November 23rd, 2007
4.2 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 2,000 Feet Elevation Gained
Greenhouseguy and Tony W.
Picacho Peak rises from the Sonoran Desert about 40 miles northwest of Tucson, Arizona. Its unusual profile earned it the nickname “The Ship of the Desert,” but from the northwest it looks more like the crown of a Stetson cowboy hat. It does not rank among Arizona’s highest peaks, and there are plenty of more difficult climbs in the area. Picacho Peak has established itself as one of the Tucson area’s most popular hikes because it is a fun, scenic, and relatively strenuous route.
Picacho Peak viewed from the east on I-10
Picacho Peak is of volcanic origin, but scientists know little about the peak’s geological history. Indians and early European explorers used it as a landmark, and Confederate soldiers were using it as a lookout post when they were attacked by Union troops in 1862. This skirmish, which caused the deaths of three Union soldiers, was the farthest west battle of the Civil War. In the days before radar, a navigational beacon on the summit assisted aviators. It has been a state park since 1968.
My in-laws live about 20 miles down the interstate from Picacho Peak, so I have been familiar with the peak for several years. Climbing Picacho has become my Thanksgiving tradition, and this year was no different. I hiked it for the fifth time on Thanksgiving Day, and it occurred to me that I could up the ante a bit by making the route more difficult. The easiest route is Class 3, but there are cables to assist hikers in some of the steep areas. There is also a short wooden plank that helps hikers traverse a low cliff. It seemed possible to totally bypass these “helpers” and use only what nature gave me to get to the summit. It was a worthy challenge, and I found a worthy hiking partner in my 13-year-old nephew, Tony.
Tony has been on a few hikes with school groups, and was ready to take on a bigger challenge. We left the house at 7:00, and ate a light breakfast on the way to Exit 219. We stopped at the ranger’s station to pay our $6.00 day-use fee, and pulled around to the trailhead. We were the first ones to arrive that day.
A sign at the trailhead advised us to carry adequate water. It seemed like a condescending message, but people have actually died on this trail from heat and lack of water (two as recently as 2002).
The Sonoran Desert is full of life, unlike my mental image of deserts that was formed by watching Lawrence of Arabia when I was a kid. In some places, the plant life is so dense that it is impossible to walk through it. One of the first plants that we passed was the Chainfruit Cholla. Like most cacti, its barbed spines can cause some nasty injuries.
The Chainfruit Cholla (Opuntia fulgida)
The Chainfruit Cholla is just the right height to impale a passing hiker’s arm. Down below, other cacti present a hazard to feet and ankles. The Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus has spines that are stiff enough to penetrate boots. It also has edible fruit that could be useful in a survival situation.
The Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii)
The granddaddy of all the southwestern cacti is the Saguaro Cactus. This is the one that has appeared in countless cowboy movies. I noticed that many of them had holes that were occupied by woodpeckers. Indians believed that these cacti were the spirits of deceased humans; it is easy to see the human characteristics. From a distance, they appear to have a head and upraised arms.
The Saguaro Cactus (Cereus giganteus)
The trail switchbacked steeply up the bajada. From down below, it was not apparent how we were going to deal with the steep cliffs that appeared to surround the entire peak.
Hiking up the bajada towards the cliffs
Some parts of the lower trail were pretty rough and rocky. There were plenty of signs and arrows to keep hikers headed in the right direction. With the level of traffic that this trail receives, social trails could cause a huge erosion problem.
A rocky spot on the lower portion of the Hunter Trail
There were a few cables on the lower section of the trail that I did not think were necessary. I was able to avoid them entirely with no problems. Traction could have potentially been dicey had it been raining, but this was the desert! We passed some more interesting desert plants: Palo Verde, Buckhorn Cholla, Mesquite, Creosote Bush, Mormon Tea, and many others. As we approached the cliffs, the route to the saddle became more apparent. As we approached the cliffs, my GPS lost satellite contact; nearly half of the sky was blocked.
The cliffs of Picacho Peak. The summit is to the extreme left, and the ramp to the saddle is to the extreme right.
When we reached the saddle, we were ready to layer down and take a water break. We stowed our jackets and enjoyed a nice cool breeze. Many casual hikers turn around at the saddle, because the trail gets noticeably tougher on the other side. There was a bench on the saddle, with an interpretive sign that gave a brief history of the mountain.
The saddle was high above the desert floor, so the views were pretty impressive. The desert floor was remarkably flat, but it showed evidence of volcanic activity. There were incalculable numbers of Saguaro cacti, several irrigated agricultural fields, and a huge grove of Pecan trees.
We could see the summit to the east beyond tall, sheer cliff. The summit pitch looked ridiculously steep.
Picacho Peak’s summit pitch to the left of the sheer cliffs
We had to descend about 250 feet on the other side of the saddle. The trail was steep, and it was almost entirely on exposed bedrock. A ledge partially overhung the trail to our left. There was a cable/handrail on the left, and it was clearly necessary on this section of the trail. My Asolo boots performed admirably, and gave me a good grip on the rock. I had to hang on to the ledge in a few places, and I got down and crabwalked in one spot, but I did not have to use the cable. There were some wooden steps near the bottom.
Descending the back side of the saddle on Picacho Peak
After we descended from the saddle, we turned to the southeast and covered some rocky, bumpy terrain on the southwest side of the peak.
Hiking past some Saguaro and Palo Verde on the southwest side of Picacho Peak
As we hiked toward the summit, we encountered several more cabled sections of trail. Some were uneventful, but others offered a good scrambling challenge. The lava, some of which had apparently been dynamited, was shattered in such a way that it made good handholds and footholds.
A cabled section of the Hunter Trail on the southwest side of Picacho Peak
As we gained altitude on the backside, we encountered some incredible vistas. The desert was unlike anything that I was accustomed to in Colorado.
Desert view from the Hunter Trail
There were some interesting specimens of Barrel Cactus along the trail. It can put down roots in some precarious positions on cliffsides. Sometimes they attain a size that is beyond their roots’ ability to keep them anchored, and they roll down the hill. This plant can be important in desert survival situations; the pulpy inner flesh can be chewed to obtain moisture. Some sources say that the water obtained from the pulp may not agree with one’s digestive system. All cacti are protected in Arizona, so carving one up to obtain water should be a last resort.
The Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii)
The trail got steeper as we ascended. The sheer cliff to our left provided a scenic backdrop.
Snaking our way up the Hunter Trail on Picacho Peak
Higher up on the Hunter Trail
Some of the most challenging sections of the trail were just below the summit pitch. I was able to find solid handholds and footholds, and Tony used the cables to his best advantage. It is helpful to wear some sort of gloves to get a good grip on the cables; Tony wore baseball batting gloves, and claimed that they worked well.
A cabled section of the Hunter Trail; the trail runs from the lower left to upper right of this image.
Tony enjoying one of the steeper parts of the trail
Most people would probably agree that the crux of the hike was a steep 20-25 foot crack with cables to the left and right. I had tried climbing this one without cables before, and I wound up getting my backpack tangled in the cables. This time, I climbed outside of the cables on the right hand side. There were plenty of solid holds, so I had no trouble scrambling to the top. This was the most enjoyable part of the hike for me.
The steep crack; this was the crux of the hike. I climbed to the right of the cables on this section.
Immediately after the crux, we had to traverse the face of a low cliff on a narrow ledge. I was able to use holds on the cliff to balance and pull myself through this section. There was a foothold chiseled into the rock above the plank, so I didn’t have to use this bit of help. I had to stretch a good bit to find holds on this part of the trail; a short-limbed person probably would have experienced some difficulty.
The trail crossed over to the northeast side of the peak and ascended sharply. From the northeast side, we could see neighboring Newman Peak. As we turned to the east, we passed an Ocotillo. The Ocotillo is an unusual shrub than has thorny canes like buggy whips. It only has leaves for a short time after the sporadic rains. The plant looks dead for most of the year, but in the springtime, it has bright green leaves and brilliant red flowers on the tips of the canes.
An Ocotillo(Fouquieria splendens) beside the Hunter Trail. Newman Peak is in the background.
The summit pitch looked steep from a distance, but some well-placed switchbacks kept the grade at a manageable level.
We were ready for a break by the time we got to the top. Tony was pumped about getting his first real summit, and he couldn’t seem to get enough of the impressive view.
Greenhouseguy and nephew Tony W. on the summit of Picacho Peak
To the northwest, we could see several subpeaks. Beyond the subpeaks, on the far side of 20 miles of desert, I could see Casa Grande Mountain through the haze.
View to the northwest from Picacho Peak
To the south, we saw miles of cactus and creosote bush.
South of Picacho Peak
We were in no hurry, so we chatted on the summit and enjoyed the fine weather. Tony apparently hadn’t had enough climbing for the day, because he decided that we should hike on over to one of the subpeaks. I was game, so we went over to check it out. The view of the summit was interesting from the subpeak.
Picacho Peak’s summit viewed from a subpeak. That is one unusual chunk of lava!
There was not much wildlife on Picacho Peak, but I saw several tiny chipmunks scurrying around collecting seeds. They were much smaller than the ones that I’ve seen in Colorado.
The hike back to the trailhead was no piece of cake. Downclimbing some of the steep cabled sections required some concentration, and we had to gain about 250 feet of elevation to get back to the saddle.
The last section before the saddle was long and deceptively steep.
Ascending the saddle from the southwest. This image does not capture the true steepness of this section.
We took a break on the saddle, and headed back to the trailhead. It was downhill all the way from the saddle. I achieved my goal of hiking both ways without using any of the cables – a clean Class 3 scramble. Tony had a spectacular time, and decided that we should take the longer Sunset Vista Trail next Thanksgiving. The Sunset Vista Trail is a 6.2 mile hike that wraps around the mountain on the desert floor and comes up the southwest side of the peak. It’s good to find a hiking partner in the family.
On the way out of the park, we saw two ambulances roaring into the park with lights and sirens blaring. Apparently not everybody had as good a time as we had.