Sierra Estrella Peak (Hayes Peak) • Range Highpoint: Sierra Estrella
• Highpoint: Gila River Indian Reservation
• South-central Maricopa County

Date Climbed
November 21, 2009

Elevation
4,512 feet

Distance
9 miles

Time
11.5 hours

Gain
4,050 feet (gross)

Conditions
Mild, very nice

Prominence
3,212 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version


Sierra Estrella Range in January 2007
 

The Estrellas, and the summit, the day before from Rainbow Valley
 

Our simple camp. The summit is partially hidden at left, but the ridge we would walk is plainly shown.
 

Summit first appears about half way up the ridge.
 

About midway up the ridge. This was typical of the terrain
 

The summit as seen from Point 3,660. The ridge is also seen in greater detail
 

Zoom image of the summit
 

The final 200 feet
 

Me at the top.
 

Summit as seen later in the day
 

Descending the steep ridge, late in the day.
 

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The Sierra Estrella ("Star Mountains") are an impressive mountain range running on a northwest-southeast alignment, immediately south and southwest of Phoenix. Most of the range lies within the Gila River Indian Reservation, and some old maps and references call it the Komatke Range. Despite its close proximity to Phoenix, very few people climb this range's highpoint, which for the time being has no official name. On the north end of the range, where the Estrellas drop down near the towns of Avondale and Goodyear, there is a county park with hiking trails, but none that go anywhere near the top. The southern part of the range (near the town of Maricopa) is enclosed with a Wilderness and features a trail to Quartz and Butterfly Peaks. The bulk of the range, including the summit and all visible ridges, lies within the Gila River Indian Reservation, with the western foothills split between sections of BLM, State Trust, and private lands. The highest point, the officially unnamed summit, has an elevation of 4,512 feet and is plainly visible from most of Phoenix.

There are many reasons this peak sees so few visitors. There is no convenient "Phoenix-side" road access, as the Gila River blocks all access. The only plausible access (for now) is from the Rainbow Valley, approaching the range from the southwest, and following a series of old, unkept dirt and sandy tracks. And that's just getting to the range. The actual climb is steep, rocky, brushy and very grueling, with almost 4,000 feet of gross gain required to gain the summit, when all ups and downs along the approach ridges are accounted for. The top features a small shed and solar collector, but workers are ferried to the top via helicopter. It takes a lot of motivation to want to climb this peak.

I first tried to climb the peak back in January 2007, meeting up with Scott Casterlin, John Hamann and a couple others from Tucson. We met in Maricopa, then took a series of back roads via State Route AZ-238, Komatke Road and long sections of the El Paso Gas Line Road, to get to the trailhead, located at the east end of the Ocotillo Road alignment, where the sandy track peters out in the desert below some power lines. We made a beeline approach to the top, aiming for a very steep ridge with a shorter profile than other nearby ridges. The climbing went well for the first little while, but higher up, the cliffs became steeper and more persistent. In sections, we were scaling 10- to 20-foot class 3/4 rock, and I started to sense this was not going to go well for me. I was lagging, and finally decided to bail at about the 3,800-foot level.

I hiked down back to my truck, and noted the lay of the land. A much longer ridge sat immediate south of this present ridge, and it looked much friendlier than what I was on now. I wondered why we hadn't taken that ridge, then cut across the main crest to the top. I filed this information away for a possible future attempt. Back at the truck, I felt an obligation to stay until the others were out. John was not far behind me, but the other three guys came out about four hours later, well past dusk. I was seriously going to call the rescue teams if they didn't show up by a set time. They had some real issues with those cliffs. Thus, it was a long day, and for me, not very productive other than working up a sweat.

This opportunity came about when Adam Helman desired to climb Estrella, having got lost on the approach roads a few months ago following a bad set of directions. We set a November date to give Estrella another try, accompanied by Chris Gilsdorf and John Klein. Chris and I drove to the little burg of Mobile along AZ-238, meeting Adam who had come in from San Diego. We followed the same net of roads as I had in 2007, but found them to be in much worse shape. The City of Goodyear has incorporated almost all of the Rainbow Valley into its city limits, and the Gas Line Road, which cuts a nice diagonal from AZ-238 to the south end of the main roads coming in from the north, was now blocked by a series of sandy berms, put up by bulldozers. Maybe the city doesn't want people taking this road. Well, we did, but it required some hefty 4-wheel driving through soft sand. We were able to get past all that and to the trailhead. I remembered enough from 2007 how to get there without getting lost. The three of us arrived in the late afternoon, and John arrived a few hours later, coming up after work from Tucson.

We awoke early and started our hike at 6:30 a.m., still dark but with enough light so that we did not need flashlights or headlamps. We walked up to the end of the road, then where it ended, we went southeast across open desert toward a small saddle along the ridge we'd be following up to the main range crest. For reference, we passed a small hill marked as 1,670 feet on the map. This stretch was laced with arroyos, so we crossed them until we came upon the saddle, marked as "A" on the accompanying annotated map. To here we'd covered about a mile in about 40 minutes, gaining just under 600 feet. Looking up at the rest of the ridge, we could see mostly barrier-free climbing ahead. There were some rock fins and outcrops, but nothing overly cliffy or impossible to bypass.

The next destination was a knob, elevation 3,660 feet, marked as "B" on the map. From A to B, we gained over 1,700 feet. It was steep and brushy, but never impossible. However, we did start to string out here, me being the slowpoke (as I expected). The final 200 feet to knob 3,660 was steep and brushy and loose, but it went. I came upon the rest of the crew at the knob around 9:00 a.m. So far, 2,200 feet of climbing in the books. The sun was now up and offering some good low-angle light for photographs. The summit was now visible, "only" 850 feet higher, but requiring a long traverse up and down many intervening sub-peaks. We still had a lot of work to do.

We strung out again as we approached our next waypoint, so to speak: a saddle north of sub-peak 3,795, the saddle itself with an elevation of about 3,460 feet. We all took some sort of traverse across the west-facing slopes. I had no better ideas than anyone else so I generally tried to stay level and managed to poke my way across this traverse, which seemed to go longer than it would appear on the map. The slopes were loose and very brushy, and often I found myself having to up-climb and down-climb 10-15 feet over and over again to get around tricky sections. Toward the saddle at 3,460 feet, I cliffed myself out on a small set of rocks and finally, after all my little delays, I arrived at the 3,460-foot saddle. It took me an hour to make this traverse.

John and Adam went on ahead, moving at a good pace while Chris and I resumed the crest walk, now ascending the slopes toward sub-peak 3,873. It was along this stretch that I experienced something I have never experienced before on a climb: extreme leg cramping and charley horses. I've had a little of both over the years, but nothing like this. Yes, I was probably dehydrated and lacking some salts. I had plenty of liquid and food ... but the cramping was pretty bad and it hurt very badly. By the time we worked toward the final saddle below the summit (marked "D" on the map), I was going very slow and growing quite concerned about this whole situation. But we were close to the summit! And frankly, I would be damned if I was going to turn around again. It was pushing noon by now. John and Adam had already summitted and were on the way down; Chris and I met them at about 4,100 feet on the slopes southwest of the summit, where we had a powwow. They were naturally curious about my speed (more precisely, the lack thereof), and whether I would be quick enough to be out to the vehicles by dark. This was a fair concern and I felt terrible for going so slow. But we were just 400 feet below the top by now, so it was agreed: I'd hustle my slow ass to the top as best I could, tag it and then we'd start the long walk out.

At this point Adam and John resumed their descent. John would hike all the way out while Adam kindly offered to wait up for us at the 3,460-foot saddle. Chris, much to his credit, could have gone faster but he stayed with me as mental support. I tried to move fast but every time I'd take three or four steps, my legs would seize up again, tighten or spasm, and just be in terrible pain. The final 400 feet—covering maybe 0.2 mile—took just 20 minutes but it felt like I would never get there. The usual rush of energy I get when coming upon the final 100 or so feet to a peak wasn't there. I barely dragged myself to the top, arriving at 12:30 sharp. A small set of antennae, generators and a big solar-panel screen dominate the pointed top. A small rock outcrop at the top marks the highest point. We tagged it, got some photos, took maybe a minute to look down onto Phoenix from this unique vantage point, then started down. It had taken me 6 hours to make the top, about 1.5-2 hours more than I figured I would have under normal circumstances. I will say the views are marvelous, but I chose to enjoy them more on the descent.


Panorama looking south. Quartz Peak is somewhere back there.

The hike down went slow but at least now I could move at a more consistent pace and since I was using different muscle groups, had some relief from the cramping. I was hydrating as much as possible and eating, but nothing seemed to work. It took about 20 minutes to descend to the 3,660-foot saddle, then another 40 minutes to go up and over bump 3,873 and back down to the 3,440-foot saddle where Adam was waiting up; it was a little bit before 2 o'clock. In my mind, this pace would work well since I figured another hour to the 3,660-foot knob, leaving us still almost three hours for the long steep descent back onto the desert floor. I was happy to have the summit, but happier to be moving a little more efficiently.

I chose to retry the traverse I had done in the morning back to knob 3,660, whereas Adam and Chris chose to go up and over the range crest instead. I was trying to mitigate the uphill portions and keep things as level as possible, but within minutes I realized I had no idea what path I'd followed on my morning traverse, so I abandoned the traverse and climbed the remaining 150 feet to the range crest. The spasming was intense and I had to sit every few feet and rub my thighs to relieve the pain. I finally arrived at the 3,660-foot knob at 3 p.m., which was "on schedule" for me and still gave us plenty of time for the big descent ahead of us. I was happy there would be no more uphill climbing of any sort.

The descent back down to the low saddle at 1,970 feet went slow, of course. By now I was simply out of gas, exhausted and confounded by my leg cramping. The steep slope made every step a slow one since the rock would often roll out from under me, and I could barely stand as it was. But, on the upside, there were no obstacles and the views were stunning. I did have to take numerous breaks and yes, I fell flat on my ass a couple times. Finally, back down to the low saddle, we stopped and met up with Adam, then the three of us walked the easy grades across the arroyos back to the road, and from there back to our vehicles, just as the sun was setting. An eleven-and-a-half hour day for me. I was just damn relieved to be done with this ordeal. My legs were absolutely killing me, and I could not figure out why. I was utterly spent, and apologized to the others—and thanked them too—for being patient with me under these circumstances.

John had been back at his truck for probably hours by now and he was happy to see us. We stood around and talked briefly, but didn't waste too much time. I sucked down some cool drinks from my cooler and massaged my legs, but we decided to get moving as by now it was dark and we wanted to be back on the pavement before too long. John did reveal that his GPS had tracked our gross elevation change for the day to be 4,700 feet, which includes all uphill sections, both on the ascent and descent. That was surprising at first but would explain a lot: 4,700 gross feet is a lot, averaging out to over 1,000 feet per mile. Again, nothing I haven't done before, but this time it just nailed me. Maybe I was out of shape, maybe I rushed at first to keep up. Whatever it was, the cramping was extremely inconvenient and worrisome, especially since I've never had such an occurrence before.

Once back to pavement, we drove north toward Buckeye and Goodyear, where we split ways. I drove from here back home, back to my wife and kitties, with two store-bought two fruit pies for my wife. I took a good bath, ate a whole bag of chips (for the salt?), and slept like a log that night. I was happy to be home.

It felt great to finally climb Estrella. I no longer have to view the peak every day of my life and let it bug me that I haven't climbed it. On the upside, the route we chose worked very well and was never more technical that brushy class-2, with some rubbly sections. We had no cliffs whatsoever, nothing that couldn't be bypassed. I felt vindicated in a way from my 2007 failure, now knowing there is a better way to the top that avoids cliffs entirely. I appreciate very much the camaraderie of my teammates. I daresay this is the toughest peak I have ever climbed in Arizona. In terms of just pure effort, ruggedness, length, height, steepness, this peak has it in abundance. The views are superb and the Estrellas, as I learned, have a well-earned reputation for their ruggedness. I can't imagine more than a handful of people climb the highpoint per year, and that's being generous. As Chris said, you have to really earn this peak. We most certainly did.

On the descent, I peered down the slopes below peak 3,795 and they looked fairly consistent, no huge cliffs or rocky obstacles. There was a time I was considering descending that way, but the concern of getting stuck prompted us to not try it at this time. It's marked green on the map, and I suggest some brave hikers consider this approach as a possible way to gain the high ridge yet save some distance in the process. As for me, I am never going back to the summit. Once is enough.

Is it "Hayes Peak"? I have come across a few scattered references that call the highpoint Hayes Peak, in honor of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian and a member of the Gila River Indian Community. He was born in Sacaton and gained fame as one of the flag-raisers in the photograph taken on Iwo Jima, during the second World War. Fame was his curse, and he died early at age 32, in January 1955. As for naming the peak after Ira Hayes: I think it's an excellent idea. It's absurd such a prominent, obvious mountaintop has no official name, and Ira Hayes is arguably the most famous person to come out of Sacaton. The name is unofficial and probably no more than a grass-roots effort for the moment. I hope it gains traction and the name becomes official sometime down the line.

(c) 2009 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.