Keystone Peak • Range Highpoint: Sierrita Mountains
• Southeastern Pima County

Date Climbed
November 18, 2006

Elevation
6,188 feet

Distance
8 miles round trip

Time
5 hours

Gain
1,600 feet

Conditions
Still, dry and gorgeous

Prominence
2,448 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version


Zoom image of the Sierrita Mountains seen from about 30 miles away from the Gilbert Ray Campground near Tucson
 

The gate at the road at the start of the hike
 

The McGee Ranch cemetery
 

Beth walking up the trail
 

Looking back east from the pass near Ox Frame Tank junction
 

The road, and off in the distance, the Santa Rita Mountains rise, with Mount Wrightson barely poking above!
 

Here's me on top it all
 

Beth ambles down the road; the summit towers are above her
 

A cabin dating from c.1911
 

Keystone after a quick spring storm (Apr 2007)

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Keystone Peak tops the Sierrita Range in southern Arizona, about 30 miles southwest of Tucson. The diminutive form of the name is indicative of the range's relative size when compared to the much-larger Santa Rita, Santa Catalina and Baboquivari Mountains that surround it. However, the Sierritas get as high as 6,188 feet at Keystone Peak's summit, high enough to support healthy slopes of grass and mid-sized trees. The range has its own unique charm, and typically is not crowded at all with visitors.

Keystone Peak first caught our eye when Beth and I were hiking Wasson Peak in March of this year. Looking south, whether from the trails on Wasson Peak or from the Gilbert Ray campground, the Sierrita Mountains rise up atop a rising plateau. The bigger Santa Rita Mountains (home to Mount Wrightson) rise farther southeast, while famous Baboquivari Peak rises to the southwest. In a way, Keystone Peak gets overlooked by these more well-known ranges. Nevertheless, we filed away Keystone Peak as a possible hike for later in the year when the abatement of the summer heat would permit such a hike.

We left Chandler on Friday afternoon and drove to Tucson, where we stocked up on food and then drove out over Gates Pass Road (off of Speedway Boulevard) and down into the west unit of Saguaro National Park and our campsite at the Gilbert Ray campground, which actually sits within the Tucson Mountains Park (adjoining the National Park). We enjoyed our camp here in March and were happy to come back. The desert scenery here is tremendous, and the campground is well run and not full of yahoos. Usually just lots of Canadian snowbirds in their big RVs and others out for some hiking and biking. It's also close enough to a Circle-K (5 miles) so that in a pinch, it's possible to get a coffee and some provisions when the mood strikes.

After a pleasant night's sleep we awoke to cool but wonderfully dry conditions, and as soon as the sun rose the temperature kicked up a bit, too. There wasn't a cloud from horizon to horizon, and in the clear air shadows and detail could be made out on the most distant of ranges. I walked south of the campground to snap some early-morning shots of the Sierritas using our camera's zoom feature. I was trying to capture the effect of the mountain's rise about the rising plateau. It's a cool effect that can only be best seen in person. What looks like the south horizon is actually highlands nearing 4,500 feet elevation, a full 2,000 feet higher than where we were. The photo at left is the best of the bunch. It's blurry but still pretty illustrative, I think.

Beth was feeling pretty good and felt up for the hike, her legs and back permitting. We packed up and got moving around 10, driving south and deliberately avoiding Interstate-19. We took Mission Road south through the San Xavier Indian Reservation (famous for its 18th-century Spanish mission, San Xavier del Bac). After the rez, the road continues south through very lonely high desert, much of it the domain of the big mining companies Phelps-Dodge and Asarco. We stayed on the main road until we came to McGee Ranch Road, and from there, drove west six miles into the community of McGee. In all, about 35 miles of driving from our campsite. We parked near a big water tank at the end of the pavement. A few other vehicles were there, too. A gate spans the road leading into the range.

As we were getting ready a guy rolled down the road from the mountains on his ATV and when he came out, we talked for a bit. He was a big, burly guy, but very friendly and quick to fill us in on the history of the region. First question was, what's the deal with McGee? Is it a town? What? It doesn't appear on most atlas maps and the topographical maps list it as "McGee's Settlement". He said it's a community, all private land, all the domain of the McGee family (and other families) who have homesteaded continuously these lands since 1901. He himself was not a McGee but was a relation, and his family went back about the same length in these parts. He works at the mines, as do most people here, but it is clear that some ranching goes on as well.

The other main topic was the potential for meeting up with Mexican border crossers and coyotes (the human kind). He told us of tales of catching a whole group himself and calling the Border Patrol to come get them. Violence is rare but not unheard of. We did not bring any weapons on this hike, but just the same we weren't too overly worried. The Sierritas are still 30+ miles north of the border, and most will take the easier lowland routes if possible. Nevertheless he gave us the Tucson and Nogales Border Patrol phone numbers for our cell phone.

The Sierrita Mountains are a mix of private and state lands, but access is open. The walk-through gate is just wide enough for an ATV, while those with keys can open the main gate and ride bigger vehicles into the range. The summit is full of radio towers, so a good road needs to be kept up for that purpose, but also, lots of other good roads span the range. We ended up seeing a bunch of ATVers and even a few on what I'm guessing are sandrail-type vehicles. We also saw some regular trucks, too. Anyway, we were talking with this guy when about 20 people all showed up, coming down from the hike and all part of a hiking club from Tucson. The guy jokingly said "let's all speak spanish" and try to avoid getting caught up in chit-chat, but that's exactly what he did: chit-chat with the throng. We theorize that he really enjoys the company and regaling people about the history of the region. A thoroughly cool fellow ... but we never got his name.

It was a shade after noon when we were finally ready to go into the hills. The sun was warm but fortunately the road in was set at a very moderate grade, so we made good time. We passed the cemetery after a few feet, then stayed on the main road as it gained into the hills, sometimes steeply, for a little over a mile before coming to a pass at about 5,400 feet elevation. We had taken a break shortly before this point. A number of roads split to the right but these were all ignored.

At the pass, however, the road splits into three, and we wanted the right-most road. The main feature here is a big watering hole, called Ox Frame Tank, situated about 100 feet below us down yet another road. Placer Peak stood up directly to our west, and a tower from Keystone Peak poked up above the ridgeline beyond. We hiked along the road about another mile before taking another break in the shadow of a juniper. The scenery was tremendous. The range is high enough to be out of the desert life-zone so that the hills aren't all stark scapes of desert scrub but actually grass-covered slopes and forests of juniper. Looking down the various canyons we had unobstructed views of distant ranges, some in Mexico.

After our second break we were tantalizingly close to the summit. Just the meandering of the road kept us from getting there faster. Interestingly, tucked into one of the turns of the road is an old cabin. The guy we talked to said we might see a cabin built by one of his/McGee's ancestors, and it dates to about 1911. The cabin was in poor shape, but a table and fire-ring nearby suggest it's used as a camp on a regular basis (we saw one guy out here in camo and with a hunter's rifle; my guess is the hunters use the cabin moreso than a hiker would. And probably the occasional Mexican group, too).

Finally the road comes to the main range crest. We took a side road to the left that was brushy but went up in long switchbacks, but soon we knew this wasn't the right road ... but we were so close to the top anyway that a few feet of cross-country and some short steep gains didn't stop us, and there we were, on top of old Keystone. A bevy of towers, buildings and fencing greeted us. We hiked around to the south end and found the true summit marked by a large thick pole of some sort, function unknown. I found a sign-in register with names dating back to 1985. Not too many people sign in, but the summit is hardly rarely visited. My guess is most people won't bother to seek out the register to sign in. Even on our hike we saw a sandrail-thing wend its way to the top (up the better road, by the way). I doubt they signed in. We had some munchies and drinks but decided to get moving to gain some distance out.

We hiked down the better road, which meets up to the main road on the southwest corner of the summit hump. We walked back maybe a quarter-mile then took a lengthy break, enjoying the late-day sun (and it was quite warm). I took photos of the distant ranges, but the sun was making the photography difficult. The shadows began to grow long, putting most of the road into shadow, and we tried to hustle to take advantage of the remaining sunlight for another break, but the sun was just too quick for us. We took another break back at the pass near Ox Frame Tank. The guys on the sandrail vehicles came rumbling by, and we waved hi. Finally we walked down the last mile-plus, greeting two kids on a dirt bike coming up. We were back to the Subaru at 5:30 on the nose, exactly five hours after starting. There was still light to allow us to change and shed the boots, but we got rolling soon because most of the roads here are open range and we didn't want to deal with cattle on the road in the dark. We stopped for goodies at a store and had a late dinner back at camp, then crashed deeply for the night. The next day I indulged myself with a visit to a nearby confluence, the one at North 32, West 111 just off of Pima Mine Road along Interstate-19. Then, the drive home and some time petting our floor monsters.

I give Keystone high marks, as we were expecting less. The original write-up at summitpost (the only place that has any info on this peak anywhere) was cursory at best and without much detail or narrative, and even kind of down on the hike. (Update: I have adopted this page at Summitpost, October 2009) We found it to be great fun. Yes, there were ATVers and dirt-bikers but they weren't too numerous or annoying. The road makes a nice trail, and navigation was cake. The views were the best, though. Every canyon seemed to frame in distant ranges, with mountains in every direction we looked. The weather worked for us as well. Plus, meeting the guy and getting some free history of the region, that was cool. Overall, a fun dayhike and one we recommend.

(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.