Picacho Peak 3370’
Total Time: 3.5 hours
Roundtrip Mileage: 3.8
Total Elevation Gain: 1350’
Trailhead and Amenities: Hunter Trail in Picacho State Park. Park and campgrounds near Trailhead
Companions: Holly, Cara and Steve Whittingham
After Camelback and Mount Humphreys, Picacho Peak is probably the next most famous summit in Arizona. It lies about a mile off Interstate 10 directly between Phoenix and Tuscon, and thousands of people gaze up at its distinct, blocky summit every day. It is the focal point of an Arizona state park by the same name. It is also the site of the Battle of Picacho Pass, the site of the Westernmost Battle of the American Civil War on April 15, 1862. What brought me to the state park on this blistering August day was an opportunity to climb the spectacular Hunter Trail, a 4 mile roundtrip hike from the desert floor that switchbacks to a high saddle before taking an improbable ascent via a short but fairly intense cable route. We were greeted by a rather rude state park employee who told us it was a hot one for hiking (no shit), we were getting a bit of a late start (it was 8AM), it would take about 4.5 hours (much less with many, many breaks), and that we should carry a gallon of water each (not a bad idea, but still unnecessary for four miles). After sunscreening up and topping off our waters, we started up the Hunter Trail heading directly towards the peak. The trail initially followed a thin ridge between two washes in dense Sonoran brush before quickly switching to switchbacks up to the saddle.
Once we began to approach some of the larger blocks from the summit, we found ourselves in the shade of some impressive rock formations and small caves.
The trail continues around a rocky impasse and heads up a wide gully to the saddle between Picacho Peak and Razorback Ridge. At this point there is a bench looking out, and a small sign with some geology about the mountain, saying it is believed to be a 2 million year old lava flow, far older than the Grand Canyon.
From this point we were fairly content with ourselves, having covered over half the distance and elevation gain in only about 45 minutes, scoffing at the ranger’s 4.5 hour estimate. But the trail quickly becomes harder. Having already climbed about 900’, the trail drops around the other side a steep and demoralizing 200’ with the first introduction to cables. Skirting around a large cliff edge, the trail finally levels and begins to regain all of the lost elevation, initially fairly tamely, then with more cables. The farther we got, the more intense the cable sections became, first with some support for some class II slabs, then frank class III climbing.
After a long-ish section of cables, the trail enters a high bowl just below the summit cliffs, with the remaining cable sections being the crux. At this point, the trail entered a high bowl, followed by a 30’ section of stiff class III, with cables for support.
Once past that section the cable spots quickly get easier, taking you to a high saddle and ultimately up some short final switchbacks to the summit. The summit views were 360 around the Sonoran Desert with Mount Lemmon and the high peaks near Tucson to the south. We took our time at the summit, enjoying the views before retracing our steps.
The descent, although hot due to the shrinking areas of shade, was relatively uneventful, and after making it back to the car we heading straight for some well earned In’N’Out Burger before hightailing it further south to Kartchner Caverns.