Picacho Peak

by Dave Baker Thursday, March 18th 2010

Picacho Peak is many things to many people. It has been a traveler’s landmark for thousands of years; Don Juan Bautista de Anza traveled past the peak during his trip through the area in 1775. Arizona’s one and only Civil War battle occurred around Picacho, and an annual reenactment of the skirmish is very popular. Thousands visit Picacho in favorable years to witness one of southern Arizona’s most accessible and magnificent spring wildflower blooms. Many visitors stop to ponder an ostrich ranch located near the base of the peak.

Picacho Peak and I-10

Picacho Peak

And then there is hiking. Three trails around the base of the peak join together on the south side of the summit tower and follow steel cables and catwalks through weaknesses among steep cliffs to the top. The Hunter Trail, starting on the north side of the peak just off I-10, is the most convenient of these trails to access. Just under 4 miles roundtrip and with a 1,800 foot elevation gain, most hikers spend three and half to four hours making the trip up and down the Hunter Trail. Some will be intimidated by the steep sections that are negotiated with the help of steel cables and catwalks anchored into the volcanic cliffs. A sign at the trail head warns that “children under ten and dogs are not recommended” on the trail. Sturdy gloves can be a welcome aid for gripping the steel cables.

Desert plain south of Picacho

Desert panoramas near the top

Hikers start the walk with the steady roar of I-10 traffic at their back, so it’s a bit surprising to see big sections of untrammeled Sonoran desert flanking the south side of the Peak upon reaching the saddle on the high ridge. On the summit, the juxtaposition of big empty spaces with the surging civilized artery of I-10 is fascinating and thought provoking. Another unique feature of this hike is the rather elaborate network of steel cables and catwalks that make the climb to the top possible.

Picacho's steel cables

Steel cables

To find the trailhead, leave I-10 at Exit 219 between Tucson and Casa Grande. Enter Picacho Peak State Park just south of the interstate (a $7 per vehicle fee is required). Past the entrance station, turn left (south) onto the Barrett Loop road and drive to the trailhead parking area.

The trail quickly steepens as it climbs the lower flanks of the peak and then switchbacks onto a prominent saddle on a high ridge crest. It then plunges down the south side of the mountain before traversing to the base of the final climb towards the summit.

Season: Fall, winter and spring. This hike can be dangerously hot in late spring, summer, and early fall.

Water: None, bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: Though not very long, this is a demanding hike. The 1,800 elevation gain in the four mile round trip walk leaves many short of breath. The steel cables ease the way through many steep cliffs, but some will find the exposure and steepness intimidating.

Maps: USGS Newman Peak, AZ or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.

 

Map

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Trails

Thimble Peak

by Dave Baker Wednesday, February 24th 2010

Well named, Thimble Peak looks a lot like a giant sewing thimble placed high on the big ridge that separates Sabino and Bear Canyons in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Thimble occupies a prominent position, and once recognized can be seen from most places in Tucson as well as from some sections of the Mt. Lemmon Highway. None the less, Thimble’s summit is not often visited. No trails reach the peak, it is guarded by tall cliffs on many sides, and reaching the true summit requires a few sections of rock climbing.

Beginng the bushwhack to Thimble Peak

Thimble Peak from the Bear Canyon Trail take-off

Not obvious from a distance, the peak is cleaved in half. The north summit is the easiest to climb via a 3rd class crack on the north side, but unfortunately is ten or fifteen feet lower in elevation than the south summit. Though not very difficult by rock climbing standards, the south summit presents challenges that must be taken seriously and treated with caution. Climbers should take extreme care as they negotiate a steep rock gulley choked with a few large and loose boulders before reaching the notch between the north and south summits, and a vertical step just below the top. Once in the notch, we roped up and bypassed the vertical step by traversing right (west) past a climbing bolt, into a big crack leading to the summit. But the exposure here is dangerous; so some climbing gear and an experienced party member with rock climbing skills are recommended for the rock climb to the top.

Start of Thimble Peak rock climb

Beginning the summit rock climb

Thimble is often approached from Sabino Canyon using steep bushwhacking routes that take off from the end of the tram road, but here we describe a mellower, though longer route which leaves the Gordan Hirabayashi campground (also known as Prison Camp), just off the Mt. Lemmon Highway.

At milepost 7.3 on the Mt Lemmon Highway, turn west and drive to the trailhead at the west end of the Gordan Hirabayashi campground. This is a fee area. Follow the Sycamore Reservoir Trail west for about 3 miles, past Sycamore Reservoir to the trail junction (32.33618 N, 110.71981 W, WGS84) with the Bear Canyon Trail. This trail junction is marked with several rock cairns. Cross Sycamore Creek and walk southwest on the Bear Canyon Trail for about 0.8 mile to a point (32.34636 N, 110.76287 W, WGS84) where the trial begins its descent to the bottom of Bear Canyon. Leave the trail here and begin the bushwhack towards Thimble Peak. Work west for a ways, and then swing south towards the crest of the high ridge that Thimble rests upon. You are likely to find a few cairns and a faint hiker’s path in this section. Once at the base of Thimble, the climbing route begins on the west side of the peak, at the bottom of a cleft that separates the north and south summits.

Thimble Peak summit

Summit view: Sabino Canyon, Blackett’s Ridge and the Tucson valley

Season: Fall, winter and spring.

Water: Seasonal water is sometimes found in Bear and Sycamore Canyons. Purify before drinking. As always, it is best to bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: The hike to Thimble’s base is moderately difficult, a little over 10 miles round trip with about 2,500 feet of total elevation gain from the trailhead to the peak and back again. A few miles of bushwhacking and the attendant cross country route finding are required. The rock climb to Thimble’s summit should only be attempted by those with appropriate gear and experience. Loose rocks, unstable blocks and the potential for falls are real dangers on this climb.

Maps: Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains; or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.

 

Map

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Trails

The Needles

by Dan Davis Monday, February 15th 2010

Utah’s a place that just gets better the deeper you get into it – that’s just a plain fact, and that’s a good thing today.

The wind just blew the Bluff town limit sign down so I don’t know where I am, but I know I’ve spent some time here before. That doesn’t bother me right now since I’m thinking more about the big chip in my new truck windshield left by a passing stock truck, which my friends think is pretty funny. No matter, we’ll be heading north out of Monticello past the Abajo Mountains and then west near the familiar giant beehive rock and downhill into the Needles.

Of the three districts of Canyonlands National Park, the Needles contain some of the most diverse landscapes on the Colorado Plateau. As you pass Newspaper Rock, catch a glimpse through the portal to Beef Basin on the left and North and South Six Shooter Peaks fill your windshield, you just know there’s something special ahead of you. As the canyon opens up and gives way to grassy plains, fantastic spires the color of Neapolitan ice cream rise up to the south. This is a land where the prose of Edward Abbey, Tempest Williams and Stegner lose all their eloquence – you’re in there, in person, right in the middle of it all.

needles

Woodenshoe Butte and Squaw Flats

The Squaw Flat campground is nestled among the cliffs and makes a good base for exploring the area, or you can choose to backpack into some of the most spectacular country you will find anywhere. Interesting cultural and natural history ranger programs are offered evenings at the campground amphitheatre. Basic supplies are available just outside the Park boundary at a private campground store.

In Chessler Park you fully expect the mad hatter and white rabbit to bolt out of a sandstone slot in the cliffs and run across the trail. This beautiful and fanciful area is accessible by a tough 4WD road or moderate hiking trails. I couldn’t quite make it up Elephant Hill on the road the last time I tried. The hiking trails in the district aren’t just corridors to get you somewhere, they offer up both intimate and epic landscapes every foot of the way.

Fremont era shamanic and extraterrestrial rock art images jump out of the desert varnish on the walls of the southern canyons – colorful giants with horns, antennae and cyclopean eyes. Many years ago I found a sandal and parrot feather sticking out of the fine silt under a tiny overhang far above the floor of a canyon I won’t name. I’ve often wondered what else was under that sand and hope the artifacts still sit there undisturbed.

2

Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs

It’s fitting that the living symbol of wilderness (not wolf, eagle or grizzly) flies above and lives on this land in large numbers. The omnipresent ravens are wiser than a lot of people and certainly much smarter than I am, as evidenced by their easy access to my food despite my best efforts. It’s a small price to pay, however, for the joy of sitting and watching their aerobatics on the warm thermals or just listening to their strange purring and gurgling conversations while they hop along the slickrock benches.

3

Colorado River Overlook

When you leave the area, a drive up the paved road to the BLM Needles Overlook will give you a spectacular panoramic view of the Needles district and the soaring cliffs of the Island In The Sky to the north and the far off mystical Maze across the river. If you used to camp up here when it was at the end of a long bad dirt road and you were the only person within 20 miles of the overlook, you may tear up a little when you see the parking lot, restroom and campground. Still, one of the best views in southeastern Utah remains unchanged.

If you are going south when you leave, an excellent breakfast can be enjoyed at Grandma’s Kitchen in Monticello on East Central Street.

The Bluff town sign is back up, so we step into the market and back in time and pick up some Bit-O-Honeys for the trip home.

Trips

Rincon Peak

by Dave Baker Tuesday, January 19th 2010

Among all the high places surrounding Tucson, Rincon Peak, at the southern end of the Rincon Mountains, is on my “top three” list of the area’s most beautiful peaks (the other two are Cathedral Peak and Mt Wrightson).

 Rincon Peak

Rincon Peak seen from a view point near Manning Camp

It is tall, massive, pleasingly shaped, and capped with a distinctive granite dome. Standing alone, separated from the rest of the Rincon range by Happy Valley Saddle, it rises high above the Vail area east of Tucson. Rincon Peak is nice to look at!

According to a Park Service history of Saguaro National Park, some of the earliest American visitors to Rincon Peak were probably loggers harvesting timber for use in the valleys far below. An Army officer surveyed Rincon Peak in 1890 looking for a heliograph site and “encountered a logging trail which led to the top of the peak”.

Taking a break near Happy Valley Saddle

It takes hard work to reach Rincon Peak’s summit. The Miller Creek approach described here is far and away the most popular route, but demanding, with a 4,300 foot elevation gain and a round trip distance of about 16 miles. Adding to an already long day is the drive to the somewhat remote trailhead on the east side of the mountain range. Some parties break the climb up by camping half way at Happy Valley Saddle, but this strategy is complicated by the fact that water sources at the Saddle are somewhat unreliable. So, day trips to Rincon Peak are often the norm, but an early start and headlamps are recommended.

Rincon Peak summit monument

The summit monument

Park your car at the Miller Creek Trailhead just off Mescal Road (32.15188 N, 110.48173 W, WGS84), about 15.5 miles north of Exit 297 on I-10. This is a dirt road, but medium clearance passenger vehicles should have no problems other than having to drive slowly through some sections. Walking west from the parking area you soon reach a fence with two gates – the Miller Creek Trail passes through the left one. After a mile or so in the bottom of Miller Canyon, the trail strikes uphill towards Happy Valley Saddle on steep hillsides strewn with boulders, Manzanita and oak trees. At the top of this first long climb you catch a great view of Rincon Peak’s rocky summit and come to a trail junction with the Heartbreak Ridge Trail. Bear left (south) here, and walk a half a mile through a lovely Ponderosa Pine forest to another trail junction where you turn left (south) towards the final push up Rincon Peak. The steepest and most strenuous section of trail is very near the top, but it eases up a bit as you pick your way up the final granite cap to the summit. Enjoy the magnificent views and take a well deserved rest, but don’t linger too long – it’s a long way back to the trailhead!

Evening sky above Miller Creek

Late in the day above Miller Creek

Season: Fall and spring preferred. Winter snow and dangerously slippery ice can impede or halt progress altogether on the high north facing slopes near the top. During summer months this hike can be very hot especially in the lower elevations, so early starts and an ample supply of water are recommended.

Water: A water source near Happy Valley Saddle campground is seasonal and unreliable. Bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: Very difficult. Sixteen miles round trip and 4,300 feet of elevation gain tells the story! Get an early start and bring a headlamp just in case.

Note: A $6 per night camping permit is required from the Park Service for camping at Happy Valley Saddle. An application form is available here.

Maps: Green Trails Saguaro National Park; or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.

 

Map

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Trails

The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!

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