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Picacho Peak Trip Report
Hiking to the Summit of Arizona’s “Ship Of The Desert”
February 12, 2000
by Chuck Parsons
Angie, Tom, Chuck, Marnie, and Matthew at the Hunter Trailhead.

On a cold and windy Saturday morning with dull gray overcast skies threatening to spit rain at any moment, five Motorola Hiking Club members – Angela Lien, Matthew Martin, Chuck Parsons, Marnie Shepperd, and Tom Van Lew – arrived at Picacho Peak State Park. After checking in at the ranger station and getting the latest weather update, we decided to brave the elements and tackle the summit trail to Picacho Peak, not knowing if the weather would cooperate and allow us to actually reach the summit or not. Tom had spoken earlier of a Picacho hike he was on last year that had to turn back at the saddle because of rain. This trail is just too steep and too treacherous in a number of areas beyond the saddle to allow safe navigation over slick, wet rock, even with the anchored steel cable supports provided as an extra safety margin.

Hoping that the rains would hold off until afternoon, we set off from the Hunter Trail Trailhead, starting at the north end of Barrett Loop, at 8:45 AM for our two-mile journey to the 3,374-foot summit of Picacho Peak. It wasn’t looking any too promising at the start, with the gusting winds seeming to pick up speed and dropping the wind-chill factor down a few notches, along with the gray, threatening clouds scuttling overhead. No typical bright blue Arizona skies for us on this cold (55°F.), windy morning. This was actually pretty good hiking weather, although our long-sleeve shirts and warm jackets were a welcome comfort for awhile, as we slowly worked our way up the steep trail in the face of these buffeting winds.

Once widely referred to as the “Ship of the Desert” because of its prominence as a well used landmark by explorers and travelers passing through this area over many years, Picacho Peak is the tilted and greatly eroded remains of sequential lava flows dating back 22 million years in time. Arizona would not have been a very desirable place to live for many tens of thousands of years, when numerous volcanoes were erupting and spewing lava and ash over much of the state. Arizona’s only Civil War battle was fought at the base of this jagged peak on April 15, 1862, resulting in three Union casualties in a ninety-minute skirmish that is reenacted every year in March, when these slopes are often covered in a yellow-orange carpet of Gold Poppies, signaling the long-awaited arrival of springtime in the desert.

The Hunter Trail starts climbing almost immediately from our 2,000-foot starting point, going into steep switchbacks through typical Sonoran Desert terrain of creosote, ocotillos, chollas, palo verdes, and scattered saguaros, as it slowly claws its way up the steep northern slope of Picacho Mountain. After about half a mile of steady elevation gain, we finally reach the cliff base, prominently seen from the trailhead. Leveling off along the cliff base for awhile, the trail then goes into another series of ascending switchbacks all the way to the saddle at 2,960 feet.

The saddle marks the halfway point to Picacho Peak – we had now climbed almost one thousand feet in one mile of hiking, and this was actually the easy part. It was at this point that Marnie decided she had gone far enough and would not attempt the summit. For someone who had not done too much hiking in the past few years, she did a commendable job getting this far, as this was a fairly strenuous climb just getting to the saddle.

Hikers make their way up the serpentine trail to Picacho Peak.

She would take a well-deserved rest break here and then slowly work her way back down to the trailhead, while I would attempt to catch up with the rest of our group, who had pulled ahead of us earlier, and stay in radio contact with Marnie as she worked her way back down the trail.

Immediately after the saddle, the trail then plunges rather steeply for several hundred feet, working its way down and around the southern exposure of Picacho Peak. It is necessary at this point to use the steel cable supports to maintain a safe footing on the steep bare rock surface that now marks our sharply descending trail. It isn’t too long before one starts to notice the sudden absence of traffic noises, a constant reminder of the steady stream of cars and trucks speeding by on the busy interstate far below us. On descending from the saddle, the mountain now serves as a noise buffer, absorbing the cacophony of man-made noises on the north side and replacing them with the soothing and relaxing sounds of nature on the south side.

Carefully working my way down and then around the backside of Picacho, I begin to encounter a series of steep inclines, requiring the use of anchored steel cables to ascend the bare rock surfaces. Several areas along this stretch of the trail require the use of double steel cables and both arms to literally strong-arm your way up the very steep rocky approaches to the summit. Leather gloves come in very handy here to provide better gripping power on the somewhat slippery steel cabling, especially on the way back down. Somewhere above the last cable hold, Tom’s voice comes crackling over the Motorola TalkAbout, informing me that they have already finished lunch on the summit, and where the heck am I anyway? Climbing my way up over the last series of switchbacks to the summit, I join Tom, Matthew, and Angie at last on the cold and wind-swept summit of Picacho Peak.

Traversing one of the treacherous slick rock sections of Hunter Trail. Wear gloves, and hold onto those steel cables! They won’t break or come undone.
Matthew, Angie, and Tom pause before making the precarious descent from the Hunter Trail Saddle.

As I quickly catch my breath, admiring the terrific view from this rocky vantage point and scarfing down a quick lunch, we notice a small plume of gray smoke drifting across a field far below us to the south. As the steady winds send angry orange flames racing across the field of tall dry grass, the once small plume of smoke soon grows into a mile-long plume of thick gray smoke drifting to the west. We are hoping the wind holds steady and doesn’t shift northward, sending the smoke our way, as we make our way down from the summit and across another saddle to the unnamed lower peak due west of Picacho Peak.

It is on this peak that Tom discovers a log book, thoughtfully left by a couple of past hikers, Theresa and Norma, in February, 1999 – tightly rolled up with a pen and sealed inside a glass jar. After taking a short break and signing the log sheet (note to Theresa and Norma: you need a new log book, as this one is almost filled up), we notice to our dismay that the wind has shifted suddenly, sending the still-growing plume of thick gray smoke right in our direction. It isn’t long before we catch the faint smell of burning grass on the wind.

With the aid of steel cable handholds, Tom leads in the steep descent from the peak.

Quickly working our way back down the trail in a race against time to beat the drifting smoke, we make plans to cover our mouths and noses with wet handkerchiefs if we are engulfed by the gray cloud. Lucky for us, the wind suddenly shifts again and starts blowing the plume of smoke back to the west, sending a long, thin trail of smoke curling all the way around to the north side of Picacho.

Wasting no time getting back down to the trailhead before the fickle wind can shift again, we catch up with Marnie, sitting on a rock while taking in the scenery and talking with passing hikers.

We shortly reach the trailhead and Tom’s truck, where we doff our hiking gear and enjoy refreshing cold sodas, while gazing up at Picacho Peak, piercing the Arizona skyline. It is now 12:15 PM, the sun is breaking through, and the gray skies are starting to yield to blue once again on another beautiful Arizona afternoon.

At Tom’s suggestion (great idea, Tom), we made a short side trip to the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Farm just down the road from Picacho Peak, where we got up close and personal with a bunch of very curious ostriches.

Buying several cups of feed corn, we went out to meet these tall feathered giants of the bird world nose to beak, where we quickly learned that you have to be very fast and very careful around these guys, since they look at human fingers as the ultimate finger food. We all came away from this close encounter with a few nicks and scrapes from quick, sharp beaks.

Tom and Marnie feed the ostriches at the Rooster Cogburn farm.

After examining ostrich feather dusters (Marnie will be publishing a report soon on how hers is working out), ostrich T-shirts, ostrich leather belts and wallets, and fresh ostrich eggs – $15 a pop and equivalent to two dozen chicken eggs (a Paul Bunyan omelet, anyone?), we bid goodbye to our new feathered friends and head back to the Valley of the Sun, wondering where our next hiking venture would take us on the amazing trails of Arizona.

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updated March 31, 2020