Chiricahua Peak 9,760′ and 9 others
Total Time: 14:20
Roundtrip Mileage: 30.2
Elevation Gain: 8,440′
Crux: Class 2
Trailhead: Rustler Park
The Chiricahua Mountains are one of Southern Arizona’s sky islands, rising to nearly 10,000′ from the desert near the border with Mexico. Home to several summits with over 2,000′ of prominence, Chiricahua Mountain (the highpoint) had been on my radar long before moving to Arizona, being one of 57 Ultra Prominence summits (over 5,000′) in the lower 48 states. It was the last of Arizona’s five ultras, having already climbed Mount Lemmon, Miller Peak, Mount Graham and Humphreys Peak on previous adventures. Furthermore, it, along with 4 other nearby peaks, are featured on the Arizona 20/20 list, the 20 highest summits in Arizona with a trail. The proximity of the 5 peaks made it possible to get them all in one very long day, with a number of additional bonus peaks nearby. While bagging Chiricahua is a straightforward hike on well defined trail, the summit was not without some unique dangers. Being close to the Mexican border, drug running through the range is not uncommon, although it would certainly be easier for them to stick to the low deserts when temperatures allow. The threat of border crossers was something I had dealt with before on Kino Peak , Mount Ajo and Miller Peak, and wasn’t a huge concern high up in the remote range. My real concern for the day would be a new danger I had never encountered on a hike previously- the presence of jaguars. The first Jaguar to wander back into the US after decades of regional extinction was Macho B in 1996, who was unlawfully trapped and killed in 2009. Two years later, trail cameras caught El Jefe in the Santa Rita Mountains near Mount Wrightson, who quickly turned into a local, celebrated star. For 5 years, he was the only known jaguar in the United States. However, in the past few years there has a relative flurry of jaguar activity including sightings on game cameras in the Huachuca Mountains near Miller Peak, as well as in the Chiricahua Mountains near Dos Cabezas, the farthest north that they’ve been spotted since their regional extinction. I should consider myself lucky to actually encounter one of the only wild jaguars in the United States, but I couldn’t help but reach for my bear spray as I packed for the weekend trip to the range. Driving down Friday night after work, I parked off the dirt road leading up to Rustler Park and went to sleep in the back of my car. I either slept through my alarm or it decided not to go off, and woke up at 5:45 to the sound of a generator from some nearby campers. Heading up towards Rustler Park, I was dismayed to find the last 1.5 miles of road to Long Park gated shut for the winter, effectively adding an extra 3+ miles to a day that was already running behind schedule. By the time I packed my backpack and finished my morning rituals, a headlamp was no longer needed, and I set off up the road from Rustler Park.
The sun was just starting to rise to the east, and I came upon a use trail that would cut west to put me on the Crest Trail a little early. While this would add a tiny bit of mileage, it would allow me to bag Riggs Peak as an easy bonus summit, and I was trying to tag as many peaks as possible. So I hiked up to the Crest Trail and hooked south, quickly leaving the trail to the top of my first summit of the day. Flys Peak, one of the summits on the AZ 20/20 list, was directly south, and I dropped cross country down the grassy slopes back to the Crest Trail. From the saddle between Riggs and Flys, a good trail ascended the peak, and within another 15 minutes, I was on summit number 2 of the day.
I stopped to sign into the register and took a short break, still with South Frys and Anita Peak standing between me and Chiricahua. After a little bit of backtracking, a good trail continued south from Frys Peak and contoured on the east side of South Frys. This seemed like it would be another easy tag, but some easy cross country quickly turned to scrambling over deadfall, something that would plague me a large portion of the day. I briefly searched in vain for a summit register on summit #3 on the day, then headed off. Luckily, the south slopes were cleaner, and I continued south to rejoin the Crest Trail. I bypassed Anita Peak, figuring I could get it on the return if I had the energy (I didn’t) and continued up to the summit of Chiricahua, summit number 4 on the day and my 23rd Ultra Prominence Peak in the Lower 48. Although the highpoint of the day and the ultimate objective of the outing, it was hard to get too excited knowing I still had 3 AZ 20/20 peaks to bag. Plus, the views were limited in the rounded, forested summit.
So after a very short break, I cut cross country steeply downslope to the southwest, intersecting the trail down to Chiricahua Saddle leading to Raspberry Ridge. I cached half my water at the saddle since I would be coming back this way shortly, then left the pine tree down the fairly open ridgeline towards Monte Vista Peak. There was an immediate difference in trail condition on the less popular route to Monte Vista, most parties climbing it from the canyons below. But the ridgeline was fairly tree-less and navigation was easy, and I was quickly at the base of Paint Rock, one of the more interesting summits in the area. It was hard to see an easy route from the north, and thought there might be a better line from the south on the return.
I continued past towards Raspberry Peak and hooked west to Monte Vista, the open ridge offering impressive views across the range and the rocky south face of Chiricahua. At this point the trail continued to deteriorate with fallen trees directly over the trail slowing progress. Just above the saddle between Raspberry Peak and Monte Vista, I met the trail coming up from the canyon below, and followed the more well defined path the remaining distance to the summit. The highpoint had a small cabin that can be rented out by campers, as well as a solid steel fire lookout, offering impressive views to the west. From the highpoint, I could see Mount Graham to the north, Mount Wrightson and Miller Peak to the west, and Rincon, Mica and Cochise Stronghold to the northwest. It was probably my favorite summit of the day.
I took my first long break for the morning and an early lunch at about 11 AM. I figured I was about halfway through the day in terms of mileage (I was not) and felt like I was making reasonable time. I spent about 30 minutes at the summit before hiking back the way I came, passing a group 4 backpackers, the only people I would see all day. On the return, the west ridge of Raspberry Peak looked more forgiving than the northern slopes, and I followed a nice line of talus that avoided most of the brush to the Aspen covered summit. A register tucked near some boulders saw only a few people per year, and I looked out northeast at Aspen and Snowshed Peak and the ridgeline south towards Sentinel, what would be my final summit of the day.
Dropping off Raspberry to the north, the initial open talus ended with a bit of bushwacking to reach the trail, and the side trip up summit #6 cost me about 20 minutes. Paint Rock was looking less realistic with no obvious route from the south, although I would find out later that there was a nontechnical line up between the two main spires to the top. But still a number of other summits planned and already past noon, I didn’t have the time to sink into finding a way up. Reaching Chiricahua Saddle, I reclaimed my cached water, then followed the trail back up switchbacks, cutting across the southern slopes of Chiricahua. The trail here was very poorly defined and entered a burn area, with the main trail wiped out by mudslides and ill-defined use-trails bringing me to the saddle between Chiricahua and Aspen Peak.
The northwest slopes of Aspen Peak were fairly clean, and it was easy cross-country up to peak #7, no register or cairn in sight. Snowshed lay directly ahead, and required some unfortunate bushwacking downslope to the saddle between the two peaks. My GPS showed a nice trail and intersection at the saddle as well as a ranger cabin. If there was one, it burned long ago, with nothing more than downed trees and high grasses. I decided to drop my pack, thinking Snowshed would be a quick tag. I initially found an old trail on the open, lower slopes. When I reached a small patch of Aspen trees higher up, the trail became quickly overgrown, and I was only able to find it again through areas of talus with less growth. Unfortunately, the high point was on the far east end of the summit plateau, and I entered the pine forest to a lot of downed wood, making travel tedious. By the time I reached summit #8, I was extremely frustrated with the trail condition, and annoyed with the peak despite decent views to the east.
It was now 2:15 with about 3.5 hours of daylight left. Sentinel Peak, the final AZ 20/20 summit in the area, was on the ridgeline to the south. Upon closer inspection of my map, it looked like the peak was not the larger summit in view, but a smaller one visible through a gap further away. My goal had been to summit Sentinel by 4PM thinking it was a bit closer. Now seeing how far the summit was, that prospect seemed out of reach. Racing daylight, I dropped off Snowshed to grab my packs, and picked up an overgrown trail to a junction at the southern ridgeline of Aspen Peak heading towards Sentinel. I briefly lost the trail at the junction, then found it as it traversed the west side of the false summits along the ridge. The trail was initially in okay shape as I rounded the first hump on the ridgeline, but this quickly deteriorated as I passed another junction, the rarely traveled trail with plenty of downed trees, washed out trail, and overgrown brush. A sign at the second junction indicated I still had 2.5 miles to go for Sentinel, but increasing my pace was difficult with all the down wood. Sentinel Peak finally came into view as I rounded the final false summit, with Finnicum Peak the only thing between me and my final summit of the day.
Even with the late hour, Finnicum was a no-brainer tag with easy grassy slopes to the open summit. I signed into the summit register tucked into a protein powder container, then headed down the easy slopes to the trail heading up Sentinel. It was some final quick and easy switchbacks that brought me to the ruins of the old forest lookout at summit #10 for the day. With the low afternoon light, the views to the south and east were fantastic and I took my final short break of the day.
It was now 4:20 and about 20 miles into my day, with a sign near the summit indicating I had another 10 miles back to Rustler Park. There was no doubt I would be spending a significant amount of time hiking in the dark, and my main goal at this time was to get at least back to the junction beneath Aspen Peak to better trail before I needed a headlamp. I half jogged down Sentinel and past Finnicum, rounding around the false summits and trying to get past the fallen trees as quickly as possible. I had nearly made it to the junction before I needed to put on my headlamp, and took a quick break to put on my jacket and have some water, less than half a liter left of the 3.5 I had brought with me.
As I neared the junction at the saddle between Aspen and Chiricahua, I lost the last bit of light and spotted the first pair of green eyes watching me from the bushes. They looked too small to be a jaguar, but they would be the first pair that would put me on the edge the entire hike out. I turned on some music in hopes to scare off any predators and hiked along, losing the trail once at the junction south of Flys Peak, probably distracted by four sets of green eyes watching me from the ridgeline above. I couldn’t find the trail that skirted Flys Peak and had to basically reclimb it on the way out, which caused me to seriously bonk in the home stretch. I finally hit the function North of Flys that would take me directly to Long Park and the final 1.5 miles of road to Rustler. Just as I was nearly to the road, I spotted a pair of green eyes about 50′ downslope. These were much larger than the deer eyes that had identified before and were fixed on me, tracking me as I walked past. I felt a chill down my spine, and reached for my knife in my pack as nothing more as a means to comfort me, not really expecting to be any sort of a match for a jaguar in the dark. I started to relax a little bit when I reached Long Park and the more open road, until I saw one last pair of eyes trotting towards me up the road. Initially I thought it was a skunk, as I had seen a number of them the night before on the road during the drive in. But as it came into view, I was happy to find it was actually a small fox. It seemed to want me to follow it, walking up the road every few feet, looking back to make sure I was still coming, then continuing on. This continued for about a quarter mile before it jumped into the brush, and I think it was trying to lead me away from its den. At last I reached the car at roughly 9PM, over 14 hours from starting out. Sitting down in the car, the exhaustion of the day hit me hard, and I could barely force myself to make dinner. My GPS reported a final mileage total of 30.2, the first time I’ve broken that threshold ever. I drove down the mountain to sleep at a lower altitude and a wolfed down an MRE, climbing into my sleeping bag after 10PM with plans to get some needed rest before more peak bagging in the area the next day.