The Mountains of Arizona •
Mount Graham • Highpoint: Pinaleño Mountains
• Coronado National Forest
• Highpoint: Graham County

Mount Graham, Arizona
Mount Graham from below

Mount Graham, Arizona
The Pinaleno Range and Mt. Graham
Mount Graham, Arizona
Hiker framed by limbs of a fallen tree
Mount Graham, Arizona
Me on the forbidden place

• • •

The Arizona
Mountains Gazetteer

Dates: (1) May 9, 2000; (2) July 19, 2003 • Elevation: 10,720 feet • Prominence: 6,320 feet • Distance: 6 miles • Time: 3 hours • Gain: 1,700 feet • Conditions: Nice the first time, humid and warm the second time

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Mount Graham tops the massive Pinaleño Mountains of eastern Arizona, overlooking the city of Safford and the Gila River Valley. The summit is 10,720 feet elevation, while Safford lies at around 2,700 feet. Thus, there is nearly 8,000 vertical feet differential between the valley floor and the top. This is the largest escarpment in Arizona, and Mount Graham has the most prominence of any mountain in the state.

As white settlers came to the region in the late 1800s, the Pinaleño Mountains offered resources such as timber for the new cities being built along the Gila River. A rudimentary road was hacked high into the range so that horse-drawn teams could haul down the wood. Settlers weary of the heat used the road to venture high into the range for its cool temperatures and recreational opportunities. In time, the road, called the Swift Trail, was widened and built out to highway specifications. It is now designated Arizona State Route 366.

The range is so big and broad that the summits tend to be broad as well. One does not get that "airy perch" effect when standing atop most of the summits in the Pinaleños. Better views are obtained along the highway as it gains high into the range, or from a handful of other scenic pullouts. Most people come up here to camp, hike and fish at Riggs Lake, a small reservoir at the far end of the Swift Trail.

Since the late 1980s, the summit of Mount Graham has been officially closed to the public, the result of a three-pronged battle fought by environmentalists (who were worried about a certain squirrel species), the University of Arizona (who wanted to put up an observatory on the summit ridges), and the San Carlos Apache Indians (who view the summit as sacred). The Forest Service declared all lands above a certain elevation a "refugium" to protect the squirrel, but likely as a way to end the bickering, in that nobody gets to go to the top. Ironically, the squirrel is doing well and the observatories are located about a half-mile from the summit.

This "closure" presented a little bit of an ethical dilemma when I was studying the various county highpoints back in 2000. At the time, I was down to just the last handful in Arizona. In January of 2000, I stopped in to the Forest Service buildings in Safford and had a friendly chat with the lady ranger there. I had no intention of going up at that time, since the road is closed, but I wanted to gauge just how serious they were about the situation. She was fairly adamant about no one going up there, which I expected. She was pleasant, and it was a productive meeting.

First Visit, May 2000: When the snows had melted and the road reopened, I decided to gamble and make the long drive to Mount Graham. I left home around 5 a.m. and drove directly up to the range crest. I was delayed in Superior when a cop pulled me over for going a little too quick, but all I got was a warning. I got as far as where the pavement ends on the Swift Trail Parkway, roughly 9,000 feet elevation. A dirt road starts here and goes all the way to the top. However, it was posted with the signs about keeping out, the poor red squirrel, and so on.

I had studied the maps beforehand and talked to a few people. There are other options to approach the top. I followed the main road about another mile or two, parking off the main road, hidden by some lovely shade trees. A jeep track starts somewhere in here and wriggles up to the main aforementioned road, from where I would then hike to the top.

I was hiking by 9 a.m., in clear, still weather. Being a weekday, there was almost no one around. I found this jeep track and followed it upward to where it emerged onto the main crest and that other road. I turned left and simply walked to the top, hoping there'd be no cops or rangers hidden in the trees to cite me. I didn't expect to see anyone and I did not. The one-way hike covered about three miles and 1,700 feet of elevation gain, and I was on "top" after about 90 minutes.

In 2000, the top was heavily forested, and it was so broad that it took some time to walk around the area to be sure I had actually touched the top. I didn't linger, and essentially turned around and walked back to my truck. The slopes are all pitched at gentle grades so I made good time and barely broke a sweat. Back at my truck, I relaxed before making the leisurely drive back down into the deserts. I was happy to be successful, happy to not get caught, and happy to be one peak closer to my goal.

Second Visit, July 2003: We wanted to get out of town for a weekend to escape the summer heat. Once I explained the legal aspects of this peak, βð was all too eager to go outlaw with me. We also planned to drive some backroads and visit the living ghost-town of Klondyke, assuming we weren't in the clink by then. We left our home and arrived at our hotel in Safford at 8 p.m.

As for the hike, we followed exactly the same route I took in 2000. The air was moist, and we could smell that ozoney scent that portends rain and possible thunderstorms. But for now, we had clear skies above us. We got to the top, felt happy for a few moments, then walked back down. The hiking statistics were identical to mine of 2000. That night, back in Safford, the storms came in, but weren't too bad. The mountain got drilled, however. We went to see a movie, and ate at a Sonic drive-through where we watched lightning bolts hit the peaks off in the distance.

The next morning we drove a backroad to the ghost town of Klondyke, which sits to the southwest of the Pinaleño Mountains. The dirt road was in good shape and about 40 miles later, we arrived in this little town, now with a full-time population of 5, so says the sign. There's a functioning general store, where we stopped for ice cream. In the old days (1920s), Klondyke had about 500 people. Today it's just an interesting relic, and survives only because there are ranches scattered about the region and Klondyke offers a centralized meeting place. The general store sells one of everything and basically is a mini-mart for the locals. Past Klondyke, the road leads into the mouth of the Aravaipa Canyon, a remote but interesting canyon with high cliffs and a verdant canyon floor.

We have been back a few other times. In 2005, we came back for a dayhike of Heliograph Peak, and again in 2010 for some short hikes and camping. On that trip, I visited Ladybug and Webb Peaks. We have also driven to Safford soak in the natural hot springs and to explore surrounding ranges. We like Safford: it's a rough-around-the-edges town. They have a great Mexican food restaurant where US-70 and US-191 meet up in town. That can be worth the drive alone.

Mount Graham Panorama.

(c) 2000-2019 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.