South Mountain • Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation
• Pima County


South Mountain as viewed from nearby the abandoned village of Vainom Kug
 

Zoom view
 

Parked below the east-facing cliffs
 

The start of the trail
 

The trail gains up the hillsides
 

Now higher up, directly below the big cliffs
 

Only in Arizona is seeing left-over underpants on a cactus not surprising
 

The nice ramp leading up to the summit
 

The summit is just ahead
 

Scott Peavy flashes the gang sign for "73", signifying he has completed all 73 Arizona P2K peaks
 

I'm still a member of the junior varsity gang, the "70s". By the way, that's Baboquivari Peak in the back
 

The benchmark is covered over in patina, hard to read
 

South view of a rain shower and the Vamori Wash, lined with trees
 

Ben Nevis Mountain seen as we exit
 

Casterlin's FJ is parked down the slope a bit, with Gu Achi Peak way off in the distance
 

Montage: UL: a tricky section of road. UR, LR and LR: views of the one remaining structure in Kaihon Kug, including a date inscribed on the inside
 

Arizona PageMain Page

Arizona's
Prominence Peaks

  .

Date: April 12, 2015 • Elevation: 4,160 feet • Prominence: 2,020 feet • Distance: 3.8 miles • Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes • Gain: 1,790 feet • Conditions: Overcast and light rain • Teammates: Scott Peavy, Scott Casterlin (drove)

This South Mountain is located on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation in southern Arizona, not to be confused with the peak of the same name that houses all the communications towers south of Phoenix. Scott Peavy, Scott Casterlin and I convened to drive all the way out to this South Mountain, where Peavy and I would hike it, while Casterlin would stay back at his vehicle and enjoy the scenery. Casterlin had already hiked this peak years ago. If we were successful, this would be the last of the 2,000-foot prominence peaks in Arizona that Peavy would need to complete the list (73 in all). For me, this would be my 70th, just three to go.

South Mountain is a big, cliffy mountain at the south end of a series of prominent peaks, starting with Quijotoa Mountain to the north, then Ben Nevis Peak, then South. South of South Mountain, the land gives way to broad desert plains and washes—the Gu Oidak Valley to the east, and the Vamori Wash to the west and south. Beyond that is more hills and then Mexico.

When I first started on this list of Arizona P2K peaks years ago, I first assumed South Mountain referred to the one in Phoenix. I learned fast this was not the case, and in fact, that it would be one of the trickier ones to summit due to its remoteness, access issues, the terrain itself, and possible trouble with Mexican border crossers or the locals. But being so close to finishing this list, and Peavy down to just this one, and Casterlin’s offer to drive, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

It is easy to psych oneself out on a particular peak, and I allowed that to happen with me, regarding South Mountain. I had read or heard from the few previous visitors that it’s a brushy, sometimes cliffy scramble, which is nothing I haven’t done before, but it would add to the challenge. There’s also the issue of what would happen if we were caught by the tribal police … or Mexican sentries on the mountain itself, given its prime location as a viewpoint over the deserts below. Then Adam Helman was here a few years ago and came back to his vehicle to find it had been busted into, and some items stolen. With all that, I let South Mountain slide, losing interest in it unless I had some motivating reason to be here.

I met Peavy at his place well before dawn, then we drove south to Tucson to meet Casterlin at the Waffle House on Grant Road off the interstate. We were early, so we went inside and had a small breakfast. I think this is the first time I have eaten at a Waffle House since 1991, when I had a two-week gig for Ryder Truck, fetching trucks and returning them to Los Angeles. One of those runs was to Tucson, and we ate at a Waffle House. This may have been the same one! Anyway, Casterlin showed up and we got our stuff into his vehicle, then started the drive west onto the Tohono O’odham Nation (the TON).

The day was cloudy with some rain, but never more than a light drizzle. We stopped in Sells for snacks and a restroom break, then drove another ten miles or so to an unnamed road branching southwest off of State Route AZ-86, roughly south of Milepost 101. This road started off wide and smooth, covered in gravel. Within a mile, it degenerated into rougher sand and clay, with ruts and potholes. We had maps and detailed waypoints, since the roads here braid everywhere, and others branch off in all directions.

About two miles in, we passed through the village of Vainom Kug, but saw no evidence of anyone actually living here. We saw an old water tank, an old windmill that is falling apart, about three or four wooden ramada structures all in various states of collapse, and a big earthen tank. But no people, which was good. The village seems abandoned. We then crossed the San Luis Wash, then trended southwest a few more miles to the village of Kaihon Kug, which was equally abandoned but at least had one structure still standing. We would stop and explore this structure on our way out. The word “Kug” apparently means something like “standing” as in a cactus or tree “standing” upwards. That’s the best I can determine.

After Kaihon Kug, we went another half mile, then right a couple miles, then left onto a road not shown on the map. Here, we were diverging from the standard route others had followed (by others, I mean the other 8 or 10 who cared enough to come out here to climb this peak in recent years). They generally stayed west, heading toward San Antone Well, and hiking the peak from a north-facing canyon. We went left, the junction marked with police-tape flagging. We stayed right at a second junction with the same flagging, then left at a third such junction. By now, we were close to the east-facing slopes of South Mountain. The road was actually fairly good, gaining steadily to some pullouts amid giant saguaro and blooming palo verde, their yellow flowers everywhere.

The drive in from the highway covered just under 9 miles and took about 40 minutes. The road ranged from being pretty good to being rough, with sections of sand, or heavy ruts, or bad leans. One small stretch involved a heft lean as we entered into a sandy washbed. I got out to spot Casterlin through it and snapped an image on the left sidebar. Without Peavy’s waypoints, there are so many junctions and braids it would be easy to take the wrong road and get lost. The weather was sprinkly rain. Had it fallen heavier, it could have made the roads a clay mess. As it was, the rain had no effect on the roads. It did suppress the temperatures into the 70s, and the pollen that was likely everywhere. It also probably suppressed the snakes, too.

We parked at a pullout, a little short of the actual end of the road. Peavy and I got our packs on and didn’t delay, starting our hike a little after 9 a.m.. Casterlin joined us for the first segment, to the road’s end and the start of the trail. We had a steady light drizzle and mist. It was actually quite lovely.

The trail we followed is apparently an old miner’s track put in ages ago. It snakes up the steep slopes past cliffs and rock outcrops, then up a canyon to top out on the summit plateau, running about 1.5 miles in the process, gaining about 1,200 vertical feet. It is a quality trail: switchbacks are shored up with rocks, and sections where the trail crosses open rocky slopes are built up with large rocks dry-fitted together, then filled in with smaller rock, so expertly done that after presumably a hundred years, the trails still are there with no apparent damage or decay due to time.

I only learned of this trail when a couple hikers told us about it, when they were there in 2014. You can even see it on the detailed satellite images. Having a trail to follow would be most welcome. Given we’re in an area that isn’t entirely safe, where we could be hassled, arrested or worse, we didn’t want to be spending all day battling brush. The trail would expedite our travel significantly.

Down low, the trail is very steep, but easy to follow and solid. We went left-right-left up the many switchbacks. It soon gained a small ridge, then immediately climbed up to another ridge, then, without resting, climbed a prominent ridge coming directly off the cliffs. Looking up, we could see the trail gain to the cliff margin, then cut across, then gaining into a canyon. We just kept moving, never really stopping. We went below these cliffs, up the canyon, then up more switchbacks to top out on the gentle summit ridges, where the trail essentially petered out. We found a pair of underpants hanging on an ocotillo up here.

We left the trail and started up an easy ramp, the brush very light. We had solid rocky ground and found this to go very easy. Soon, we emerged onto a higher ridge, angled left and in moments, we were on top of South Mountain! I shook hands with Peavy, congratulating him on his feat. We stuck around for photos, looked at the surrounding scenery, then walked south to the benchmark, which sits about 6 feet lower than the summit. The one way hike took us 1 hour, 15 minutes, and we were on top another 15 minutes. The clouds and mist blocked some views, but we could still see ranges many miles distant, such as the Baboquivari Mountains to the east, the Ajo range to the west (in sunlight), and such peaks as Ben Nevis, Quijotoa, Comobabi and Gu Achi north and east. But we didn’t want to linger. We felt it wise to get moving as fast as possible.

The hike down took us nearly exactly one hour. We were back to Casterlin and his vehicle at 11:30 a.m., where we took an extended break and ate a lunch. By now, the mist had started to subside. Although it was still cloudy, we had slightly better views around us, and even hints of sun in a few places. We started the drive out a little after noon.

The drive out went well. We managed the junctions fine and that one stretch with the lean. We then stopped at Kaihon Kug and explored this structure. It’s an adobe-brick structure with a hard stucco-concrete exterior, and a wooden roof that has collapsed. We went inside and saw someone had scratched in a date in the concrete when it was still wet. Someone actually lived out here, ages ago. These TON villages are fascinating. Most are abandoned, but some are still populated, if by just a handful of people, way off the nearest paved roads.

We were back to pavement quickly, then returned to the Grant Road exit so we could get out gear sorted out and into the proper vehicles. We stood around and chatted, but by 2 p.m., Peavy and I were starting the drive back to the Phoenix area. We stopped for lunch, and arrived to his place about 5, and me to my home a little before 6 p.m.

Other than the long drives, the actual hike was very fast and very easy, far simpler than I had always assumed, based on what others had experienced. We were fortunate the weather was cool but not so rainy that the roads became too muddy, and fortunate we did not see anyone the whole time. It was a pleasure to witness Peavy's list completion, and now motivates me to visit the last three peaks on the list. Still, it may be at least a year until I finish. Thanks again to the Scotts for the whole experience!

Images from Scott Peavy's camera:


Below the cliffs near the top

Trudging toward the top

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.