Mount Wrightson • Highpoint: Santa Cruz County
• Range Highpoint: Santa Rita Mountains
• Mount Wrightson Wilderness

The summit from the east

Last bit from Baldy Saddle

Hungry little feller!

Beth relaxes on the summit

Me, with Mt. Hopkins in the back

As viewed from Keystone Peak (November 2006)

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Date: (1) June 13, 1998; (2) April 24, 2004 • Elevation: 9,453 feet • Prominence: 4,578 feet • Distance: 9 miles • Time: 5-7 hours • Gain: 4,000 feet via west side, 3,200 feet via east side • Conditions: Hot in 1998, Pleasant in 2004 • Teammates: Beth in 2004

Mount Wrightson is one of Arizona's premier mountain-peak hikes. It has everything going for it: a beautiful, enticing profile, an excellent trail network that allows for loop and traverse options, good road access, close proximity to a major city (Tucson), status as a range highpoint, county highpoint, and one of Arizona's most prominent mountains, not to mention outstanding scenery all the way up, regardless of where one starts.

I hiked the peak the first time in 1998, at the time not because it was a "highpoint" of anything, but because I had heard good things about it, and finally had to find out for myself. I returned in 2004 with my wife, and we followed a different route up to the top. That's two ascents for me. Some people have climbed this peak many hundreds of times. If I lived close by, I'd probably hike it more often, too.

I still think it's one of the best hikes in the state. For visitors to Arizona looking for a good hike with the right blend of challenge, scenery and convenience, Mount Wrightson should be at the top of one's list.

First Visit, June 1998: I had some time open, and finally worked up the motivation to come here and hike it myself. I left my home at 3 a.m., arriving to the Madera Canyon trailhead parking area at 5:30 a.m., as the sun was rising. The lot was virtually empty. Even at this early dawn hour, the heat was evident. It would be a very hot day in the deserts. For now, it was warm, but I was in the shade.

Two trails start here: the newer Super Trail, and the older Old Baldy Trail. Both meet at Josephine Saddle, about 2000 feet higher. The Super Trail is wider and pitched more leniently, hence longer, so I followed it and made good time, covering these four miles in about 90 minutes. The saddle features a large stone mound and plaque, in remembrance of a group of Boy Scouts who perished here in a snowstorm in 1958.

The trails become one for a short stretch, then split again. This time, I angled left, now on the Old Baldy Trail. The trail aimed for the mountain's impressive west-facing cliffs. In some places there were downed trees spanning the route. Aside from these obstacles, I made good time and achieved the main range crest in about an hour. From here it was an easy hike to the summit. The trail switchbacks and curls around a bare rocky pinnacle to the top. I summitted about 9 a.m. in great weather, a little warm for 9,400 feet. Hundreds of ladybugs were on every rock on the summit. Some old cement foundations and a nice informative sign mark the top. Views were tremendous in all directions. I spent a while up here.

For the hike down, I followed the Old Baldy Route all the way down, five miles one way. It was steep and very dusty, and as I got closer to the bottom, the weather became very hot. Even though the trailhead is at 5,400 feet, temperatures were pushing 100 degrees. I was back to my car at 11:30 a.m. I figured 7 miles in, 5 miles out and an even 4,000 feet of gain with no drops along the way. I now fully understood why this peak is so popular with the locals, although on this day I only saw one other couple. Perhaps the heat played a role, as once I was down into Tucson, the temperatures were pushing 115 degrees.

Second Visit, April 2004: Beth and I decided to hike Mount Wrightson, trying the first time three weeks earlier. Coming off a dry, warm March, we figured the snow would be melted and the roads passable, but that Friday afternoon (April 2), a front moved in and hit Arizona hard. We drove down there anyway, since we had reservations at a hotel in Patagonia and didn't want to stay home. But the rain dropped on us for the whole drive and got particularly nasty south of Tucson and near the town of Sonoita, where we encountered snow. We arrived in Patagonia about 6 p.m. in a heavy, cold rain and got settled into our room at the Stage Stop Hotel.

Things did not look promising, and the next morning, when it was still raining, we decided to cancel the hike and go explore the area, making a day trip to Nogales, Mexico (where I got my boots shined for $2 after being told they look like sh*t by the boot shine guy), and a fascinating tour of a Titan II missile silo near Sahuarita, the only remaining one of its kind. The clouds lifted that day to reveal a beautiful mantle of new snow everywhere. Mount Wrightson was covered and it was quite pretty, but hiking it was out of the question for at least a couple weeks until the roads opened. So, we decided to try again in a few weeks.

We came back to Patagonia three weeks after our first aborted effort, this time arriving in great weather. We stayed at the same hotel, the Stage Stop, which appears to be the only hotel in town. The rooms can only be entered through sliding glass doors. It was built in the early 1970s. There was a big bicycle race the next day, and we saw signs and a lot of cyclists and vehicles with bikes attached, but we didn't know much beyond that, like where it was going to happen. There was also horse racing going on in Sonoita. These two towns together normally have roughly 2,000 people total, so they were packed with tourists.

I asked the girl running the desk at the hotel about these events, but she knew nothing about either event. All she could do was shrug heavily and give a stupid, vacant look on her face when I asked her about the bike race. It must be nice to live somewhere, probably for your whole life, and know squat about what's going on in your hometown. My main concern was that the bike race would interfere with our hike; i.e. closing off the access road. Turns out everything was cool.

We left the hotel about 7 a.m. and drove to the Gardner Canyon Road (Forest Road 92), which is located about 4 miles north of Sonoita along AZ-83 (and about 20 miles south of Interstate-10). Turning left (west), we drove in along fine wide hard-pack, staying straight for the first four miles, going right at a Y at about 4.2 miles (always following the signs to Gardner Canyon Trailhead), and coming to Cave Creek at 5.7 miles. There was water to ford, about 30 feet of it but no more than a few inches deep at the most. We got past this, went up the road and came to a 4-way junction at 6.1 miles. We turned left onto FR-785, again following the sign to Gardner Canyon Trailhead, which it said to be 4 miles ahead.

We came to another sign at another junction, with the mileage to Gardner Canyon Trailhead still cited at 4 miles. Apparently we had not gotten any closer. The road got rough from here on out. I put the truck in 4-wheel drive to manage the road, which included six more creek crossings, some very rocky segments where I had to be careful not to ding the side of my truck, some steep inclines, and lots of bumps. We went slow and arrived at the trailhead after 10.6 miles from the highway, and just a few minutes after 8 a.m. One other truck was there, a man camping with his two kids. We chatted a bit, the kids enamored with the nearby Gardner Creek and whatever neat rock/twig/leaf/animal they could find and grab. Beth and I got situated and were on the trail at 8:35.

The trailhead is about 6,100 feet elevation just a few hundred feet east of the wilderness boundary. We walked past the small opening in the fence along the trail beside the small creek. We actually crossed the creek about 3 times in the first few hundred feet. Soon, the trail made a swing left and started a long, steady gain up a side canyon. It switchbacked twice and shortly, led to a saddle at about 6,900 feet and 1.2 miles in. This was a trail junction with the Walker Canyon/Basin Trail, which came up from the south. Beth and I rested here to snack.

The summit was still hidden behind a shield of trees on a ridge that we next had to hike. After about 15 minutes, we got moving again. The next segment was sort of a grind. Steep, but not too steep, tiring, but short, too. The trail switchbacked westward up this prominent eastern ridge, and only after about 30 minutes we'd gained another 700 feet to come to a flat portion of trail at 7,600 feet. We took another break here, entertained by Mt. Wrightson's summit, which was now in view.

After our second break we continued up the ridge as the trail continued its steady switchbacks. The generally rockiness of the trail changed to softer dirt and more pine needles, which made for better, softer footing. We hiked fast and we soon came to the trail junction with the Super Trail, 3.0 miles from our starting point and 8,300 feet elevation. Again, we took a break. The next 0.8 mile gained 400 feet and took us to Baldy Saddle, elevation 8,700 feet. We encountered some snow patches from that storm along this segment. At the saddle we met up with a few hikers having come up from the west, and decided to take a quick break before making the final hike to the top.

From the saddle to the summit is 0.9 mile and 700 feet of gain. There are many switchbacks on the trail, most of which is hewn directly into the bare rock. In the old days, from about 1910 to the late 1950s, the Forest Service manned a fire lookout at the summit, hence the need for a decent trail to the top. Otherwise, the summit would require some technical ability to manage. We made good time and got to the top at 12:30 p.m., a four-hour ascent including nearly one hour of breaks, and about 3,350 feet of uphill trudging.

We immediately took refuge within the old foundations of the lookout, which was dismantled decades ago. The weather was magnificent: crystal clear in every direction (8% humidity will do that), and warm and very moderate. Soon, we were joined by a man celebrating his 78th birthday, making his 35th ascent of the peak. We talked and he even knew some people by name that I knew from the Tucson area. He stuck around for about 15 minutes, then started down to get back to his buddy at the saddle. Beth and I relaxed and even cat-napped; the smooth cement foundation gave me about 7 feet of flatness on which to recline. We snapped photos and pointed out the various peaks, before starting down. We were up top for over 45 minutes.

Our hike out went quick. We took another break at the saddle to get some snacks, then a short break at the 7,600-foot flat area, just to gives the dogs a chance to stop barking. I stubbed my toe about 3 times too. We exited at 3:30 p.m., changed into drier clothes and drove out the bumpy road and back to our hotel in Patagonia for much deserved showers and relaxation. We celebrated over pizza at the Velvet Elvis, a neat restaurant across the highway decorated with paintings of Indians, Mexican iconography, colorful designs and one enormous Elvis on velvet: the early 1970s Elvis with the long hair, big chops and fat cheeks. The next day we took a tour of the San Rafael Valley, which took us down to the Mexican Border nearthe little town of Lochiel. This was some beautiful country. In fact, they filmed much of the movie "Oklahoma!" here.

(c) 1998, 2004, 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.