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Hunter Trail Day Hike
Picacho Peak State Park
February 24, 2001
by Chuck Parsons
Ten shivering hikers gather at the Hunter Trailhead on a cold, windy morning in February:
Chuck, Joe, Oden, Candi, Tom, Dan, Mike, Jon, Adam, David.

On a cold and windy Saturday morning, with clear blue skies and the temperature hovering at a brisk 47°F., ten Motorola Hiking Club members and guests anxiously waited for the warming rays of the early morning sun to come streaming over the top of Picacho Peak to light up our group picture, as we gathered around the Hunter Trail Trailhead sign. Oden Alger, Dan Bishop, Candi Cook, Adam Kostewicz, David Langford, Joe Michalides, Chuck Parsons, Tom Van Lew, Jon Van Lew, and Mike Wargel assembled around the trailhead sign, soaking up the warming sun as a volunteer passing hiker took our picture.

At 8:30 AM this intrepid ensemble of ten cold and shivering hikers set out from the 2,000-foot trailhead to begin our assault to the very top of this 3,374-foot volcanic remnant, known in years past as the “Ship of the Desert” because of its prominence as a well used landmark throughout the early history of Arizona.

The signature Mexican Gold Poppies this peak is so famous for, along with bright yellow Brittlebush, Blue Lupines, and White Wooly Daisies, lined the first few hundred yards of this quickly ascending trail. The Gold Poppies were still closed from the night before and would need a couple of hours of exposure to the warm sunlight before showing off their full glory and color. We would enjoy them more on the way back down, when the sun would be shining brightly and the full colors would really show.

Mexican Gold Poppies carpet the lower slopes of Picacho Peak.
But Gold Poppies aren’t the only flowers we will see today.

Going into ever-steeper switchbacks, the Hunter Trail shows no mercy as it claws and snakes its way up the steep northern exposure of Picacho Mountain through typical Sonoran Desert terrain of ocotillos, chollas, palo verdes, creosote, and scattered saguaros. As Joe pointed out, there isn’t a lot of easy warm-up time on this trail, compared to most of the trails we hike. After taking a short rest break a half-mile into the hike, we start back out and hit the punishing switchbacks once again, slowly making our way to the saddle. Reaching the 2,960-foot saddle at long last, we take another well-deserved rest break while admiring the surrounding scenery, now much greener and lusher than in the past few years, courtesy of the plentiful winter rains these past few months. We had just climbed almost one thousand vertical feet in one mile.

Immediately after the saddle, our trail literally plunges out of sight as it drops precipitously for several hundred feet, working its way down and around the sunny southern exposure of Picacho Peak. The steel cable supports provide a much-welcome handhold at this point, providing safer footing on the steep bare rock surface, as we quickly make our descent. Dan Bishop is heard to remark more than once on this descent that he is very glad someone suggested bringing leather gloves, although mountain man Tom Van Lew shuns his, saying leather gloves are only for wusses with soft hands.

Hikers on the final approach to Picacho Peak.

We reach the bottom of our descent, only to realize we will now have to make up that several hundred feet, plus several hundred more, before we would ever see the summit of this 22 million year old Arizona landmark. As we slowly begin to make our way back to the top, we start to encounter the first of many single and double-anchored steel cable supports to ease our ascent up the steep bare rock surfaces.

This is one of the few trails in Arizona that provides both an upper and lower body workout, as we have to literally strong-arm our way up numerous steep, rocky approaches to the summit. I don’t know Tom – these leather gloves seem to be providing pretty darned good gripping power on these somewhat slippery steel cables. I’m sure glad I brought mine along. I can also attest from personal experience that they saved me from some serious cable burns on a previous trip, when I missed a foothold on the way back down the last steep incline to the summit and slid for some twenty feet before my gloves were able to grab tight enough to stop me.

By about 10:00 AM we had all reached the 3,374-foot summit of Picacho Peak, only to find about twenty-five other hikers already there ahead of us. I don’t believe I have ever seen this many people up here before. This place is getting downright crowded! One hiker is hunkered down over a pot of boiling water, preparing his soup of the day, as another is flying his kite off the peak in the brisk 50 F. winds blowing in from the southwest. What an unusual contrast – to each his own I suppose. While soup man and kite man go about their exotic business, the Intrepid Ten merely plop down on our weary duffs and proceed to scarf down lunches and snacks, while conversing amongst ourselves – nothing fancy, just the simple, pedestrian stuff we salt of the earth Motorolans are famous for (or should that be infamous for?).

Mike Wargel, on the other hand, just had to be different, as he used his cell phone (was that a Motorola phone, by the way, Mike? I’m sure it was – right?) to call his Dad in Dallas, Texas from the top of Picacho Peak! So we now have soup man, kite man, and cell phone man – all going about their business from this rocky perch, as the busy Saturday morning traffic streams by far below us on Interstate 10, totally oblivious to this motley crew of hikers high above it.

Stopping for a rest and lunch break
on the windy summit of Picacho Peak.

Before we start to make our way back down this peak at 10:45, we take note of a small wooden cross, inscribed “In Loving Memory of Mike S.” and carefully anchored on the southeast corner of Picacho Peak, and cannot help but wonder about its origins. Did Mike S. fall from this part of the peak and perish, or was this perhaps one of his favorite hikes, and his family simply placed the cross here in his memory? We may never know, but for whatever reason, Godspeed to you, Mike S. You will now forever be a part of this famous landmark in Arizona history. May you rest in eternal peace, as Picacho Peak watches over you.

Dan, Tom, Jon, and Joe work their way back down from the peak.

As we did on our last hike here in February, 2000, we decided to make our way across the upper saddle that connects Picacho Peak to its unnamed and lower sister peak, due west.

We were hoping to find the logbook that we had signed last year. It was thoughtfully left by a couple of earlier hikers, Theresa and Norma, in February, 1999, and sealed inside a large glass jar.

Somewhat to our surprise, it was still there, now in expanded form with several log books (the newest dated 2/11/01) and several ball point pens, all now sealed inside a shiny new 2 lb. Yuban Coffee can. After dutifully signing in as the Motorola Hiking Club and making a few individual notes, we start back down from the peak. Good job, Theresa and Norma!

We quickly make our way down to the bottom of the trail on the southern side of Picacho, where we are now faced with the daunting task of making that long, steep ascent back up to the saddle. The steel cable support that helped us so much in our earlier descent now comes in even more handy, as we pull ourselves slowly and painstakingly up this very long and very steep slope back to the saddle. We are taking a welcome rest break at the saddle and enjoying the cooling breezes, when we are suddenly startled and surprised by a sleek pair of F-16s that seemed to come out of nowhere, screaming overhead and then suddenly dipping down below the peak, as they roared their way southward from our vantage point, afterburners glowing brightly in the distance. What an awesome sight that was! They would probably be parked on the tarmac back at Davis-Monthan A.F.B. in Tucson, before we were 100 yards down the trail.

We now quickly make our way back down from the saddle. It’s all down hill from here now, and the most important thing to remember is to watch your footing on the loose rock on some of the steeper descents. One of our hikers took a fall in one of these areas, landing on his posterior and fortunately hurting only his pride. We’ve all been there before – I fell in about the same area last year on the way down. I wonder if a few “Warning – Loose, Slippery Rocks” signs might help remind us of the dangers?

The last one-third mile or so back to the trailhead was a real treat, as the lower slopes of Picacho Peak were now covered in a profusion, an explosion, of colors, as Gold Poppies, Blue Lupines, and yellow Brittlebush carpeted the slopes along our path. Mother Nature was going all out for us here, rolling out the gold, blue, and yellow carpet for us on our final leg back to the trailhead. What a great way to end a terrific hike on this Arizona landmark known as the “Ship of the Desert”.

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updated March 31, 2020