Picacho Peak – Unassisted Ascent – AZ (12.22.15)

Picacho Peak (on right) from the I-10

Picacho peak is one of those land marks that you can’t miss on the drive from Phoenix to Tucson via the I-10. About half way between the two cities it sticks out like a sore thumb just next to the freeway. The trail to the summit is very unique in that it has some short climbs and is anything but your typical desert hike. For those of you who left your climbing shoes at home, fret not for the trail has been retrofitted with steel rods, wire, and cable to assist you in your ascent.

Trail head to the peak

It was an overcast day and I decided it would be a good idea to head to Tucson for a few days of hiking and I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to take on Picacho on the way down from Phoenix. After paying my State Park entre fees, I pulled into the parking lot for the Hunter trailhead and looked up at the beast standing before me. Like all other treks that have ever came and gone; it was time to get to work!

Some of the railings

I headed up the hill chilled from the mornings wind sweeping across the open base of the mountain. It wasn’t long as I ascended up the rocky switchbacks that I was peeling off my hoody and getting some good heat generated.  I passed a large group of retirees who were all smiles and gave on some small talk as I passed. “Are you going to the peak”, I asked. One older woman smiled clutching her trekking poles in hand “that’s the plan” with a nervous chuckle. “Well I’ll see you guys up there!” I replied as I pushed on. They seemed like a well spirited group ready to take on the challenge ahead; I never count anyone out on the trail.

Main Saddle before the drop down the backside

I pushed up along the switchbacks until finally I was up against the east face of the huge rock, the trail continued to skirt the face until it hit the main saddle. To finish the ascent you must drop down the backside (west) of the mountain. And when I day drop I mean drop! Almost all the work you did to gain the saddle is soon lost down the cabled backside. The trail becomes steep, down, down, until finally it levels off and you turn south against the west face of the rock where things start to get interesting. The rest of the ascent drives south east up the mountain with a few cables obstacles in the way. These are the climb areas where people with “heights” issues would certainly turn back! I am no rock climber, but I enjoy the challenge of trying to climb the obstacles unassisted by the cables and man-made railings left in the rock face.

Hello Cables
Hello Cables

The climbs themselves are really not bad, maybe class 3 with a touch of class 4 if you would remove the railings. It’s a very fun hike to challenge yourself as a scrambler to make the full ascent without touching the bars. After pushing on and up the last obstacle includes a wooden bridge spanning a skirt just above with a 30 foot sheer drop. All the hand and foot holds are angled down as if the mountain itself was begging me to use the railing. I clung to the rock like a lizard, pinching hard at the hand holds and sticking my feet to the small footholds. After a few moves I successfully made it across, and looked back at the penalty as if the rails were not there. I could be done by a climber easy, but not without a little pucker factor.

bridge with a sheer penalty

After the bridge it was all cake from there, just following the drainage trails to the summit where you get a great view of the surrounding desert (just try to ignore the hum of the I-10 trucks)! Breaking for a quick snack I chatted with a few other summiteers before heading back down the rock playing the “image there are no railings” game. What another awesome day and great hike; if you haven’t already done it, put this surprising different hike on your list of dirt to touch!

360 from a sub peak just north of the main saddle
  • Looking North from the Peak
  • Headed to the Saddle




  • Weather: Hi: 55, Low  45, Overcast
  • Water: 0.5 liters
  • Food: 1 Orange, peanut M&Ms
  • Time: 1.5 hours
  • Distance: 3 miles Round Trip
  • Accumulated Gain: 1,400 feet


  • Mule Camelback backpack (3 liter bladder)


  • 195 Smart wool long sleeve shirt
  • Cotton Handkerchief
  • Running shorts
  • Merrell Mid Moab Hiking Boots
  • Arkteryx Hoody
  • Darn Tough wool medium weight sox