Safford Peak • Tucson Mountains
• Saguaro National Park
• Pima County

The peak lit by early morning sun

Hiking up toward the peak

Steadily getting higher

Now on the trail below the cliffs

The summit area, as viewed from the saddle directly west

Me on the top

Looking west at Panther Peak and the Silverbell Range

View up at the gully we ascended

Patch of saguaro cactus as we hike out

View down into Sanctuary Cove

On the exit, looking back up at the peak

Montage: UL: a balloon, UR: zoom image of the peak, LR: zoom image later in the day, LR: chapel at Sanctuary Cove

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Prominence Peaks



Date: November 22, 2015 • Elevation: 3,563 feet • Prominence: 1,073 feet • Distance: 3.5 miles • Time: 3 hours and 45 minutes • Gain: 1,723 feet • Conditions: Clear with stiff winds • Teammates: Scott Peavy, Scott Casterlin & Matthias Stender

Safford Peak is the northernmost big peak of the Tucson Mountains, and within the northern boundaries of Saguaro National Park. From the interstate, the rocky summit rises high above the sloping hillsides, which suggests its more common name, Sombrero Peak.

Scott Peavy, Matthias Stender and I left the Phoenix area early this morning and arrived in Marana, the town north of Tucson, at dawn. I had alerted Scott Casterlin we’d be hiking this peak and he was welcome to join us if available. He was, and we all met at a large turnaround on Scenic Road, northeast of the peak. We’d be hiking the “Sanctuary Cove” route. The peak stood high above us, not very far away at all.

We started walking about 7:15 a.m., in cool weather. The sun’s rays were lighting up the summit, but down by us, we were still in morning shade. We followed Scenic Road south about an eighth of a mile to the Sanctuary Cove grounds, which sits on about 40 acres and abuts the hills below the peak. We then followed groomed trails within Sanctuary Cove past a chapel and a rock labyrinth. The trail splits often, so we stayed on the one that went up. Eventually, we gained about 150 vertical feet, putting us on the highest point of the groomed trails within the Cove.

From this point, we started upslope, following scanter trails and cairns up another couple hundred feet to intersect a much better trail, running essentially along the ridge. Turning southbound now, we passed a fence line, now putting us inside the Saguaro National Park. The trail skirts a saddle and viewpoint north of the summit, and aims for a saddle northeast of the summit. Here, the grades are very lenient. We made good time, and took a small break at this northeast saddle.

From this saddle, another trail leaves, heading directly uphill toward the peak’s east-facing cliffs. This trail meanders a little to the northwest, then makes a long bend back southwest, climbing steeply uphill to meet the base of the cliffs. So far, everything was going well. We were gaining a lot of elevation quickly, and making great time, having been hiking for about an hour to this point. The day was beautiful, with no clouds and more pleasant temperatures, but very stiff wind at times.

The trail now skirts the base of the cliffs, following them clockwise around the peak, traversing for about a quarter-mile, up and down through little gullies and stands of saguaro. In places, the trail is narrow, with steep scree slopes should one slip. The trail then drops about 75 feet to a low point, now apart from the cliffs and at the base of a steep, wide gully that leads to the highest ridge.

We climbed this gully, staying on the trail which by now was less distinct but still easy to follow. This section was short, and within minutes, we were on the highest saddle directly below the summit. We took another break here and dealt with the strong cold winds.

A couple of big cairns lead the way above the saddle to the continuation of the trail, which is somehow trackable through the much rougher terrain. We were ascending an open gully on the peak’s northwest face, aiming for a small notch about 200 feet above us. The going was slow but easy. At worst, parts of the route were loose, and in a couple spots required the tiniest bit of scrambling. We soon arrived at the notch.

We weren’t sure at first which way the summit was. We assumed east, so we angled left up to a rock knob, but then saw the summit was actually on our right. We scrambled up a ten-foot section, then eased across a narrow ledge, and soon, were on the summit, topped by a four-foot pyramid of rocks. This was a pleasant surprise because we figured we had more scrambling to do. It was actually quite short, once above the last gully. It had taken us 1 hour, 40 minutes to hike to the top, a gain of about 1,700 feet in 1.75 miles.

We sat around the top for about a half hour, taking in the views and putting up with the breezes, which would come and go in strength. As expected on a clear, cloudless day, we had fantastic views in all directions, from Baboquivari Peak in the west to the Catalinas and Rincons in the east, Wrightson to the south to Picacho and Newman Peaks to the north.

The descent went well. My left knee acted up a little, feeling like it wanted to strain itself, so I went slow and butt-scooted some parts instead of chancing my weight on the knee, should I slip. Once down below the looser stuff and back on the more substantial trail, I felt a lot better, and was able to walk out with no issues whatsoever.

We were in no hurry, so we took a couple breaks on the downhill just to identify surrounding peaks and points of interest and discuss other peaks in the area for future hikes. Finally, back into the Sanctuary Cove grounds, we stopped to read the inspirational messages placed at points along their trails, and to check out the chapel. It’s a very lovely place. We were back to our cars a little before 11 a.m.

Scott Casterlin suggested we hike Tumamoc Hill in town. It would be short and easy, and be a bonus peak for the day. We agreed and convoyed the dozen miles to get there, hiking it an hour later.

General commentary:

Most trip reports that detail the approach from the Sanctuary Cove side mention the “maze” of trails. There are many trails, but as long as you keep going up, navigation is easy. Once on the main ridge above, there may be branches to the main trail, but again, navigation is very easy, and it is easy to correct small errors.

The reports also seemed overplay the amount of scrambling that would be needed, and underplay the extent of the trail. The peak is popular, so it’s possible the trails have been improved in recent years. We had a trail (or something to follow) the whole way up, and most of it looked like it was maintained to a basic level. It was more substantial than a simple hiker’s path. The scrambling was minimal. Not one move could be considered Class-3.

The peak seems to be popular. The log book went back to 2013 and was filled with entries. It’s possible to hike here from the Saguaro National Park side. It’s a popular hiker’s club peak too. However, we didn’t see anyone else on our hike.

Sanctuary Cove is basically a chapel, a residence (?) and some paths that were well maintained, the idea being anyone, regardless of faith, can come here to meditate, walk the trails, walk the labyrinth, sit for a spell in the chapel, and enjoy the spiritual side. It was established in 1955 and is privately owned. The gates open at dawn, close at dusk. Parking is allowed on the grounds, but my feeling is that hikers planning to hike to Safford Peak via this approach should not park on the grounds, but instead park at the turnaround. The extra hiking distance is minimal. It would be in bad taste to co-opt the grounds into an unofficial trailhead parking lot.

Images from Scott Peavy's camera:

Matthias and I hike along the cliffs

A shot of us heading up the gully to the high saddle

At the summit

Heading down now

Cool shot of Tucson and distant peaks

Click here for Scott Peavy's full set of images from this hike.

(c) 2015 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.