Mount Graham • Highpoint: Graham County
• Range Highpoint: Pinaleño Mountains

Date Climbed
1. May 9, 2000
2. July 19, 2003

10,720 feet

6 miles round trip

3 hours

1,700 feet

Both times very nice

6,320 feet
The most prominent
mountain in Arizona

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

Mount Graham from below

The Pinaleno Range and Mt. Graham

Beth framed by limbs of a fallen tree

Beth on trail

Me on the forbidden place

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The County Highpoints of Arizona

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Mount Graham is notable landmark mountain in Eastern Arizona, overlooking the town of Safford about 150 miles from Phoenix and Tucson. It is Arizona's most prominent mountain, as measured from its saddle to its summit: over 6,300 vertical feet of rise. This arcana becomes clear when you view it directly: it is a giant, very impressive mountain. Technically, Mount Graham is the name of the top only; the rest of the range is known as the Pinaleño Mountains. Casually, most people just refer to the whole mass as Mount Graham.

Mount Graham is also the only other summit in Arizona above 10,000 feet that's not part of the San Francisco Peaks (Humphreys Peak) nor the White Mountains (Baldy Peak). Its height and remoteness makes it a good place to build an observatory, which they did about 25 years ago. That created a row among environmentalists who didn't want to tear up the upper mountain with roads and buildings, nor to bother the endangered red squirrel, and the San Carlos Apache Indians who consider the mountain sacred. In the late 1980s, the Forest Service declared the upper mountain a refugium, meaning no one could go there under penalty of arrest. Thus, Mount Graham's summit is officially off-limits.

For those uninterested in summits, the Pinaleños are a fantastic place to escape and explore while on respite from the summer heat. A great paved road called the Swift Trail Parkway twists and turns up the whole mountain for 35 miles, ending at Riggs Lake. There are campgrounds, hiking trails and fishing holes up here. Ironically, Mount Graham itself is very broad and choked with trees. There are no views from the top. Still, I wanted to visit it for my county-highpoint completion challenge. I decided to chance fate and came here in May 2000, and again in July 2003 with my brand-new wife.

First Visit, May 2000: My teaching duties at ASU had just ended so I headed out of town for the day to try my luck with Mount Graham. The drive via Globe and Safford went well, but I got a warning from a cop as I was going a little guick through the hills near Superior. It's roughly a three-hour drive to Safford, then another hour up the Swift Trail Parkway to the "trailhead". In the olden days, a side road went all the way to the top of Mount Graham. Given the peak's closure, this road is gated and also bulldozed to make it undriveable.

The pavement ends at a big turn-around near where this old summit road started. Instead, I drove farther along the hard-pack continuation of the main road and parked off the road, well hidden in some lovely shade trees. I would be approaching the top via some lesser side roads and old jeep tracks. It was roughly 9 a.m. when I was situated and ready to go. I walked cross-country through the forest a few hundred yards to meet up with an old abandoned jeep road. Mature vegetation, including some large trees, have taken root on this old road, but the road was pitched leniently and it was easy to follow. I walked it for about a mile, to where it meets up with the aforementioned "main" summit road. The legalities of what's open to hiking and what's not is not clear. The refugium is supposed to be all lands above 9,800 feet, but there are few signs anywhere saying anything. I knew exactly what I was doing, but I could see how someone could inadvertantly enter onto these lands, completely unaware.

Now on the main road, I turned left and started walking it toward the summit. The road is mostly in the wide-open, but old-growth forest comes right up to the sides in places. I honestly was not expecting trouble. I sincerely doubt anyone patrols this old road, and I have some theories about the situation. In the odd event someone would fly over, I could just duck into the trees.

In any case, I illegally walked another mile and a half until the road started to angle right, then there it was, the top. A tree-choked, flattish summit with no views. I tagged whatever looked high and just started immediately down, and I retraced my steps all the way back to my vehicle. I was happy, though, to have made the top, and it put me one county closer to having visited all fifteen Arizona county highpoints. The hike took me three hours, covered five miles round trip and about 1,700 feet of gain.

I never thought I would have to do this hike again, but newly married, I decided to corrupt my lovely bride by bringing her up here a few years later...

Second Visit, July 2003: My wife Beth and I made a weekend visit to Safford, with a hike up Mount Graham for Saturday and a backroads drive to the ghost town of Klondyke and the mouth of the Aravaipa Canyon for Sunday. We left our home in Chandler Friday evening and made the 140-mile drive to Safford, arriving around 8 p.m.

The hike followed exactly the same route as I took in 2000. The hike to the top took one hour, forty-five minutes, and the round trip just over three hours. I found the register and scanned the names contained in it: familiar names from the county highpointers group, and a few others, but since early 2000 only about 10 people had signed in. I'm sure the "official" lack of access scares off some, but frankly, this summit offers no views and is purely attractive for making the county highpoint official. On our hike down the clouds began to build in earnest and we could smell rain in the air. The cool temperatures (70s) were a beautiful respite from our previous week in Chandler, when we had consecutive days of 116, 115 and 117 degrees. We spent the rest of the day back in Safford relaxing and going to a movie.

The next morning we took a backroad to the old ghost town of Klondyke, which sits to the southwest of the Pinaleno Mountains. The dirt road was in good shape and about 40 miles later, we arrived in this little burg, now with a full-time population of 5, so says the sign. There's a functioning general store, where Beth and I stopped for ice cream. In the old days (1920s) it had about 500 people. Today it's just an interesting relic, and survives only because there are ranches scattered about the region and Klondyke offers a centralized meeting place. The general store sells one of everything and basically is a mini-mart for the locals; Safford is about 60 miles away for the real shopping. Past Klondyke the road leads into the mouth of the Aravaipa Canyon, a remote but interesting canyon with high cliffs and a very verdant canyon floor.

We have been back a few other times. In 2005, we came back for a dayhike of Heliograph Peak, and again in 2010 for some short hikes and camping. On that trip, I visited Ladybug and Webb Peaks. We have also driven to Safford just to soak in the natural hot springs and to explore surrounding ranges. We like Safford: it's a rough-around-the-edges town. They have a great mexican food restaurant where US-70 and US-191 meet up in town. That can be worth the drive alone.

Mount Graham Panorama.

(c) 2006, 2012 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.