Piestewa Peak
2,608 Feet
Freedom Trail from the Apache Picnic Area
March 30th, 2008
4.6 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: 1,200+ Feet
Greenhouseguy (Brian) and Tony W.

 

 

Stairway to Heaven

 

 

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Piestewa Peak viewed from the 302 Trail

 

Piestewa Peak is the second-tallest peak in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona. Formerly known as Squaw Peak, it was renamed to honor Lori Ann Piestewa, a Hopi Indian soldier who was killed in combat in Iraq. Although it involves a fairly strenuous hike, this scenic summit attracts more than 500,000 visitors every year. The flora and fauna on Piestewa Peak is typical of the northern Sonoran Desert. Saguaro cactus, palo verde, brittle bush, and creosote bush are among the more common plants. Wildlife in the area includes Gila monsters, chuckwalla, rattlesnakes, coyotes, jackrabbits, cactus wrens, and Gambelís quail.

 

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The familiar saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) surrounded by creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and brittle bush (Encelia farinosa)

 

The parking lot was already full when we arrived at Phoenix Mountains Park at 8:30 a.m. People were already returning from early-morning hikes, so we didnít have to wait long for a parking place. We took advantage of the restroom and water fountain at the trailhead, readied our gear, and hit the trail. Compared to the gear that I typically carry in Colorado, I was traveling light; hat, sunglasses, tech tee, hydration pack, camera, GPS, and convertible pants. While most of the locals wore shorts, Tony and I wore long pants for more protection from the sun. Temperatures approached 80į, and the sun was intense.

 

The 8B Trail started out by crossing an arroyo. The first part of the trail is set up as a nature trail, with interpretive signs to describe the plants and wildlife. The signs were a little bit touristy, but they were informative and relatively interesting.

 

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Crossing the arroyo on the 8B Trail

 

We followed the 8B Trail until it merged with the 302/304 Trail. The brittlebush was in full bloom, and I noticed the fragrant foliage as I brushed up against it. Spaniards burned this resinous plant for incense, and Indians used resin from the stems as glue. The profusion of bright yellow daisy-like flowers makes this an ideal xeriscape plant.

 

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Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) on the 302 Trail

 

We climbed the steep 302 Trail towards a high saddle. There were not too many hikers on this stretch of trail; most people appear to opt for the shorter Summit Trail, but I wanted to hike the circumference so I could enjoy more desert scenery. We passed a few lizards, and saw an unusual number of spiders on the trail. The strawberry hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus engelmannii) were in full bloom.

 

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Ascending the saddle on the 302 Trail

 

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The strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii)

 

The quantity and diversity of plant life would shock anyone who had never visited the Sonoran Desert. Although the area averages less than eight inches of precipitation per year, the vegetation is so thick in places that a person can hardly walk through it. It is nothing like the shifting sands of the Sahara Desert.

 

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The trail up to the saddle is punctuated by barrel cacti (Ferocactus wislizenii) and buckhorn cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa)

 

From the top of the saddle, there were excellent views of the city to the west. I would have preferred more desert views, but this is an island of well-preserved nature within the Phoenix city limits. Many of the thorny ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) were blooming on the saddle.

 

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On top of the first saddle

 

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The ocotillo flower (Fouquieria splendens)

 

We descended the back side of the saddle, and hiked around the northwest side of the mountain. The trail was dusty, and the temperature was climbing.

 

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Tony hiking past a palo verde tree (Cercidium microphyllum)

 

There were more views of the city as we headed south on the west side of the mountain. Tony pointed out the domed stadiums where the Arizona Cardinals and the dastardly Arizona Diamondbacks play.

 

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Views of the city south of Piestewa Peak

 

Shortly after the trail turned to the southeast, the Summit Trail (#300) split off of the main trail. It switchbacked steeply up to a saddle; the true summit was not visible from the trail.

 

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The southwest slope of Piestewa Peak

 

We switchbacked up the Summit Trail to a breezy saddle; elaborate benches on either side of the trail detract from the wilderness ambience. The saddle was at about 2,080 feet; we still had quite a bit of elevation to gain.

 

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Looking towards the summit from just beyond the saddle

 

The trail above the saddle was well developed. Much of the trail had been blasted into the rock with dynamite. Rock stairways were constructed in the steeper areas; some locals refer to the Summit Trail as ďThe Stairmaster.Ē This heavily-traveled trail has a 19% grade, so it was necessary to take measures to prevent erosion.

 

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Approaching the final segment of the Summit Trail

 

The heavy traffic was much more apparent on the upper reaches of the trail. Our progress was delayed by yielding to downhill traffic and faster uphill traffic. The hikers represented diverse age groups and ethnic backgrounds. Some appeared to be serious fitness buffs, while others were just up there to show off their bare midriffs and colorful spandex. The desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) is common on the upper part of the trail.

 

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The summit from the upper part of the Summit Trail

 

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The desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

 

The last few feet of the trail required some light scrambling. The fractured schist provided plenty of handholds and footholds, so it was almost like climbing stairs. There were several outcroppings on the summit, and most people seemed to be satisfied with the lowest and easiest of them.

 

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The lowest part of Piestewa Peakís summit

 

We kept on climbing, and looked for the benchmark that marked the highest point.

 

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Just below Piestewa Peakís true summit

 

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Gratuitous summit shot, courtesy of guy in Ohio State t-shirt

 

There were good 360į views from the summit. Some of the closest mountains were the White tank Mountains and the Superstition Mountains. Nearby Camelback Mountain is one of the more popular hikes in Phoenix. On a clear day it is possible to see Picacho Peak.

 

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The White Tank Mountains viewed from Piestewa Peakís summit

 

We enjoyed the views for a while, then headed back down the congested Summit Trail. We continued our counterclockwise hike on the Freedom Trail all the way back to the trailhead. Some careless Gambelís quail scurried around in the underbrush near the parking lot. Iím not accustomed to hiking on trails with benches and stairways, and Iím not comfortable with large crowds. If I hike this trail again, it will be very early in the morning while the Spandex People are still sleeping. However, Iím glad that I got to spend some time in the desert with my nephew on this beautiful mountain. It was well worth the effort.

 

 

 

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