Climbing Picacho Peak
It has been a long hot period in Tucson lately. The heat has struck a bit early, meaning that we’ve had about 10 days straight of 100 degrees. As summer sets in, certain outdoor activities become off-limits, and people begin to seek recreation either inside shopping malls or up in the mountain parks.
But I’ve had a certain hike on my mind for three years now, and I was determined to do it before we leave for the summer. As one drives along I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, a peculiar pointed mountain appears to the west. It appears un-hikeable, by its steep sides and nearly jagged contours. This is Picacho Peak, the site of a state park and a fine campground, which we’ve visited several times.
There is a trail that leads all the way to the top, about 2.1 miles each way. The climb is extremely steep, to the point that many times the only way to ascend is with the help of steel cable lines that have been bolted into the rock. It is really more of a “climb” than a hike.
The steepness of the climb dictates that people with very short legs (a.k.a. Emma) can’t make the climb without assistance. And people with any sense at all (a.k.a. Eleanor) quickly realize that a climb like this on a day that is destined to hit 100+ is moderately insane. Fortunately, Brett had flown in from Denver for the weekend, so I had a like-minded (meaning “equally soft in the head”) companion. So Brett and I left the house at 6:30 a.m., alone, in an attempt to reach the summit before the temperatures spiked as sharply as the peak itself.
We completely failed in one respect. The temperature was already well into the 80s at 7:45, when we reached the trailhead (50 miles from Tucson). By the time we finished it was over 100 degrees. More than half the trail is completely exposed, with no shade, and the heat of the sun bakes the steel cables to the point that they can burn your hands. But along the way, the trail rewards you with spectacular views, which help distract you from the minor discomforts. Of course it helped that we were prepared for the trail with leather gloves, broad sun hats, white shirts, SPF 55 sunscreen, hiking shoes, energy snacks, and lots of water.
Water is the big thing. Brett brought 70 ounces of water in his backpack, and ran out about midway through the return descent. I brought 100 ounces and ran out at the very end of the hike. All of that water was evaporated through our skin — there were no bathroom stops during the 3.5 hour roundtrip. (Yes, in case I didn’t make the point with my previous post, the air is very dry here.) Ill-prepared people would not be able to complete the hike in these conditions, at least not without suffering. We groused about the steepest sections, but really, it was a fun adventure.
My advice to others would be to hike this peak between November and April, like a sensible person would. It’s tough enough to make you realize you really did something, and yet manageable by most people with good fitness. Bring the Airstream and camp in the park to double your pleasure. It’s worth the effort. I can’t think of another small mountain climb quite like Picacho Peak.