by Rob Samuelsen
There may not be a more visible or iconic hike than summiting the 1,500-foot-tall Picacho Peak. Formed from ancient volcanic flows and eroded to its current monolithic shape, it’s an unusual and tough hike aided by crazy cables and catwalks. Without these aids, the peak would only be accessible with technical climbing gear.
Located half way between Tucson and Casa Grande on the western shoulder of I-10, this mount has been a distinctive waypoint for sojourners since pre-historic times. In modern time, it’s recorded in journals by the Anza expedition in the 1700s, it was the location of the Mormon Battalion road built in 1846, the Butterfield Stage went past there through the 1850’s, and the only Civil War battle in Arizona occurred there on April 15th, 1862. Later, of course, railroad engineers and highway designers built the Southern Pacific line and I-10 freeway in its early evening shadows. It was finally memorialized as an Arizona Stake park in 1968.
The Picacho Peak State Park is the entry point for the hike to the summit. After parking, the difficult Hunter Trail takes you up over the saddle, down the backside of the peak, before beginning the ascent to the top. The 2-mile long Hunter Trail includes heavy duty cables to assist climbing several near vertical slopes. Gloves are highly recommended to protect your hands from the abrasive steel cables and catwalks. It’s also open terrain with little protection from the sun so being prepared with ample water and sun protection is necessary regardless of the time of the year. In the summer, the heat is oppressive, so hiking it in the winter is highly preferred.
The reward for this unusual and difficult hike is worth it. From the freeway, the peak looks narrow and daunting, but in reality, it’s relatively spacious on top with spectacular 360-degree views of mountains, desert, agricultural fields, and the Santa Cruz river basin. Looking south you can easily see Tucson and looking north is the metroplex of the sprawling Phoenix urban shed. If winter rains cooperate, you will also pass through huge fields of gorgeous golden poppies gracing the flanks of Picacho Peak. If you go, plan to spend extra time on top to appreciate the amazing diversity of the Sonoran Desert.
Perhaps it’s human nature, but to me it’s hard to see the peak without an urge to climb it. I thought about the day some nutty official came up with the crazy idea to create a trail top using assisting cables and catwalks. Today, with all the liability oversight in our sue-happy society that trail would never be created. Its historical uniqueness is part of its irresistible charm – a conquest that overcomes fear, common sense, and certificates of insurability.