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 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.
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”; 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.
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.