Picacho Peak • Picacho Mountains
• Pinal County

March 2002

Near one of the railings

On the summit

The peak as seen from I-10, (March 2007)

January 2008

The railing going down
on the backside

Eric high up on some railing

Looking down at the route

View up high

Eric & others at the top

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Prominence Peaks



Date: (1) March 9, 2002; (2) January 5, 2008 • Elevation: 3,374 feet • Prominence: 1,574 feet • Distance: 4 miles • Time: 3 hours • Gain: 2,290 feet (includes drops and regains) • Conditions: Clear in 2002, cloudy in 2008 • Teammates: Ken Akerman + dozen others in 2002, Eric Noel in 2008

Picacho Peak is a well-known landmark mountain in central Arizona, about 20 miles southeast of Casa Grande in Pinal County, and about 40 miles north of Tucson. It sits astride Interstate-10, and its imposing profile makes it look like an impossible mountain to climb for most mortals. However, railings and cables strung up in strategic places make the climb manageable, although it's no walk in the park. Still, it's an Arizona peakbagger's classic.

The name is redundant: Picacho is Spanish for Peak. Thus, its real name is Peak Peak. That amusing fact aside, it's also famous as the location of the only significant Civil War skirmish to take place in Arizona Territory. The Battle of Picacho Pass wasn't as big and deadly as the major battles back east. It was more an old-west gunfight. Arizona at this time was full of Union and Southern sympathizers, here working the mines for raw materials for the armies back east. Recreations of the battle are staged yearly, usually in March.

I have climbed this mountain twice: in 2002 and again in 2008.

First Ascent, March 2002: Ken Akerman organized a get-together of Arizona highpointers to meet and hike Picacho Peak, and presumably get to know one another and become chums. I was already planning a drive to Texas, so I stopped here on the way to join everyone. I had wanted to climb this peak a long time and now was a good opportunity.

I arrived at 8 a.m. and parked along the access road, along with all the other dozens of cars. I couldn't find any nexus for the Arizona Highpointers, so I started asking random clumps of people if they were highpointers, and soon, I found a group that was. They didn't know where anyone else was either, and none of them knew Ken or could recognize him, so I went to find him. I found him at his vehicle, and as people had started following me, we had the group assembled, for better or for worse.

Ken was wrapped up in his own little world, reading the maps, and not too concerned about trying to get everyone together. So we stood around and he announced that we'd all be taking the longer back-route loop trail, which starts farther out and would require us to all get in our cars to drive to this other trailhead. Whatever. I had a schedule to keep, so I opted out of that plan immediately and started up the usual hiker's route, the Hunter Trail, which starts at the end of the access road.

People started to follow me and apparently Ken did too, abandoning the longer route. The Hunter Route is a no-nonsense trail. It barges steeply up the east face and comes to some big rock walls at a saddle north of the summit, gaining 900 feet in about a half-mile. Today was busy and a lot of hikers were content to come this far and no farther. The views from here are very nice.

After a rest, the hairy climbing starts. Actually, what follows next is a nearly 400-foot descent down the southwestern slopes, much of it on sloping bare rock. Hefty cables are strung here for a hand-hold, or more accurately, a self-belay. I used them, as did just about everyone. Below this, the trail swings left and then reaches a lowpoint, where the other trail (called the Sierra Vista Trail) meets it.

Now we resume upward climbing. Most of what follows is open-rock scrambling, where the rock is sloped back enough so that it's fairly safe and maybe rated class-3 for small segments only. But then in a few spots, it becomes vertical enough (and exposed enough) to warrant a class-4 rating. Here, some rails are driven into the rock. Soon, the rocky scrambling lets out into an elevated valley, and for a small portion, the trail is actually level and a real trail again.

Soon, the trail comes to an awkward sloping cracked rock, which isn't that hard to climb. The rails here actually get in the way, and at the top (maybe a 30-foot ascent), the rails narrow a little much. It takes some yoga maneuvering to squirm through the rails. This put us onto some higher ledges and more natural trail. Quickly, the man-made railings and ledges start again for a few yards, before letting out yet again onto natural rock. From the uppermost railings, it's an easy ascent up nice trail to the summit.

It had taken me about 90 minutes to make it up here, and I met a lot of cool people. I stuck around for some photos and to chat with various summitters. The views were remarkable in all directions, and I can certainly appreciate this peak's challenges and rewards. However, my time up top was brief. I needed to get back down as I had over 400 miles to drive. My round trip was about 3 hours, including the standing around. I was pleased to have hiked this classic.

Second Ascent, January 2008: Eric Noel, a climber from Seattle, and I intended to hike Newman Peak across the interstate, but we kept running into dead ends and then discovered, thanks to a hunter leaving the area, that it was the last weekend for dove hunting and that the place was crawling with hunters. With all that, and also facing some possibility of rain, we abandoned our goal of Newman Peak and decided to salvage the day with a hike up the famous Picacho Peak. This would be Eric's first attempt at it, and he seemed interested. It was close to 11 a.m. when we finally started the hike.

We followed the Hunter Trail up the steep east face to the saddle, and then the real fun began. I had brought gloves this time. The trail loses a lot of elevation (460 feet according to the map) on the backside, highlighted by a steep sloping section of rock with a large overhang. Steel cables offer hand rails to hold on to, but I still had to work up some courage to get down this section. I had forgotten how exposed some parts were, since the rails and cabling don't remove the element of danger or exposure entirely. We bottomed out at a lowpoint where the Sunset Vista Trail picks up from here.

As noted before, steel cabling and railings help in some areas, and in some cases, the steel cabling seems to get in the way. But I am not complaining. We entered into the hanging valley and then up a vertical cleft that rises 25 feet but at steep angle angle. There are two parallel cables here that help but then they narrow up about halfway up so that big guys like me need to turn and wriggle past the tight passage. Once on top we had to wait for some people to descend one last narrow section before we could ascend. Once past that, it was just some simple switchbacks on trail to the top.

We made the top in about 90 minutes. There were about 20 people there, a lot belonging to a local hiking club. The views were real nice but the cloudiness made for bad lighting so I didn't take as many photos as I had planned. We opted to get started down a bit sooner than planned so as to beat the huge crowd up there. Going down wasn't too bad, really, and we made good time to the lowpoint. The regain to get back to the saddle really kicked my butt for some reason. Then we got in behind a large group of slowpokes, and we eventually passed them. The rest of the descent went quickly, taking as about an hour, not counting times where we were caught in clogs as people waited to ascend or descend the narrow parts.

In all it was an excellent hike and I am happy we did this when Newman had to be cancelled. The stats include the 460-foot drop and regain. It's a hefty hike, and I was bushed afterwards. We were back in the Phoenix area by 3, had a bite, then went on our ways. Eric was a cool companion and we had a good time on the peak, and I think he was pretty pleased to get this one when he hadn't planned for it.

(c) 2002, 2008, 2016 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.