Apache Peak • Range Highpoint: Whetstone Mountains
• Western Cochise County

Date: November 19, 2011 • Elevation: 7,711 feet • Prominence: 2,886 feet • Distance: 12.6 miles • Time: 10 hours • Gain: 4,160 feet • Conditions: Overcast and cool • Teammates: Scott Casterlin, Scott Peavy

Apache Peak as seen from the road as we walked in

The peak, as seen from the Hill at 6,200 feet

The steep, brushy, cliffy part of the hike

Now on the main ridge, the peak lies yonder

Scott Peavy hikes upward

Finally, I made it

South View. The big peak at left is called Granite Peak

East view at the hefty brush. Way out in the distance is the Dragoon Range and Cochise Stronghold

French Joe Peak, and more of that brush. In the back is Cerro San Jose, then to the right are the Mules, I think

Looking down at the way we came up; the road is barely visible below the ridge on the middle-right of photo. In the back: Mt Wrightson

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The Whetstone Mountains are in southeast Arizona, visible east of Tucson as one travels eastbound on Interstate-10. The range is typical of this part of the state, with significant prominence, grass and brush-covered foothills, and heavily forested crests. Although part of the Coronado National Forest, there's little actual recreational opportunities in the Whetstones due to minimal road access and no trails. The one main attraction is the Kartchner Caverns State Park, featuring a spectacular cave system only discovered within the last 30 years.

The summit of the Whetstones is called Apache Peak, elevation 7,711 feet. Nearby French Joe Peak rises to 7,615 feet. For years, climbing Apache was only for the very dedicated few. The default route to the top comes up from the east side, off of state route AZ-90 out of Benson. This east-side approach follows French Joe Canyon, and involves lots of cross-country travel up steep slopes. The main problem is the forest itself: the trees grow so close together so as to form a nearly impenetrable tangle. Add to that the underlying cactus, agave, lechuguilla, and loose rock, it's not hard to explain why relatively few people do battle with Apache Peak.

I freely admit that all of this combined was a compelling reason not to climb Apache, but at the same time, it is a major range highpoint, so yes, I was conflicted. In recent years, a west-side approach has become viable. This whole western approach used to be privately-owned, part of the Empire Ranch; however, much of the property was sold and preserved as the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, administered by the BLM. A road coming in from the west off of state route AZ-83 runs across this expanse of foothills and canyons to within a few air-miles of the peak. Depending on how close one can get to the end of this road, a hike to Apache can be relatively short, and following less-brushy and less-steep slopes than on the east. It was worth a look.

My partners for this trip were Scott Peavy and Scott Casterlin. A fourth Scott, Scott Kelley, was supposed to join us but he backed out due to a busted hand. The prior weekend, Casterlin offered to scout the roads across the Empire Ranch, to see how far he could get to the peak. His report was mildly encouraging: he got as far as four miles from road's end, about a mile southwest of Apache Spring. We decided that if we had to walk the road, it would still be better than dealing with the mess on the east side. I rode with Peavy to Tucson, where we met Casterlin at 6:15 a.m. at the Chevron off of Wilmot Road. We then rode with Casterlin from there to the peak. It was about 30 miles from the Chevron to the start of the Empire Ranch Road.

The ranch road is in excellent shape for the first few miles, then slowly decreases in quality the farther in it goes. It generally runs northeasterly through beautiful grasslands and creeks lined with mature cottonwood trees. The road passes a couple gates, where some clever turns at a few junctions are necessary to stay on course. It climbs onto the spine of a set of hills, then drops steeply into a canyon system, where it crosses into and out of the streambed numerous times. By now, the road is very rocky with ruts and some erosion in spots. Casterlin drove us to where he turned back last week. According to Peavy's GPS, we covered just under 14 miles to our parking spot.

This drive in took almost 90 minutes, and it was about 8:20 when we finally started the walk. The weather was cool and overcast. The first leg was the four-mile walk to the road's end. We came to the junction to Apache Spring after one mile, heard some gunshots, and continued walking. Later, two guys on ATVs rambled past us. We covered the four-mile road walk in 90 minutes, gaining about a net 900 feet to get to the road's end, where the two guys on ATVs were hanging out, scouting the terrain. We had a chat, then continued on our way. By the way, the road's quality past where we parked was mainly pretty rough, so we had no regrets about not trying to bash the vehicle in farther. It is best suited for ATVs anyway after a certain point.

Apache Peak is visible for most of the walk, and from the road's end, it looked very close, with nice ridges leading up to it. The initial problem would be getting to the right ridges. The road ends at a side canyon, which leads into a more deeply cut canyon below us. We found what looked like a faint path dropping straight into this canyon. We followed it, dropping about 40 feet through moderate brush into the canyon, where we ascended up a small slot up the other side, regaining our loss, placing us on a brushy slope opposite the road. After a short rest, we started walking upward.

As we walked, we were aiming toward a small hill on the ridge contained in a 6,200-foot contour, but we realized we were not on the right slope. Thus, we had to descend off this slope, cross into another small canyon and scamper up the opposite slopes. We then climbed steeply through tree cover to get onto the "right" slope. This slope was open, covered in knee-high grasses, thorny brush and low cactus, but little tree cover. We made slow but steady progress, trudging up about 500 vertical feet to get up this knob, where we took another rest. Apache Peak was standing right above us, and we could make out the rest of our route from here.

The next segment was the roughest and slowest part of the hike. From the 6,200-foot knob, we dropped about 60 feet to a saddle, then up a smaller knob, then through thick tree cover, now aiming for a small band of cliffs about 150 vertical feet above us. The going here was slow and very thorny. There was usually a path to squeeze through, but the rocks tended to roll out from under our feet. We got near the cliffs. The other two Scotts bypassed to the left, while I climbed up a small opening. Above the cliffs, it was more of the same: steep, loose slopes and lots of cactus. The brush was moderate-to-thick, but never impossible. We made slow progress, and finally achieved the main southwest crest coming off of Apache Peak. We were at about 6,800 feet here.

The brush and tree cover was less thick on this crest than what we'd just come up. The slope was consistent but not too steep, and interestingly, there was a barb-wire fence running up this crest! The top was hidden for the moment behind a small knob about 300 feet above us. The going up this crest was relatively easy. With less-severe slopes and more open terrain, we could work our way around the obstacles. We climbed to this knob, worked around its top and now, Apache Peak came into view again. Its rounded hump looked less "impressive" from here than from below. French Joe Peak, which is just a few dozen feet lower in elevation, was across the way and served as a good way to judge our elevation gain. We just walked slowly and methodically, and in time we all arrived onto the open summit of Apache Peak.

The views are fantastic, as expected from such a prominent mountaintop. East, we could see the horribly thick tree cover carpeting the ridge between us and French Joe, as well as the slopes lower down. Way off to the east we could see the rocky Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Range. The Chiricahua Range was visible way to the east. Sweeping from East to South to West, we could see the Mule and Huachuca ranges, Cerro San Jose in Mexico, the Patagonia Mountains, and the grand Santa Ritas with Mount Wrightson. Baboquivari's pillar summit was far off west. North we could see the various Tucson-area ranges, and of course, the Catalina and Rincon ranges. The sun even came out for a few minutes to lighten things up.

The summit itself is covered in a mound of rocks. We could not find the benchmark, but we found the log and signed in. We had arrived onto the summit at 1:50 p.m., a 5-hour, 20-minute ascent. We were slightly alarmed at the late hour, so we didn't spend much time up here, maybe 15 minutes, before starting down. We retraced our route, getting slowed up again on that steep downhill section below the main crest. We bypassed the cliff band but got into some really thick trees instead. We finally emerged from that crud onto the open slopes, gaining back on to the 6,200-foot knob, then down that. Here, we dropped into the canyon in a different spot than before, hoping it would "go". It did, but we had to scamper down some small rock obstacles in spots. We found our way up to the road, then there we were. It was close to 5 p.m. when we came back onto the road, and the sun was dropping quickly.

We just now needed to walk out those four road miles. We just started walking, no chit-chat, trying to beat the sun. We ended up walking the last mile in darkness, but we had all brought along flashlights. Back to Casterlin's Toyota at 6:30, we piled in and started the slow rumble out, which took another hour-plus. Casterlin managed these roads very well in the darkness. Another half-hour and we were back to the Chevron. We got our stuff sorted out, said our goodbyes, then Peavy and I drove back to his place in Gilbert, where I got my truck and drove home, finally stumbling in at 11 p.m., utterly exhausted. A shower, some food, some time with my wife, and I crashed.

The hike covered 6.3 miles each way, according to Peavy's GPS. Our gain was over 3,500 feet. While the road-walk was easy, it added three hours to our day. Still, we felt we made the right decision to come this way. The off-trail hike past the road was just 2.3 miles each way but with 2,400 feet of gain. Although not as densely choked with brush and trees as the east side, we still had to battle a lot of it. There is just no way to travel quickly through that kind of terrain. Casterlin's beefy Toyota did well on these roads, and I would be hesitant to drive anything less robust than a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle on it. My truck might have made it, but a sedan, no way.

We were all pleased to get this one in the books. For Peavy and I, it was our first, and probably last, ascent of this peak. Casterlin had climbed it years ago via the east side, and he admitted there'd be no more visits from him. This is a worthy peak and a climb of it is very satisfying, but the effort needed to attain it, as well as the willingness to put up with the brush, will test one's patience. Some of my clothing was covered in a velcro-like plant leaf that is very difficult to remove, and despite my best efforts, I must have had about 30 cactus barbs poking out of my skin when I showered that night. I was still pulling out little barbs even a couple days afterwards.

My deepest thanks to the other Scotts for their companionship and competence on this climb.

Images by Scott Peavy:

On the brushy slopes

Am I lost?

(c) 2011 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.