Distance: 1.5 miles (one way)
Best time of year: Fall, Winter, Spring
Last hiked: 2014 October
Picacho Peak remains one of my all-time favorite hikes. It’s a great adventure up a solitary desert peak for any skill level!
Located nearly halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, Picacho Peak shoots out of the desert floor over 1,400 feet, ultimately reaching an elevation of 3,374 feet above sea level. Interestingly enough, it was also the site of the second western-most battle in the Civil War.
The hike begins on the floor of the Sonoran Desert as you begin ascending toward the walls of the peak. In spring, you’ll notice a blanket of colorful wildflowers accompanying the saguaro, barrel, and other cacti variety along the trail, which climbs steeply as more detailed is revealed in the cliffs ahead. There’s quite a bit of interesting geology for such a (relatively) small peak in the middle of the desert! There’s sandstone, limestone, and even gneiss. Once the trail meets these cliffs, providing hikers with a great view of them, the trail then begins a large switchback ascending up the eastern cliff of Picacho Peak. The vast desert landscape begins to unfold beneath you as you climb higher and higher. You soon find yourself at the saddle with an impressive view to the east, and now to the west as well. Those who have exhausted themselves or have a fear of steep inclines and/or heights may want to end their hike here.
Tip: Bring durable gloves to protect your hands against steel cables along the second half of the hike.
From here, the hike gets a lot more interesting! It immediately drops a few hundred feet with the assistance of a steel cable for support, negating much of what you just climbed. Once you bottom out, there are many scrambles up the rock faces, again, the cables there for support if you need them. More experienced hikers will enjoy the hand-over-hand climbing. The trail can be easy to lose due to its vertical nature along this stretch, so once you finish one of the short scrambles up, make sure to look around to get your bearings and see where the trail is headed next.
The trail soon reaches a crevice that most would prefer to have some climbing gear along for, but thanks to well-placed steel cables the climb is made much easier, though still intimidating for anyone with a fear of heights. Most will appreciate the adventurous nature of the hike by this point.
The trail climbs higher and higher, getting more and more exposed, until you finally reach a rather untrustworthy looking bridge that takes you over a large gap in the rocks. Despite its looks, the bridge is secure, though looking down through it could cause a bit of vertigo. Fortunately though, once you’re past the bridge, the trail gets a lot easier. The final ascent up to the peak is an easy walk up, and once on the summit, the 360 degree panoramic views of the vast Sonoran Desert are awe-inspiring.
Another tip: Go in spring to see an epic display of Sonoran Desert wildflowers!
Enjoy yourself at the top. You still have to climb back down (and then up).
From Downtown Phoenix, drive about 70 miles east (south) on I-10. Take exit 219 and go right at the intersection. You will need to pay a day fee to access Picacho Peak State Park and the hiking trail. Shortly after the entrance station, look for Barrett Loop on your left. Find a place to park toward the top of the loop and begin your ascent up the Hunter Trail to reach the summit. If you’re traveling from out of town, Picacho Peak State Park also includes an excellent campground.