Ballard & Fissure Peaks • Range Highpoint: Mule Mountains
• Southern Cochise County

Date Climbed
August 31, 2003 (Ballard)
March 23, 2012 (Both)

Elevation
7,370 & 7,375 feet

Distance
4-5 miles

Time
3 hours

Gain
1,500-2,100 feet

Conditions
Hot and sticky (2003)
Beautiful (2012)

Prominence
2,650 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version


Beth and I during the 2003 sweat-fest
 

Ballard (left) and Fissure Peaks as viewed from Old Divide Road
 

The peaks as seen from the lower ridge
 

The not-that-exciting top of Ballard
 

Looking over at Fissure
 

Approaching Fissure's top
 

Fissure's summit, with cairn, cactus, and view of the Huachucas and the San Pedro River valley
 

Looking south at Cerro San Jose in Mexico
 

Now looking back at Ballard
 

One more view of the peaks as I descend
 

Obelisk at Mule Pass (the inscription is incorrect)
 

Road washout from 2009 flood

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Located in far-south Arizona, the Mule Mountains rise just a few miles north of the Mexican boundary and contain the fascinating city of Bisbee, once one of Arizona's premier mining cities, and since the 1970s, a commune of hippies and artists. The highpoint of the range is a virtual tie between Mount Ballard and Fissure Peak, both located about a half-mile apart along a common ridge just southwest of town. The hike to the two summits takes just a few hours with no real challenges, so working the hike in along with a long weekend in Bisbee is an ideal way to enjoy the area. It is criminally negligent not to at least have a beer at Brewery Gulch in Bisbee after a hike up to the peaks.

The Mule Mountains have essentially two parts: a prominent ridge on its south called the Escabrosa Ridge that contains Ballard and Fissure, along with the other 7,000-foot named summit in the range, Mount Martin. The north half of the range is a series of sloping ridges and raised highlands, of which the unofficially-named Juniper Flats Peak is its highest point, visible directly north of Ballard and Fissure. The two parts of the range connect at Mule Pass, elevation 6,030 feet. From Interstate-10 in Benson, Arizona state route AZ-80 (old US-80) approaches Bisbee from the north, through Tombstone along the way, amid beautiful high-desert ranch country. The drive is scenic, and the highway gets steep as it approaches Mule Pass. A tunnel built in the 1950s cuts through the pass, while an older road, open today just from the west side, goes over the top. Once through the tunnel heading southeast, Bisbee appears immediately, its homes and buildings seemingly built on top of one another against the hillsides of Tombstone Canyon.

Copper was discovered in abundance on the east slopes of the Mules in the 1880s, not long after Tombstone (and its silver strikes and shootouts) had come into being. For a time in the late 19th-Century, Bisbee and Tombstone together was the most populous "city" between St. Louis and San Francisco. But the two towns were violent places; while Tombstone became famous for the Shootout at the OK Corral in 1881, Bisbee held its own in shootings and murders. The miners were a mix of American (white and black), Mexican, Chinese and Serbian, the latter imported because of their experience in hard rock mining. Naturally, there were racial and ethnic clashes. In 1917, there was also an infamous anti-union "deportation" of striking miners who were rounded up and sent on a train to the deserts near Columbus, New Mexico. There, they were simply dropped off without food nor water and told never to return.

The mines eventually became unprofitable and by the 1970s, Phelps-Dodge, the modern-day super-conglomerate, pulled out. Very soon thereafter, the artists and hippies moved in, attracted by the low prices of homes and no doubt, the beautiful vistas, moderate weather and fascinating history of the region. These days, Bisbee is three distinct parts: "Old Bisbee", which is the original city in Tombstone Canyon with the old homes and buildings and artists, while farther east along AZ-80 are the towns of San Jose and Warren (both officially within Bisbee city limits). San Jose has the main supermarkets and shops, while Warren is mainly older retirees, former miners and their families. Apparently there's not a whole lot of love between the old miners and the artist/hippie crowd. The factions rarely mix; the overall result is a city of interesting extremes, on-going conflicts, and an amazing vibe. It's no understatement that Bisbee is the most "hippie" of any city in Arizona. For some, that's its attraction. I imagine, for others who haven't yet had their awakening, this is a scary thought.

So it's not that hard to work up the interest to drive the 215 miles to Bisbee. Having the week open for Spring Break, Beth and I wanted to spend a few days here, our second time in Bisbee together but the first in over 8 years. With the weather warming throughout the state, we could expect beautiful mild weather in Bisbee (elevations around 5800 feet on average), blue skies and dry conditions. We chose to stay at the Bisbee Inn, also known as the Hotel LaMore, located on the hillsides above Brewery Gulch, the "center" of Old Bisbee and home today to a handful of bars, breweries, restaurants and shops. The Bisbee Inn is supposedly haunted, among other things by a ghost cat. In fact, a group of ghost-hunters was here one of the nights. The proprietors, a mother and son, are two very kind, interesting, hip people with stories to tell. Ultimately, we arrived late on Thursday (almost 10 pm) but got our stuff unloaded and into our room with no mishaps.

(Visitors to Bisbee should be aware of what to expect hotel-wise. Most hotels in Old Bisbee date from around 1900. The rooms are small but functional, but they are not laid out like today's outfits. There's no gym, "businessman's lounge" or on-site dry cleaners. You will be close to the action and may hear lots of noise from the Gulch. I overheard the proprietress talking on the phone to a prospective customer, trying to explain why the hotel does not follow the star system but confirming that each room does have its own bathroom. After hanging up, she hoped out loud they wouldn't call back. These are not spacious, soulless places like in Scottsdale.)

On my agenda for friday (today) was a hike up Ballard and Fissure Peaks. Beth and I had hiked Mount Ballard back in August 2003, but I later learned that Fissure Peak may actually be higher than Ballard by a couple feet. At the time in 2003, the goal was to have a fun day-hike, and we did, although it was very hot and humid that day (note to self: avoid this hike in summer). In recent years, as I have inched closer to completing the set of 73 Arizona summits with 2,000 feet of prominence, I wanted to come back and re-hike Ballard and then on over to Fissure so that I could lay proper claim to the highpoint of the Mule Mountains. Beth was feeling pretty rotten and ended up catching a lot of much-needed sleep while I was galavanting in the hills.

From our hotel I drove up the "main" road west up Tombstone Canyon, past the various homes and buildings, coming to the highway at an underpass. I stayed along the road to where it ended at a barrier, about a half-mile short of the road's crest at Mule Pass. Back in 2003, we had driven to Mule Pass up this road, but two sections of this road were washed out in 2009 with apparently no plans to fix it (it is still possible to drive to Mule Pass from west of the tunnel). I parked at a pullout and started the hike at 7:20 a.m. in cool, still weather. I covered the half-mile of road (and 200 feet of gain) to Mule Pass in about 15 minutes, then found an easy, out-of-the-way spot to scale a fence to get past one ribbon of private property. In 2003, we met the landowner who generally does not mind hikers and she freely gave us permission. This time, being early, I went in unannounced and quickly hiked up the few dozen yards to another fence, putting me back onto public land.

Looking up, Mount Ballard is directly above me along a long, sloping ridge, while Fissure is a more pointed summit to its right, both easily visible. The lower third of the ridge that I would be hiking was bare of brush, a fire having come through here in about 2008. When Beth and I were here in 2003, it was very brushy, although we could generally keep to a scant hiker's path. Now, the path was much more evident with the thickest of the brush simply gone. I just put my head down and hiked steadily up the moderate slopes. The trail goes up and down a series of little ridge points, losing about 40 feet at a time. After about a half-hour, I came to the fire margin and the start of the thicker, woodier brush. The trail was still easy to follow, but I had to duck and squirm through some branchy sections. The trees here were mainly juniper, mountain oak and a lot of slick-barked madrone.

At about 7,000 feet the trail leaves the ridge and contours across, directly below a small band of cliffs. Here, I found some patches of snow from a storm that blew through here earlier in the week. Some sections here were steep, but these were short and after some more huffing and puffing, I had emerged onto some gentler slopes and essentially back onto the highest ridges. Ballard's hump-like summit was still about a quarter-mile away, while pointier Fissure was another half-mile farther. I stayed on the trail, dropped about 40 feet, then regained them and worked my way to the broad, brush-covered summit of Ballard. I took a rest here and tried to find our names from 2003. I was mildly disappointed to see that the earliest entry in the current register was from September 2003 (we were here in August 2003). I added in our names for the 2003 hike, then some details for this hike. As usually, I recognized about half the names in the log. It was still early and I had covered the distance to here in just over an hour from Mule Pass.

For Fissure, the going gets a little rougher. A thicket of cactus carpets the slopes immediately below Ballard's summit, and I was forced to try a few routes before finding one that avoided the prickles. There is a drop of 230 feet to the saddle connecting Ballard and Fissure, with some parts requiring some hands to scale some easy rocky sections. The hike up to Fissure followed some scant paths through the brush, and fairly quickly, here I was, atop Fissure. A cool cairn and cactus mark the top, and I took another break to rest and take pictures. The registry was buried deep in the cairn and it took me awhile to find it. In all I spent about 25 minutes up here. I had great views in all directions, the best being west looking at the big Huachuca Mountains (and Miller Peak, with snow), and south into Mexico, looking at gorgeous (and off-limits) Cerro San Jose, also with considerable snow. Other visible summits were Mount Wrightson way off west, Apache Peak in the Whetstone Range, and farther off, the Rincon Mountains with Rincon and Mica peaks. The views east were mainly into glare, and there were lots of nameless summits looking south into Mexico.

For the return hike, I simply retraced my steps, and once back on the good path below Mount Ballard, jog-hiked down the nice slopes, making the egress in about an hour. I met some locals up at Mule Pass and we chatted, then I just went on my way, back to my truck, the overall round trip taking me three hours and covering 5 miles round trip with about 2,100 accumulated gross gain for the whole hike. This had been a very pleasurable hike, much less humid and buggy than in 2003, and I felt good about getting both peaks in the books. I drove back down to the hotel where Beth was still asleep, so I showered, walked the local streets a little bit, then came back for a nap of my own.

There is no lack of things to see or do in Bisbee so I spent most of the rest of the day poking around the shops, having a beer or two, snapping pictures, petting dogs, talking with the hotel owners and hanging with Beth. We still had another full day, so I worked in a hike up Juniper Flats Peak the next morning, along with the usual Bisbee-stuff of shops, ghosts, cats and dogs, and hippies.

(c) 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.