Mitchell Peak • White Mountains
• Central Greenlee County

Date Climbed
May 18, 2013

Elevation
7,951 feet

Distance
2 miles

Time
2 hours, 20 minutes

Gain
750 feet (gross)

Conditions
Pleasant

Prominence
1,831 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version


Ascending above US-191
 

Typical of what kind of brush I had to deal with
 

Finally, the real summit
 

At the top
 

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Beth and I planned for a weekend camping trip while the temperatures were nice in the high country, and barely getting hot in the deserts. We headed east toward the mountains of Greenlee County, an area we last visited back in 2007. The main plan was to drive the scenic Coronado Highway (US-191) north from Clifton, the county seat, to the town of Alpine on the north end, a distance of about 90 miles.

This drive is one of the most scenic in the state. The highway enters into Clifton on the south end, passing through this fascinating mining town built into the narrow San Francisco River Canyon. Above Clifton is the company town of Morenci, and above that, and for many miles, the gigantic open pit mines. The scale is unbelievable. Once past the mines, the remaining 80 miles weaves up steep mountain grades with tight turns and no guardrails. Speed limits are often 25 m.p.h. for long stretches. Most people won’t be brave enough to go even that fast. Not surprisingly, traffic thins to almost no one past the mines, the main travelers being people who deliberately are there for the scenic drive. For example, motorcyclists outnumbered vehicles by about 2 to 1. If I had a motorcycle, I would come here, too.

I had driven this highway south-to-north back in 2000, on my first visit to the Greenlee County Highpoint. Beth and I have been to the north end of the county on a couple occasions, plus one north-to-south drive in 2007. For this trip, I was looking at two peaks, Mitchell Peak and Rose Peak, both short hikes (according to the map) located near the highway. Mitchell Peak, in particular, is an Arizona top-100 prominence peak and the highest peak in the grouping of mountains that surround Clifton. I do not believe these mountains have a collective name.

We left Scottsdale around 3 p.m. on Friday and drove east through Globe and into Safford, stopped for 30 minutes along the way at a construction site on the San Carlos Nation. In Safford, I shopped for groceries, but the delay was such that we would arrive in Clifton in the dark. I wanted no part of those twisty mountain roads in the dark, so we stayed a night at Clifton’s only motel, the Rode Inn. Being the only game in town means it gets steady business, mainly workers here on an extended stay, but the place is really a dump. The downstairs rooms have a roach problem, and on our other stay in 2007, the room had an extremely strong chemical odor plus some left-over food in the microwave. But we had no place else to stay. We thought about car-camping, but were not eager to drive south and try to locate someplace in the dark. So we stayed here. We survived. But never again will we stay here.


Some of the homes in Clifton are built right into the hills.

The next morning, we drove northbound up the highway, driving slowly through the mine operations of Morenci, amazed by the scale of the digs and of the buildings and machinery that encompass it. The whole place has a Mad Max look to it. But, it’s rich in copper, and chances are the copper wires in your walls might have originated in Morenci.

Past Morenci, the terrain becomes more natural, a mix of desert scrub and mid-elevation trees such as cypress and oak, some juniper, but still too low for the big pines. The highway is carved into the mountain, and the lack of guardrails can make some turns very unnerving. I kept the truck in second gear and we crept forward at 10 to 20 miles per hour. Twenty miles later, we parked at a picnic area called H L Saddle (about a mile north of Sardine Saddle). Mitchell Peak sits east of the highway, its summit about a mile distant and 500 vertical feet higher. For reference, H L Saddle is between mileposts 182 and 183, and is well signed. In the twenty miles since we left Morenci, we were passed once by a group of motorcyclists. We never passed anyone, and we never saw anyone coming southbound.

I parked the truck in a shady spot of the picnic area, set up a camp chair for Beth, and got myself situated. It was nearly noon when I started the hike, and I told Beth I’d be gone 90 minutes. It looked to be a straightforward hike given its short distance and small elevation gain. However, as I would discover, the brush on this peak was brutal.

I walked across the highway and walked up a dirt road a few hundred feet to a corral. Here, a foot-path went right, past a wire-stick gate, and I followed this path as it stayed mostly level, heading southbound. At some point I needed to get up the slope to the ridge, but finding a good place to do this was not easy. At the south end of this path, closer to Sardine Saddle, I decided to go for it. The 200-foot vertical climb was very brushy, but I was able to barge my way up. My hope was that the ridge itself would be less brushy.

On the ridge, I angled right and then descended toward a fence line, crossing underneath it and then following the ridge as it bent east, now toward the summit. However, between the top and me were about four false summits. And the brush looked pretty thick, so I knew I was in for some work. I was able to get up the next false summit with no problem. The brush would thicken toward the top, so I would angle left and often bypass the tops by sidehilling. However, I had no grand plan, and always took the path of least resistance. But at times, it made sense to stay high so as to have better line-of-sight navigation.


A couple false summits along the ridge to the main peak.

I repeated this process for the next hilltop, but encountered unbelievably thick brush as I bashed and pushed my way to the top. Once there, I could see more hilltops, including what I thought to be the real summit. But I was moving slowly and the brush was very annoying. As I inched down and up the intervening saddles, I finally grew a brain and eased left, dropping about 50 feet below the ridge line on the north slopes. Here, the brush wasn’t as thick, and I even found a trail, albeit a very scant one. I followed this and in time, arrived on top.

The top was brushy and rocky and not that interesting. I found the benchmark in some rocks near a small solar apparatus, its function unclear to me. More alarming to me was that I had spent an hour and 15 minutes on the ascent. Since I had promised Beth 90 minutes round trip, I knew I was going to run late. I felt bad about worrying her. The views up top were nice, including one of an active fire way west on the highlands of the San Carlos Nation. The plume of smoke is visible in the panorama shot below.


Panorama of the ridge from the summit. A smoke plume of a fire burning on the San Carlos Nation
can be seen above the right-most peak in this panorama.

I didn’t stay on the summit long, and started back down quickly. I walked the trail down and was happy to follow it, bypassing a lot of that ugly brush up high. However, after about 10 minutes I sensed it wasn’t going where I wanted it to. I think it probably dropped north into a drainage, where (per the map), a forest road cuts east-west and possibly connects back to that corral I was at earlier. But I didn’t want to gamble on that theory, and decided to go with what I knew “worked”, brush and all.

The hike out was just more of the same thick brush, and some sidehilling. I was moving fast trying to make up time, and I stumbled in a few spots. I probably should have slowed down. In any case, I got back to that fenceline, and followed it across the backside of the ride (opposite the highway) and back down to the corral. In retrospect, following this up would have made this segment go by easier. Once back at the corral, I walked back to the truck. I had been gone 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Yes, Beth was slightly worried. She assumed correctly that the brush was thicker than I had expected. I felt bad for worrying her, but was glad to be back out. I sat for a spell to relax and enjoy the quietness. Overall, the day was very lovely, clear blue skies with a moderate breeze. From here, we drove north some more along US-191 to the second objective, the much simpler hike up Rose Peak.

Mitchell Peak was a rough little hike, but not difficult other than the brush. Had I been by myself, I might have taken it slower and not felt so compelled to move quickly. I would be curious if my theory on the trail is correct, but I won’t be the guy going back to find out. If it is correct, then the hike could be very simple and brush-free.

(c) 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.