Ragged Top is widely regarded as the finest peak in the Silver Bell Mountains, which rise out of the desert plain west of Marana, Arizona. The Silver Bells are home to an estimated 35 – 50 desert bighorn sheep, likely the only remaining bighorns in the Tucson area. The area lies within Ironwood Forest National Monument, authorized by President Clinton in 2000.
A visit to Ragged Top is rewarding not only for the great hiking and sweeping summit views, but also for the experience of visiting an amazingly pristine portion of the Sonora Desert. In addition to its namesake ironwood trees, this new monument shows off large, healthy stands of other classic Sonoran vegetation, including saguaro and cholla cactus, palo verde trees, and much more. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum provides an excellent online biological survey of the monument.
Though not long, this should be regarded as a difficult hike. A trip to Ragged Top’s summit involves 2.6 to 4.8 miles of walking (depending upon where you park your car) and about 1,600 feet of elevation gain. There are no established trails, so the venture involves cross country route finding and plenty of bushwhacking, though you are likely to appreciate the many faint game trails that criss-cross the peak’s flanks. To reach the summit, one must negotiate steep and brushy terrain, and near the top there are 2nd and 3rd class sections of rock scrambling to deal with. Hikers must also take care on slopes and gullies steep enough that dislodged rocks can roll and bound downhill for some distance.
Ragged Top – Wolcott Peak saddle
Ragged Top’s summit is guarded by a rampart of steep cliffs, and the key to reaching the top is to make your way to a high saddle or notch just west of the summit. The North Gully route is quite direct: it ascends a steep and brushy ravine on the north side of the peak which terminates at this saddle. There is a similar ravine on the south side of the mountain that ends at the same notch.
On our visit to Ragged Top we decided to do a loop route which went through the saddle between Ragged Top and Wolcott Peak, up the South Gully to the summit, and then down the North Gully.
2nd and 3rd class terrain near the top, with the South Gully below
Drive out Silver Bell Road to the north side of Ragged Top. There is a very handy online map provided by the BLM to help find the way. Turn south off Silver Bell Road onto a jeep road (32.46756 N, 111.47487 W, WGS84). The jeep road is not four wheel drive, but a high clearance vehicle is desirable. Park near the end of the jeep road, a mile after leaving Silver Bell Road.
To start the loop route, walk south to the broad saddle between Ragged Top and Wolcott Peak, and then turn west, first contouring under the summit of Ragged Top and later working up a steep slope towards the crest of a prominent ridge sweeping south from the summit ridge. As you near the crest of the aforementioned ridge, look for the prominent South Gully which cuts up directly towards the high saddle just west of the summit. From the high saddle, work east a little before climbing a steep ravine towards the summit. Near the top there is a section of 2nd and 3rd class rock scrambling. On the descent, back at the high saddle, complete the loop by dropping down the steep and brushy North Gully, finally using game trails to contour east around the base of Ragged Top back to the car.
Ironwood Forest National Monument
Season: Fall and winter. This low elevation area is very hot in the summer. Avoid ascents of Ragged Top from late February through April; this is lambing time for desert bighorn sheep.
Water: None. Bring plenty of your own
Difficulty: Advanced. The loop described here is 2.6 miles long with 1,600 feet of elevation gain. (Parking the car at Silver Bell Road instead of the end of the jeep road adds another 2.2 miles to the day.) Steep terrain, including 2nd and 3rd class rock scrambling is encountered. Moderately strenuous. There are no established trails, so route finding is required; map, compass and/or GPS can be useful. Brushy, so long pants are recommended.
Maps: USGS; or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.
Click Map for larger image