Miller Peak • Range Highpoint: Huachuca Mountains
• Southwestern Cochise County

Date Climbed
July 4, 2005

Elevation
9,466 feet

Distance
10 miles round trip

Time
8 hours

Gain
2,900 feet

Conditions
Hot

Prominence
5,006 feet

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San Rafael Valley from Montezuma Pass
 

Miller Peak bathed in afternoon sunlight
 

Beth marches toward the summit
 

And makes it!
 

So did I.

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Miller Peak is the highest peak of the Huachuca Mountains, a compact but impressively tall range of peaks in far-south Arizona. The Huachuca Mountains are one of the so-called "sky island" ranges of southeastern Arizona. It's easy to picture the deserts as a sea, with the ranges rising dramatically as distinct islands. These ranges tend to be compact but very tall, with prominence figures approaching a vertical mile. In fact, Miller Peak has a shade over 5,000 feet of prominence, making it just one of 57 such peaks in the mainland United States with this status.

There are three main routes to the top of Miller Peak, all involving the Crest Trail in some manner. Given the range's close proximity to the Mexican border, it is not uncommon for border crossers to use these trails to enter into the United States. The southernmost trailhead at Montezuma Pass is just one air-mile north of the border. However, encounters are somewhat rare, and hikers are as safe as they are on any other range in the state. Beth and I had no qualms about being here.

We chose Miller Peak as the primary goal for the July 4th weekend, which is also our second anniversary. Even though Miller Peak's summit lies at nearly 9,500 feet elevation, it can get warm up in the hills at this time of year. We figured a very early start would mitigate the expected day-time heat. Our drive to Sierra Vista, where we had a hotel waiting for us, went without incident, but the Quality Inn we stayed at was horrible. The room's air-conditioning wasn't working, and the room was pushing 90 degrees. It was extremely uncomfortable, but the place was packed and we could not get a room change. We didn't get to sleep until 3 a.m.

We had planned the actual hike for Sunday (today, the 3rd), but the lack of sleep and uncomfortable conditions put us in no mood for a hike, so we spent the day driving around the area. We drove the dirt road that leads to the Carr Peak Trailhead and Reef Townsite, which is one of the trailheads to Miller Peak. The area was interesting, but the road itself was far more interesting, being a narrow and exposed dirt road with multiple switchbacks. Later, we drove south to the Coronado National Monument, then to Montezuma Pass (the southern trailhead), and down the other side into the remote San Rafael Valley. We circled around the south and west foothills of the Huachuca Mountains, then passed through the Fort Huachuca Military Reservation directly back to Sierra Vista, going through all the fun checkpoints and car-searches in order to get permission to drive across the base.

Monday the 4th started well, and Beth felt good enough to attempt the hike. We opted for the southern trailhead, and after some preparation, arrived to the small parking area around 7:30 a.m. We were the only ones there. We started hiking at 8 a.m. in warm conditions. We crossed the road and found the trail, and started the walk in. At first, the trail has easy gradients as it bypasses a small foreground hill. After that, the trail gains steeply up the southeast-facing slopes, passing a few mine shafts along the way. There is no tree cover here and it was warm, but we made good time. We surmounted a pass at a ridgepoint near Peak 7964. To here we'd gained 1,300 feet in two miles. We took a break. So far, we'd not seen a single person.

Now on the east-facing slopes, we entered into a small copse of trees. We hoped the shade might offer some relief from the sun, but apparently every insect in the range thought so, too, and we had no respite from the bugs. Ironically, it was a relief to be back into the open, where the brush was about knee high and very woody. The upper ridges of the Huachucas were now visible.

A few minutes passed, and we were approaching a point where the trail meets the crest again, and crosses to the west side. Here, we saw two men appear. Both were wearing flannel, jeans and work boots, and were obviously Mexican crossers or coyotes. Beth was in front of me by a couple feet, and we decided to meet them head on. I greeted them in my meager Spanish, and they greeted us back. We wanted no part of them, and as I suspected, they wanted no part of us. The whole encounter lasted as long as it took for us to pass, perhaps 15 seconds. We just kept walking and after about 10 minutes, did we stop to assess what had just happened. By now, we were noticing considerable evidence of the crossers, including food wrappers, water bottles and an occasional piece of clothing. There was a good chance that a batch of them were probably laying low in the brush as we passed.

After that, the rest of the hike was rather unexciting. We continued northbound on the Crest Trail, the forest ever-so-slightly thicker as we gained elevation. The day's warmth wasn't too bad, and we made decent time. Finally, the Crest Trail meets the trail coming in from the north (the Carr Peak Trail), and the last mile of hiking was up a steep series of switchbacks, hewn into the rock in the past to support a fire lookout that once stood atop the peak. We summitted around 11:30 a.m., a five-mile hike with nearly 3,000 feet of gain.

We spent about 20 minutes up top, resting and admiring the views from this lofty perch. The day was clear and we had hundred-mile views in all directions. However, the insects were bombarding us, and it was warm, so we decided to get moving before long. We hiked down the mile to where the trails met, and we hiked another few minutes south on the Crest Trail, taking a break in a wide area in a glade of trees. Then things got real interesting.

We heard some bashing and voices in the trees, and suddenly, two men in body armor, fatigues and assault rifles come bursting out, all excited, asking "if we'd seen a whole group of Mexicans pass through here." We told them of the two guys we'd seen earlier, but that was nearly three hours ago, and they were probably in Mexico by now. These two guys were after a group of "20 or 30". They then sat with us and took a break. They asked us what we were doing, what peak is that (pointing to Miller Peak) and which way is out (we pointed that for them too). They had no maps apparently. They'd been dropped in via helicopter a few hours earlier. They seemed like nice guys but alarmingly unprepared and having no sense of direction. We asked if we had any reason to be concerned and they said no, that crossers will do everything possible to avoid contact with hikers.

We sat with the Border Patrol guys for about 15 minutes, but then they got up to get moving, heading south along the Crest Trail. We gave them a five minute head-start and as a result, they served as an armed sweep of the trail as we exited. Not that we needed it, but it was nice (and amusing) to have one. We took the descent slow, stopping often to let Beth's knees rest, and were back to our truck at 4 p.m. By now, there were a few other cars at the trailhead, and the B.P. guys were long gone.

The day was a real hot one, and we were feeling the heat when we returned to the truck. We were both knocked flat by the heat, but feeling good over all, after a hearty dayhike and amusing encounters with the locals, so to speak. We exited via Sierra Vista, and drove home that evening. Temperatures in the deserts had been around 110. We were close to 90 at the trailhead. However, it had been a clear, blue afternoon, no hints of clouds or storms.

We never felt in harm's way where we were, and despite all the histrionic warnings about hordes of border crossers, actual encounters with them while on a hike, and being robbed or hassled, is extremely low. Nevertheless, it pays to pay attention, and if border crossers isn't your thing, the north trailhead from the Reef Townsite may be preferable.

(c) 2005, 2013 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.