Elephant Head Pilgrimage

by Dave Baker Friday, January 30th 2009

Cruising along I-19 from Tucson towards Nogales, I often risk becoming distracted and taking my attention off the important task of driving safely along the interstate. The problem is not a preoccupation with the car stereo, jabbering away on a cell phone or texting messages.

Nope, the issue along this stretch of highway is Elephant Head, a massive granite peak that sweeps majestically skyward at the western end of the Santa Rita Mountains. Elephant Head is hard not to look at! And, the climb to its summit makes for a classic southern Arizona outing.

Elephant Head

Elephant Head from the mouth of Chino Canyon

Two routes are described here to Elephant Head; one from the mouth of Chino Canyon and a shorter route starting in Agua Caliente Canyon. The trailheads for both of these hikes are on dirt roads.

The drive to the Chino Canyon trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle; though with four wheel drive, one might be able to drive further than this description suggests, depending upon current conditions of the rough road snaking up Chino Canyon. On my last trip there, we took a look at the first four wheel drive obstacle and decided to park and walk the full distance.

Reaching the Agua Caliente trailhead is easier; medium clearance vehicles should not have problems.

2nd class scrambling

Elephant Head summit ridge

The two hiking routes join at the head of Chino Basin, and then follow a decaying road bed that once served the abandoned Quantrell Mine, high up in Chino Canyon. Roughly a mile short of the mine, an unmaintained hiker’s route to Elephant Head leaves the road and plunges steeply into upper Chino Canyon and then climbs to the broad saddle east of the peak. From the saddle, it is a short walk to the beginning of the rocky summit ridge with its 2nd and sometimes 3rd class terrain. The summit ridge drops dramatically away on both sides, but one can usually avoid undue exposure during the scramble to the summit. Once on top, Elephant Head rewards hikers with its famed “Elephant Shrine”, and sweeping views across southern Arizona.

The "Elephant Shrine"

The “Elephant Shrine”; with Baboquivari Peak in the distance.

From Chino Canyon: The Chino Canyon hike is about 5.8 miles one way with a 2,200 foot elevation gain to reach the summit, and a 400 foot gain on the return hike for a total 2,600 foot climb. To reach the trailhead (31.74189 N, 110.95335 W, WGS84), leave I-19 at Exit 56, Canoa Road, and turn south on the frontage road on the east side of the interstate. After 3 miles, turn left (east) on Elephant Head Road and drive for 1.6 miles turning left (north) onto Canoa Drive. Drive 2.1 miles, then turn right (east) on Hawk Drive and follow this road till it ends near a sign that says “Elephant Bike Trail 4”. Behind this sign, follow a dirt road for 0.8 miles where you bear right; 0.8 miles later bear left through a gate. About 0.4 miles later watch for a Carsonite post marked “4073” where you turn right. A short distance later the dirt road crosses Madera Canyon wash; we parked short of the wash and began our walk, continuing along the dirt road into Chino Canyon. Following the jeep road up Chino Canyon, walk high up into Chino Basin where the road finally swings north, traversing a steep mountainside. Look for a rock cairn (31.71369 N, 110.93517 W, WGS84) on the side of the road, which marks the beginning of the hiker’s route taking off downhill towards Elephant Head.

From Agua Caliente Canyon: This hike is about 3 miles one way, with a 1,600 foot elevation gain to reach the peak, and the same 400 foot gain on the return walk for a total 2,000 foot climb. Drive I-19, exiting at Canoa Road (Exit 56), then turn south on the frontage road on the east side of the interstate. After 3 miles, turn left (east) on Elephant Head Road and drive for about 1.5 miles before turning right onto Mount Hopkins Road. 5.5 miles later watch for a dirt road (Forest Service Road 183) which turns left into Agua Caliente Canyon. About 2.5 miles up FS 183, watch for a Carsonite sign on the left side of the road, “TRAIL 930”, marking the trailhead (31.69549 N, 110.929 W, WGS84). After walking Trail 930 for about a mile you will run into the Chino Canyon road described above. Turn right (north) on the old mining road and walk to the rock cairn (31.71369 N, 110.93517 W, WGS84), marking the start of the hiker’s route to Elephant Head.

Walking the hiker's route

On the hiker’s route

Season: Fall, winter and spring. This hike can be hot, especially in the summer.

Water: Seasonal water in upper Chino Canyon; bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: Advanced. Moderately strenuous. The hiker’s route described here is not a constructed trail, but it is pretty well beat in. One does need to be somewhat attentive and watch for numerous rock cairns marking the way. The summit ridge involves non-technical 2nd class and occasionally 3rd class rock scrambling. Exposure can generally be avoided on the summit ridge; if you find yourself making an exposed move, you are probably off route. But do take care, there is potential for long, dangerous falls on this route.

Maps: USGS Mt Hopkins AZ, Green Trails Santa Rita Mountains, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software. (The Green Trails map shows the hiker’s route.)


Click Map for larger image


Comments (2) -

2/2/2009 7:24:22 PM #

I have always wanted to do that hike.  I like the bushwhacking gloves featured in a couple of those shots.  A little brushy, eh?  This is fun to read, keep them coming please.


2/5/2009 2:51:58 PM #

My girlfriend and I just did this hike last weekend and really enjoyed it.  Although a bit discouraging to go back down into Chino canyon and back up to the Elephant head saddle.  I agree with the 2nd and 3rd class climbing near the top.  Nothing to get too worked up about though, it was more enjoyable/different if anything.

The shrine was really neat and the view at the top was fantastic.

...wish I would've considered the Agua Caliente route prior to though... maybe next time

Brandon Birchmeier

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!