Picacho Peak is a familiar landmark to anyone who drives Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. It’s also a great place to stop for a hike — one that will test your fear of heights and make you weak in the knees. The most popular route, the Hunter Trail, takes you to the top of the mountain. It’s almost vertical in places, and cables are installed to help you hoist yourself up.
Be aware that in recent years, the park has closed for the “summer” due to Arizona’s budgetary concerns. “Summer” is, apparently, late May through early September. Check with the park for exact dates. You could be ticketed if you enter the park when it is closed.
Sometimes, when you start on a trail, you don’t know exactly where you’re going to end up. That’s not the case here.
You can see your destination, as you start up the Hunter Trail at Picacho Peak State Park. It’s the very top of that big, imposing mountain, straight in front of you. The thought of a 1,400 foot climb, in just two miles, can be daunting. Prepare to have your butt kicked.
The first section of this trail is a less-than-remarkable uphill slog. You’ll be headed for that low point, the saddle, in the middle. After that, the trail hugs the opposite side of the mountain for the intense climb to the top. This means, you’ll enjoy two distinct views.
During the first half of the trail, you’re on the northeast flank of the mountain, so your views will be in that direction. On a clear day, you may have some relief from the afternoon sun on this side of the hill, but you’ll bake on the other side. On this day, it was so cloudy, I didn’t have to worry much about the heat. It wasn’t great for photography, but the grey skies were a blessing.
I’ve read that the foothills surrounding Picacho Peak burst into color in February, thanks to wildflowers. I was here in late February, so maybe I missed it. It all looked like desert to me.
In order to get up to the saddle, the trail has to make some switchbacks. At this point, it looks like you’re headed towards a dead-end, until you round the corner.
That little hill in the distance is getting lower, which means we’re getting higher.
Once again, it looks like we’re headed for a dead-end…
… until you find this arrow at the switchback. From here, it’s mostly a straight shot up to the saddle.
At the saddle, there’s a much-appreciated bench. You could take a side-trail towards this secondary peak, but I don’t know if the trail goes all the way.
Once you’ve reached the saddle, you’ve gained nearly 1,000 feet, in about a mile. Surely that must be the worst of it, right?
This is where the second half of the trail begins. When I saw it, I think I gasped a little. I knew I would be climbing with cables, but I didn’t expect to be headed back down!
And down it goes. Quite quickly. It’s hard for a photograph to convey how steep this part of the trail is. Just look at the horizon, way up there at the top of the picture, and you’ll get some idea.
Aside from being dizzying, this part of the trail isn’t extremely difficult, going down. But it really got me, coming back up. I was taking just two or three steps at a time, then stopping for a rest.
Now that you’re on the other side of the mountain, you’ll have a great view of the vast, empty desert towards the south and west. With fewer clouds, you could catch a nice sunset from up here. But, you’d also be roasting in the heat.
After the big drop down from the saddle, the trail clings to the edge of the mountain as you head towards the peak — at times, railings hold you and the trail to the edge of the cliff.
You’ll eventually intersect with the Sunset Trail, which provides an alternative to the first half of the Hunter Trail. It begins at another trailhead, and climbs more slowly up the southwest side of the mountain (in other words, you don’t have to climb up to the saddle, then down again). Taking the Sunset Trail, instead of the Hunter Trail, will add 2 miles to your round-trip distance. And, you’ll still have to face the most challenging part – all the cables that lie ahead.
From the junction, the trail climbs…
… passing some nice cactus along the way.
This is the view to the south, at a switchback, just before the trail goes vertical.
Yes, that’s the trail. You’ll need to hold the cables with one hand, and look for hand-holds on the rocks with the other. You’ll also need to put some thought into where you put your feet.
I haven’t done a lot of rock climbing — but this is the closest I’ve been to it, since my experience on the Via Ferrata in West Virginia, a few years ago. Back then, I was taught to always maintain three points of contact. In other words, if you’re moving a foot, make sure your other foot and both hands are securely holding on to something. If you’re moving a hand, don’t move your foot at the same time. Moving deliberately and slowly will make the climb much less risky.
Before you reach the final push to the top, you’ll pass through this cactus-filled amphitheater. Then…
… it’s time for the final big push to the top, which includes plenty more cables…
… and this contraption, that includes a fence and a bridge.
Nearing the top, you’ll be looking down on that amphitheater area.
And then, you’re there! This is the very top of Picacho Peak.
Kick back and relax for a few minutes, you’ve earned it.
The view north shows another hill nearby, and directly below, you can see most of Picacho Peak State Park. From here, that tiny hill near the trailhead looks like nothing.
If there’s one thing that’s particularly torturous about this trail (aside from the steep climbs), it’s the fact that you have an almost-constant view of a Dairy Queen. It’s the building on the far side of the interstate, to the right of the underpass. I spent a lot of time anticipating a Blizzard.
This shot also shows a couple of other interesting landmarks at the exit. Notice the building at right-center — this is the old Nickerson Farms Restaurant. Even though it’s now partially collapsed, it’s one of the best-surviving examples of this nationwide roadside chain. Just to the left of it, are the burned remains of the old Picacho Peak Trading Post, and its towering fiberglass Indian. I’ve provided a closer look at both of them, on a separate page.
Looking southeast, you can see some farmland, strikingly green thanks to irrigation. Tucson is out there, somewhere, in the distance.
The view to the west reveals some interesting mountain peaks. Late in the day, these were nothing more than haunting shadows. They might be more beautiful in the early morning.
Just below the highest point of Picacho Peak, there’s another secondary peak. Hike out it…
… and you can look back upon the highest high point of Picacho Peak.
Since I had arrived fairly late in the day, I didn’t have a lot of time to kill at the top of the mountain, so I headed back down.
As sunset came closer, the sky was breaking up, just slightly. I could have waited around for a sunset, but I was too tired from the hike. I really did just barely make it back up to the saddle, using both arms to supplement my tired legs.
There was only one thing that would restore my strength:
Thank goodness for this Dairy Queen.
The strange thing is, I had eaten here before. A long time before. 29 years before, on a family road-trip to the southwest. For some reason, my mother made a note in our scrapbook that we stopped at the Dairy Queen at Picacho Peak. I’m certain it’s the same one that was there, three decades ago. It’s very retro.
And, just as you can see the Dairy Queen from Picacho Peak, you can also see Picacho Peak from the Dairy Queen. I gazed at the mountain and celebrated my achievement, then headed on to Phoenix for the night.
The Bottom Line
The hike to the top of Picacho Peak is very demanding. The 4-mile round-trip feels like much more, due to the elevation gains and losses and cable sections. If you’re physically and mentally prepared, you’ll have a blast! But don’t try this trail without the adequate amount of time, food, and water.
Picacho Peak State Park is located along Interstate 10, at exit 219. This is the Picacho Peak exit, not the exit for Picacho, a community a few miles away.
Of course, you’ll have no trouble figuring this out, since there’s a big mountain right there, that you can’t miss.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive to Picacho Peak via I-10: