Orange sneezeweed crowds between aspens on the San Francisco Peaks near Arizona Snowbowl.
© Paul Gill
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Humphreys PeakIt's not the hardest hike in Arizona, but it ranks right up there, and the views from the top are second to none.
By Robert Stieve
Humphreys Peak is the king of the hills in Arizona. It's the pinnacle. The highest point in the state. If you can make it to the summit, which tops out at 12,633 feet, you've conquered all there is to conquer — from a hiking perspective, anyway. Making it up and down is certainly something to be proud of.
The trail begins at the far end of the lower parking lot for Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort. After a short climb through a lush meadow of grasses and wildflowers, you'll start to smell the evergreens as the trail enters the deep forest. About the time the sky disappears, you'll be crossing into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area. Humphreys Peak, along with three others — Agassiz, Fremont and Doyle — comprise the Kachina Peaks, which are sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai and Zuni peoples. Many, many years ago, the peaks were part of a single volcano, and the Inner Basin was its crater.
Although reaching the summit is the high point of this hike, there's a lot to see in the process, including thousands of acres of Engelmann spruce, corkbark fir, ponderosa pines and even some aspens. Wildlife is plentiful, too. Look for Western bluebirds, chickadees, white-throated swifts, wild turkeys, porcupines, mountain lions, bobcats, elk, black bears and mule deer. The most common animal, however, is the human being. This is a popular trail, but because of the elevation gain and the lack of oxygen higher up, hikers tend to thin out.
From the edge of the forest, the well-maintained trail climbs for several miles to the Agassiz Saddle, which connects Humphreys and Agassiz peaks. You'll be heading uphill, but look around. Up to this point, most of the hike has been a tunnel through the thick alpine forest. The saddle affords an opportunity to see what you've been missing, including the devastating effects of the Schultz Fire, which burned 15,000 acres in June 2010. Of course, the views from the top are even better.
Before you get there, though, you'll notice that the tree line has thinned out. The saddle marks the beginning of Arizona's only tundra region. At that level, nothing but bristlecone pines can survive, and even those disappear before the peak. Like all tundra regions, this one is extremely fragile, which is why the Forest Service strictly prohibits camping and off-trail hiking.
Watch your step and gear up for the last mile or so to the summit. It's the most challenging stretch of the hike. It's worth the effort, though. At 12,633 feet, you'll be able to see the Grand Canyon and the Hopi Mesas to the north, the White Mountains to the east and Oak Creek Canyon to the south. And, overhead, you might see some of those white-throated swifts feeding on the insects that'll be swarming around your face. Your biggest concern, however, won't be the bugs, but rather the weather.
Around the Peaks, thunderstorms and their deadly lightning strikes can roll in almost without warning. Don't press your luck, and remember the first rule of mountain-climbing: Making it down is more important than making it up. After all, there's no point in conquering the king of the hills if you're not going to be around to brag about it.
Trail Guideclick to expand/contract
Length: 9 miles round-trip
Elevation: 9,327 to 12,633 feet
Directions: From Flagstaff, drive north on U.S. Route 180 for 7 miles to Forest Road 516 (Snowbowl Road), turn right and continue another 6.3 miles to the lower parking lot. The trailhead is at the far end of the lot.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Horses Allowed: No
USGS Map: Humphreys Peak
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