Picacho Peak: Magical Desert Crag
Almost every Arizonan has driven by the rocky crags of Picacho Peak along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. Some pass it without notice. Others glance over in awe as it towers above the parched desert valleys. Those truly inspired by its beauty will exit the highway and enter into a little patch of desert called Picacho Peak State Park. Some park an RV in its campground and enjoy the views of jagged ridgelines and saguaro cactus. Trailheads fill with cars as hikers take to the network of trails in search of colorful wildflowers and endless vistas. Those with a thirst for adventure set their sights on the Picacho Peak summit, elevation 3,370 feet.
Hunter Trail: Gateway to the Summit
Perhaps the most popular trail at Picacho Peak, the Hunter Trail gives the shortest route to the top. The signs will say 2 miles, but they lie. It’s short but very steep 1.5 miles to the summit, and then back the way you came up. I ventured up this steep, rugged path on a pre-dawn on a late March morning. There was one other car in the parking lot, but I saw no one on my ascent. It was a glorious morning with perfect 50 degree weather. As I climbed, I knew this standard trail would give way to a network of steep rocky inclines with the aid of cables.
I stopped in my tracks as the morning sun crested the eastern horizon and illuminated the towering cliffs in warm light. My photographs do no justice to the beauty I saw with my own eyes. As I continued the hike, I came across cables that were simply guardrails on section of trail where it was absolutely unnecessary. “How silly!” I thought.
Within the hour I made it to a saddle between the summit and a high point on the ridge to the north. The view across the valley to Newman Peak was awe inspiring. I enjoyed the vista for a moment or two, and then pushed onward. The east face of Picacho Peak towered as a near vertical cliff above me, and the trail descended into a traverse across the south side of the mountain.
I soon discovered the infamous cable network of Picacho. For an experienced adventurer that has scrambled on bare rock, these cables are a convenience, not a necessity. For the average hiker with an understandable fear of heights, the cables must be a God send. I descended the first set of cable-lined rock with a wry grin, snapping a few photos along the way. Soon the trail returns back into an ordinary, simple dusty trail leads up and down the rocky hillside.
Without fail, the trail makes another break for the top, unleashing another string of cable-fed ascents. Most are not too exposed, but where the rocks begin to cliff-up, the trail is fitted with wire-fences to prevent a slip during into a bone-crunching, life-threatening fall. Once the the final rock-and-cable climb is completed, the trail snakes its way up to a steep slope for a couple hundred feet until it attains the flat, rocky summit of Picacho Peak.
The views are classic. Desert valleys stretch for miles in all directions, interrupted in the distance by the long ridges of neighboring mountains. Cars speed by on Interstate 10 below, looking like box shaped ants rolling along the desert floor.
To the north is Newman Peak, of the Picacho Mountains. Tens of millions of years ago, Picacho Peak and Newman Peak were connected by a continuous ridge of mountain tops. Over the course of eons, the action of pounding desert rain and unrelenting gravity has eroded the range in two, creating valley and a void between Picacho Peak and its siblings.
To the southeast, the Santa Catalina Mountains appear as a magic kingdom in the distance. Picacho feels tall, yet the top of the Catalinas, Mount Lemmon, towers another 7,000 vertical feet above Picacho’s 3,000 foot crest. Contemplating the harsh Sonoran Desert from atop Picacho, one cannot help but look to the Catalinas and dream of its crown of cool pine forests.
On the descent, back down the maze of rock and cables, I encountered other hikers, and much more frequently as I moved. I met a nice couple from south Phoenix and exchanged suggestions for good hikes back in the city. Another friendly man greeted me as I ascended a cable-lined embankment, laughing in a self-deprecating manner as he kept a white-knuckle grip on the cable. Descending the east slopes, the sun was starting to warm the rock and the air into 70 degree weather, which made the ascending hikers look hot and sweaty. I was glad I had chosen an early start.
I should divulge the fact that I took a fall on this hike. But not on the rock faces and cables, I was super careful up there. Not too far from the trailhead, on a normal part of the trail, a rock step gave way and slipped right onto my butt. And then scraped my back on a rock. I was no worse for the wear, but somehow I also bent a car-key in my pocket in the process. The key that belonged to the car I was driving of course. The key wouldn’t start the car, so I had to walk four extra miles round trip to our campsite and retrieve the extra set from my wife.
I guess that’s just a little reminder that in every situation, even a simple step, care should be taken to avoid mistakes. I had a great time hiking Picacho Peak, but that extra walk in the desert sun, well, I think I would’ve preferred to do without that.
Sunset Vista Trail: A Beautiful Walk
The evening before I climbed Picacho, my wife and I took our dogs for a little hike on the Sunset Vista Trail. The trail itself starts at the southwest end of the mountain and traverses Picacho’s southern slopes before climbing the hillsides to connect with the Hunter Trail after 2.5 miles. We went out late in the day, so we only hiked out about a half mile, just over the top of the first little ridge into a little valley on the other side.
We were treated to views of a “saguaro forest” to the west, with the sun setting over the mountains in the distance. The scenery was enjoyed both by us and our cameras! I would highly recommend this trail to anyone. You could turn it into a tough hike to the top if desired, but just about anyone could walk the half mile in and enjoy some classic desert views.
Picacho Peak State Park Location Info
Picacho Peak State Park is located 70 miles south of Phoenix and 40 miles north of Tucson along Interstate 10. All roads within the park are paved. Best months to visit are November to April as summertime temperatures are consistently over 100 degrees during the day.
Address: 15520 Picacho Peak Rd, Picacho, AZ 85241.
Hours: Park is open 5AM – 10PM daily.
Fees: $7 per vehicle fee (1-4 adults).
Full service campground on site, additional fee (per night) is required.
Before venturing out on a hike, stay safe with my suggestions for safe hiking: Simple and Safe Hiking Practices for Every Hiker
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