The first and only time I hiked Picacho Peak, that impossibly towering mountain alongside I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, I did it with Brett on a 100-degree day. That was perhaps not the best choice for a steep rocky climb that offers very little shade. This time, I vowed to do it in the ideal season, which is about now, when we are getting lots of days in the low 70s.
Alex and Charon have been visiting Tucson for about a month in their 1960s Airstream Safari, and they wanted to take on the challenge of Picacho, so I said, “Let’s do it now, before it gets much warmer.” I had wanted to get Eleanor and Emma up there too, since they’ve never hiked all the way to the peak, and Emma is now tall enough that she can make it up the tough spots. We had hiked to the halfway point back shortly after Emma’s seventh birthday, which is hard enough, but now it was time to go for the gusto and bag that peak. (The full hike is not recommended for kids under age 10, for good reasons.)
The Hunter Trail is 2.1 miles. The first half is an ascent composed of many switchbacks up the steep eroded slope of the mountain’s south side. It is in some ways the hardest park of the hike only because the slog up is fairly dull, and this presents a psychological challenge to some. But if you get discouraged, you need only pause and look back down at the increasingly vast view of the desert floor for a little encouragement. You’ll see the dual ribbons of Interstate 10, the parallel Southern Pacific railway, and a wriggling stretch of the Central Arizona Project canal that feeds water to Tucson. Most people will need to pause frequently, just to catch their breath, so the excuse of “taking in the view” is pretty useful.
The mid-point of the hike is a spot called “the saddle.” From this point, you face another psychological challenge: after all that climbing, you must now begin to descend the north side along an extremely steep and rocky “trail.” It is so steep that a cable line is provided, and you quickly give up a couple hundred feet of hard-won altitude as you proceed. Just a look at this descent is enough to scare people into deciding that they’ve done enough for the day, and to begin heading back to the car.
The second half of the trail has nothing in common with the first half. It’s mostly solid rock, jagged and rough, with many ridiculously steep sections that are closer to rock climbing than hiking. Cable lines are everywhere, and for good reason. Those prone to vertigo or fear of heights should stay home. But spectacular views and the exhilaration of overcoming the tough spots are the rewards for those who persevere.
There were a few points at which I wondered if our entire group was going to make it. Of all of us, I think Emma did the best. She showed no fear at any of the tricky stuff, never ran low on energy, and managed even the most technical bits with little help. Eleanor had to deal with asthma on the way up, and Alex was having some pain in his knees. But we all made it: We reached the summit in about two hours without loss of life or even minor maiming.
Charon seemed the most psychologically stressed by the hike, yet she was the one who suggested we make this an annual ritual. That’s the kind of person she is. Faced with something that pushed her personal boundaries, she decided not only to finish it, but also commit to going back for more. Admirable. I understand how she feels about it. Climbing Picacho next year will be kind of a reminder to all of us to keep challenging ourselves.
The summit of so many mountains is nothing special, usually just a view and a chance to eat a few snacks while cooling off, but it’s a great feeling to bag a peak that you’ve worked hard on. Even little Picacho, at about 3,300 ft, is a great achievement if you weren’t sure you could make it. I think that it doesn’t matter how tall the mountain is, or how easily other people have reached it. Getting there is your achievement, forever. Well worth a Saturday and a little sweat.