Abby the Rockstar: The Trail to the Top of Picacho Peak

Have you ever been on a trail and wondered how and why the person who designed it/laid it out/made it an official trail came up with the route? I’ve certainly hiked on a few but it’s rare that I’ve come across a trail that I was so impressed with. As I was hiking the Hunter Trail, which leads to the top of Picacho Peak, I kept thinking that it seemed so impossible to lay out a non-climbing route to the top and I was left wondering why they even bothered – though I’m totally glad they did because it was ridiculously fun to hike. The sections up to and over the saddle were fairly standard, but the last quarter mile involved multiple sections that required hikers to pull themselves up using cables along the nearly-sheer mountain face. Definitely not your average state park trail.

The route, a short 4 miles roundtrip, is more or less broken into three parts: the switchbacks up the east face to the saddle, the steep descent down the back of the saddle and the hike around to the southern peak, and finally, the circling of the bowl between the two highest points and the multiple steep climbs using cables over jagged rock. One of these last cabled sections even has hikers walking on planks because the mountain face is practically sheer at that point. Sounds really difficult and like something only seasoned hikers in good physical condition could do, but this was totally not the case – and this the thing I loved most about this trail other than the fun it being so fun to hike.

We were there the last Wednesday in December and there were upwards of 80 people we saw on the trail that day, most of them families with young kids. It’s a tough hike for kids because of the height of the cables and the sometimes relentless elevation gain (which I read was 1,500 feet), but they were all doing it. So were the 2 couples in their 70s, a few single older men, and a gaggle of women in their 70s and 80s. So were the out-of-shape moms and dads. So were the two middle aged women who were terrified of heights and the young woman with her boyfriend who had a moment of paralysis climbing up a cabled section (and who then apologized profusely to me for holding me up). They were all doing it and frankly, it was inspiring. I heard almost everyone’s story while on the trail that day (more on that in a minute), and a lot of them were anxious and unsure they could do it, or were struggling, or were really nervous about the cables they were looking at. The large majority of them weren’t even regular (or ever) hikers. Tom and I mentioned this phenomena more than once and Tom took a great photo at the peak of people relaxing, eating, and taking photos of their friends and families. It didn’t occur to me to do so when I was up there, mostly because I never take photos of people, but it so perfectly captured the camaraderie of the hike and the relationships of the people hiking together.

So, back to our hike. As I mentioned, after the switchbacks up the east face to the saddle there is a steep downhill over jagged rock that has about a hundred feet of cable. For this reason, no dogs are supposed to go past this point, but it was only steep, not sheer, so Abby had no issue with this part, nor the hike around to the back of the peak. But the following section in which there are multiple (5? 6?) sections of cables was much steeper and impossible to do without using the cables, even if you have four feet. Abbs is an excellent scrambler and will get up most anything steep but this was just beyond her abilities. So Tom and I took turns going up to the peak while the other person stayed with the her, despite her being extremely unhappy at being left behind. But anyway, during the 25 minutes or so Tom hiking up and back to the peak, everybody stopped to comment on Abby. Now, she sees it as her job to meet every one we encounter on the trail anyway so we’d already had a few conversations with groups at this point, but she was totally playing the sympathy card while we were sitting there, whining under her breath, straining towards where she’d last seen Tom, looking wistfully at the peak, etc. and so I got into a lot of conversations and did a lot of introductions with children. We also got a lot of admiring comments from hikers earlier as due to the difficulty of some of the sections she had already made it over. But even besides those dog-prompted conversations I had multiple interactions with people while I was going up to the peak, waiting for other hikers to move through the cables or pass on the narrow sections of trail.

With so many people on the trail, Picacho Peak is unlike our normal hikes, but we knew it was a popular trail before we started and so we expected it to be crowded. We both have a strong preference for hiking without other people around – and I’ve been spoiled because most of our hikes involve not seeing anyone – but this was actually a lot of fun and totally worth doing. I also didn’t mention it before, but the views were really impressive and I found the rocky slopes of the mountain dotted with saguaro cactus beautiful. The only thing I ended up being disappointed about is my inability to show you all more photos from the cabled section: I was so busy talking to people and, at times, giving encouragement, that I just didn’t take my camera out. There were also a few instances when I would have liked to have stopped and braced myself in a tricky spot to capture the view but couldn’t because there were people waiting behind me. But I’m sure I’ll return to hike this one again. In the meantime, if you find yourself driving between Phoenix and Tucson, do this hike!!

Sun over the middle of the saddle; Picacho Peak on left. Near trailhead of Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Sun over the middle of the saddle; Picacho Peak on left. Near trailhead of Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Views while hiking up to the saddle, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Views while hiking up to the saddle, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View east from the saddle, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View east from the saddle, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

First set of cables on the descent from the saddle around the backside of the mountain, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

First set of cables on the descent from the saddle around the backside of the mountain, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Backside (west side) of the mountain, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Backside (west side) of the mountain, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Abby looking out, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Abby looking out, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Tom and Abby behind me on the Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Tom and Abby behind me on the Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

First set of cables leading up to the peak, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

First set of cables leading up to the peak, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View from the bowl, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View from the bowl, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View from the bowl, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View from the bowl, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Another set of cables (and an unknown person's rear end), Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Another set of cables (and an unknown person’s rear end), Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View from the peak, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View from the peak, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View from the peak, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

View from the peak, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Tom's photo of people sitting and snacking on the peak, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Tom’s photo of people sitting and snacking on the peak, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Me hiking, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Me hiking, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Back to the first set of cables on the return, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Back to the first set of cables on the return, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Me, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Me, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Snack break at the saddle, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Snack break at the saddle, Hunter Trail, Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona