Thumb Butte

Thumb Butte 6514′

Prescott National Forest

Total Time: 2 hours

Roundtrip Mileage: 2.6

Elevation Gain:

Crux: Class III-IV

Trailhead: Thumb Butte Trail, full services, fee required

Companions: Brian Joseph, Holly


Along with Granite Mountain, Thumb Butte is probably Prescott’s most well known natural landmark. A quick online search of “Things To Do in Prescott” list the Thumb Butte Trail as #1 time and time again. And it should come as no surprise, the short trail is partially paved and very accessible, offering fantastic views of Prescott and the Bradshaw Mountains, and an up close look of the summit rocks which are fairly popular with central Arizona rock climbers. Despite the popularity of the trail, I could find virtually no information online on how to reach the actual summit via a nontechnical route. A write up on HikeAZ stated there was a scramble route to the top, but provided no details. Mountainproject was also little help- all the listed descent routes were bolted rappels. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a Prescott rock climbing book that I found the routes listed. I learned that there were in fact a number of class IV routes to the summit, with the most traveled route known as the ‘Tourist Route’ and listed as class IV. So on my first day off in a long while, I convinced the Mrs. and my friend Brian to head up to Prescott for the day to enjoy some pine trees and the cooler fall weather starting to move into the state. There was a good amount of traffic heading into Prescott for Oktoberfest and we made it to the trailhead for a fairly late start, a bit before 10AM.

Thumb Butte from the trailhead.

After throwing my parks pass in the dashboard, we headed up the loop trail, heading in the counter-clockwise direction as recommended by the trailhead kiosk. The trail slowly worked up through  healthy pine forest, with various faded interpretative signs along the way. The grade was fairly gentle and the trail well maintained, and we quickly reached a turn off for a sub-peak to the south of Thumb Butte. Hiking the extra quarter mile up the gentle rise, the views opened up around Thumb Butte of the city of Prescott and the San Francisco Peaks far in the distance. The overlook had a number of additional interpretive signs, along with a few benches where we took a short water break.

Views across the Bradshaws.
Downtown Prescott.
Well signed.

Leaving the overlook, we headed back to the main trail, and a short series of switchbacks brought us to the high saddle below the south face of Thumb Butte. The saddle was marked by a memorial to the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed in an uncontrolled fire in 2013.

Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial.

Across from the memorial was a use trail, and I could see a number of other parties at the base of the rocks, none seeming to find a route up and quickly backing down. Hoping for better luck, Brian and I started up the use trail (Holly opted out with more hiking planned in the afternoon) and quickly reached the base of the rocks. A man about 10′ up asked if we knew the route to the top. I replied “I think you’re on it…. rated class IV I think,” which was clearly lost on him. He moved off to the side and motioned for us to show him the way, and we scrambled up the slabby crack to a chokestone partway up. The rock was solid but smooth, and a nice tree provided a good hold to get above the stone and crux of the climb. Unfortunately I lost a water bottle from my pack during the scramble which bashed Brian in the leg while he was mid scramble, thankfully not throwing him off balance.

Start of the scrambling.
Looking down above the chokestone.

Apparently, we did not make it look easy, and the man backed down off the rock. The chokestone was definitely the crux, and the gully switched to class II/easy class III, with another 100′ of scrambling bringing us to the summit plateau. Expecting a broad flat top, the summit was actually a jumble of fractured boulders, and after Brian initially climbed the wrong pinnacle, we worked around the complex summit rocks to the high point, probably only taking 15 minutes from the trail below. The view from the top were excellent, with Prescott and the various lakes directly below, Granite Mountain to the northwest, the cliffs of Sedona and San Francisco Peaks far to the north, and the pines of Prescott National Forest to the south. I was very pleased with the quality of the scrambling however short, and remarked that I wouldn’t hesitate to make the climb again.

Brian on a subpeak.
Scrambling through the summit rocks.
Zoom NW to Granite Mountain.
Summit panorama.
North towards the Mogollon Rim and SF Peaks.
Prescott, AZ.

After taking a number of pictures, we headed back down the same ‘Tourist Route’ passing a number of other unsure parties at the base, and finding Holly chilling on a bench out of the wind.

Brian descending the crux Part 1….
….and Part 2.
Rejoining Holly.

The second half of the loop was actually paved, and we quickly worked down the switchbacks back to the trailhead, less than a mile from the saddle down the shorter half of the loop. Taking less time than expected, I was able to talk the group into a hike up to Spruce Mountain Lookout, and we drove 30 minutes to the trailhead for the second summit of the day….


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