff, my fingernails turned an odd shade of purple, and my chest tightened as my core body temperature dropped. The tag ends of my backpack straps battered my face, but I still refused to stop to layer up. The summit was near, and I knew that I could reach it quickly if I kept moving.
The upper part of the summit ridge was remarkably barren. Patches of red volcanic cinders interrupted the huge expanse of gray volcanic cinders. It appeared to be entirely devoid of life. Landscapes like this inspired the saying “Arizona looks like a battle on Mars.” A few minutes later, I sat on top of this Martian landscape. I ducked into the summit wind shelter and shivered uncontrollably. I took off my backpack and pulled out my soft shell jacket, my gloves, my hat and mask, and my sunglasses. I was still cold after I snapped my summit shot, so I pulled out my heavy coat. I kept a low profile in the wind shelter, and warmed up for about 15 minutes.
Self-portrait on Humphreys Peak
After I put on the proper gear, the wind was hardly a problem. I walked around the summit and enjoyed the view. On Colorado summits, other high peaks frequently obstruct the views. On Humphreys Peak, the only other summit that can come close to obstructing the view is Agassiz Peak. On a clear day, it is possible to see the rim of the Grand Canyon. It was not clear enough to see that far, but I had an excellent view of the Inner Basin and the desert beyond the San Francisco Volcanic Field.
When I looked back towards Agassiz Peak, I could see the outskirts of the city of Flagstaff. Arizona’s fourth-highest peak, Fremont Peak (11,169 feet), was immediately to the left of Agassiz Peak.
Looking over jagged volcanic rocks towards Agassiz Peak, the city of Flagstaff, and Fremont Peak
The land to the west was pockmarked with volcanic craters. The foreground was largely forested, and the Government Prairie was in the background.
View to the west from the summit of Humphreys Peak
While I was enjoying the view, Mike and Dan made it to the summit. They had found the B-24 wreckage, and seemed to be enjoying themselves in spite of the wind and bitter cold. We huddled in the shelter and exchanged stories fro a while, and decided to hike out together. I led on the way down to the saddle. The wind was a nuisance, but I was no longer in danger of losing any appendages to the cold.
Mike led us down from the saddle to the trailhead. He decided to jog the sections that were not too rocky, so Dan and I followed his lead. His quick pace got us back to the trailhead in a hurry without grinding us down too badly. Mike and Dan were good impromptu hiking partners, and they made the return trip much more enjoyable. There was plenty of daylight left when I got back to the car, so I was able to make it back to Phoenix just in time for the evening rush hour. Arizona’s high point compares favorably to many of Colorado’s peaks, but I was left with a pretty dim view of Phoenix traffic.