Hayes Peak

Hayes Peak 4512′

Sierra Estrella Mountains

Total Time: 8 hours

Round Trip Mileage: 7.8 miles

Elevation Gain: 4200′

Class II

“Trailhead”: Middle of nowhere in Rainbow Valley, off Ocotillo tract




Of all the mountain ranges surrounding Phoenix, none are as striking as the Sierra Estrellas. The Sierra Estrellas, or Star Mountains, form a 40 mile wall to the Southwest of Phoenix, rising over 4,000′ from the desert floor. The high point of the range, Hayes Peak, is perched at 4512 feet, high above Phoenix. Despite the proximity to Phoenix, the range is extremely rugged with almost no trails, due in part to the Gila River running near the base, separating it from the rest of Phoenix. While there is a small antennae installation at the summit, it is entirely maintained by helicopter runs, with a tiny landing spot near the summit. Given how difficult it is to get to the summit, it’s not surprising that driving to the base would also be challenging. Almost all possible routes start from Rainbow Valley to the south, negating the farther approach from the north that would force a crossing of the Gila River. Rainbow Valley is an enormous open desert basin, which, aside from a handful of farms, is undeveloped with primitive roads, much of it managed by BLM. I left Phoenix at about 7:00 and followed I-10 to the town of Goodyear, a farming town that reminded me of Central California, a bit lusher from the nearby Gila River. I hopped on the Sierra Estrella Parkway, which wove through Estrella, an impressive master-planned community with lakes, parks, community centers, and over 12,000 residents. Once through the development it was pure desolation. I found the gated turnoff described in trip reports and headed on to the single track 4×4 road for 6 miles. After about 2 miles, the road deteriorates to pure sand, fairly deep in some places. The 4 wheel drive kicked in when I would start to fishtail, and overall is was quite fun. The road turn from sand to rock just before reaching the powerlines running along the base of the mountains, and I parked the car to head up.

Sandy road.
Sandy road.

My plan was to climb the prominent ridge the ran south from the main crest of the range, then follow the crest up to the summit. I had read that this route, although a bit more round about, was more forgiving. I continue to follow the road for another quarter of a mile, then headed off trail once I passed the small bump of 1670′, aiming for the steep ridge. There were several smaller “riblets” coming off the main ridge, and none looked particularly more difficult than the others, so I headed up the nearest one and started gaining elevation fast.

The base of the ridgeline.
The base of the ridgeline.

The lower reaches of the ridge were actually quite clear of brush and obstacles, and I found some enjoyable runs of class III along the way. About halfway up the subsidiary ridge at point 2780′, it suddenly flattened out, making a small bench that would make for a cool campsite (if anyone was crazy enough to haul water up that ridge).

Looking back down the ridge.
Looking back down the ridge.

After that the ridge steepened considerably, heading more easternly towards a prominent rock at 3620+’. From below, it looked like the upper reaches of the ridge were technical cliff bands, and that I would probably need to traverse underneath the cliffs and regain the ridge. This short traverse was the first significant encounter with brush, as the bend in the ridgeline brought the slopes into more forgiving shade. The brush only lasted about 10 minutes before I found my way past the cliffs and regained the ridgeline. I took my first break here, having climbed fairly continuously for 1:45 and already gained 2000′. From there, Hayes still looked just as far, with several miles of undulating ridgeline to go.

Hayes Peak (left) from the upper ridge.
Hayes Peak (left) from the upper ridge.

I made my way over numerous intermediate highpoints until finally meeting up with the main crest at point 3795′. Here, I got my first good look at Montezuma Sleeping, a prominent rock feature, which from the west (not Phoenix), looks like the face of a sleeping giant, with his nose as the summit.

Montezuma Sleeping, nose as the summit, face to the left.
Montezuma Sleeping, nose as the summit, face to the left.

It looked close, but there was some serious elevation loss and a few false summits so I figured I would save it for another day. I turned west on the crest, and Hayes finally started to seem closer, as the ridge headed more or less directly towards the summit with a handful of small descents just to make me feel bad. Along this stretch were some nice views of downtown Phoenix and an interesting angle on the South Mountains far below.

The South Mountains above Phoenix.
The South Mountains above Phoenix.

This section of ridgeline was a bit lusher than the lower sections, with large ocotillo and more teddy bear cacti to weave around. After one final demoralizing descent of about 300′, the ridge cut north, ascending the final 800′ to the summit. The ridgeline was intermittently rocky and steep on the final stretch, but mostly class II.

Canyon Wren.
Canyon Wren.

Just below the summit I noticed an impressive, unnamed peak to the SW of Hayes that seemed to have a beautiful line of solid rock all the way to the top. It looked like it would make for some interesting climbing, and started to think about going for it after Hayes.

Interesting, unnamed rock pinnacle.
Interesting, unnamed rock pinnacle.

At last I hit the summit, finding it surprisingly developed for such a narrow space, with several communication towers, multiple levels of solar panels, several small sheds and a narrow helicopter landing space.

Communications at the summit.
Communications at the summit.

There was even newly installed security cameras facing multiple directions. The views from the summit were impressive, looking straight down the ridgeline to various other summits in the range, west to Harquahala, across all of Phoenix and Tonto National Forest, and south towards Tucson and Mt. Lemmon.

Looking SE down the crest of the range.
Looking SE down the crest of the range.

The summit register was a bit hard to find, and tucked under a pile of rocks near the helicopter landing. It was placed in 2014, and aside from the workers, only registered 4 other people the past 2 years, although there were likely more climbers who never found the register, it being out of sight.

Summit Panorama.
Summit Panorama.

After soaking in the views, I debated climbing the smooth rocky ridgeline to the unnamed peak to the west. I already knew I didn’t have enough time for Montezuma Sleeping, which made this a bit more intriguing. It also looked like it would probably be the best climbing of day, with smooth continuous rock to the summit. However, the upper section looked like it could be technical, and there was really no way of knowing until I reached it. I debated whether it was worthwhile to go after a nameless summit, then reasoned that just because a random person hasn’t named it, does not make it inherently less worthy. I pondered this while I descended the ridge from the summit, and as I drew closer, it looked like I could drop down the canyon separating the two summits, which was my tipping point to go for it. I quickly dropped to the saddle between the two peaks, and immediately found solid class III scrambling.

Looking up from the saddle between the peaks.
Looking up from the saddle between the peaks.

I was occasionally forced off the ridgeline to the north, which at first was brush, then became a solid slab of class III rock. I follow the slab to the portion that looked technical from a distance which was in fact the crux of the day. About 50′ below the summit was an awkward, narrow chimney with a chokestone blocking the top. I needed to get myself just below the chokestone, then gingerly swing out wide around it. From there it was an intermittently exposed edge to the top.

Solid crest of rock.
Solid crest of rock.

I found a few cairns to show others had been intrigued by the summit as well, although no summit register.

View from the second summit.
View from the second summit.

I did not linger as long on this second summit, the late fall sun already getting lower at 2PM, and a long way back to the car. Descending the crux was trivial, as I was able to lower myself directly off the chokestone, avoiding the awkward move around it.

Looking down the crux.
Looking down the crux.

I dropped down to the high saddle and surveyed the canyon below. From above it looked like it would go smoothly all the way back to the car, but I couldn’t see the middle third where it became steepest. I figured the canyon was wide enough that I could find a way around any obstacle, and I didn’t remember seeing any cliff bands on the hike up, so I plunged down. The upper parts of the canyon were fairly tame, not much brushier than the ridgeline itself.

The upper canyon.
The upper canyon.

I aimed for a small rocky outcrop, which would hopefully give me a view the rest of the descent. The outcrop split two of the many shallow washes, all combining near the bottom of the canyon to the wider basin. From the outcrop, I stayed between the two washes, hopping from boulder to boulder to avoid the brush. This would lead to the occasional dead end, where I would bail into the wash until I could regain the boulders above. This worked well for the upper half until I hit the steeper section near the middle of the descent. Here, some of the shallow washes started to merge, and the canyon walls grew steeper, with frank cliffs in some spots. I was funneled into the wash and started to hit some dry falls, usually not more than a few feet, but definitely slowing down progress. I continued following the drainage until I hit a dry fall that was a bit too sketchy to downclimb. I found a break in the cliffs and regained the top of the walls above the canyon and found an easier path one drainage over. After another 100′ of descent, this merged with the drainage I was in previously, and I stumbled upon the first cairn I had seen in hours.

Past the narrowest, steepest section of the canyon, below a series of dry falls.
Past the narrowest, steepest section of the canyon, below a series of dry falls.

From here, the hike became downright pleasant, as the various minor drainages all coverged to one large, relatively brush-free wash. I bounced around from boulder to boulder, following the smooth rock slabs and patches of soft sand at the canyon floor.

Easier travel in the wider wash.
Easier travel in the wider wash.

As I rounded out of the canyon back into Rainbow Valley, I could see the sun reflecting off the hood of my car. I headed directly for it, and after negotiating a handful of random washes, found myself back on the road and to the car in short order. I headed out on the sandy track just before the sunset. I hit the gate at the edge of BLM land, and was surprised to find that someone put up a No Trespassing sign on the unlocked gate that very day…. Looks like I’ll be finding a different route to take for Montezuma Sleeping…

Sunset on the Sierra Estrellas.
Sunset on the Sierra Estrellas.

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