Hiking Tucson: Picacho Peak

Picacho Peak State Park is located in Arizona about 40 miles from downtown Tucson.  It is right off the I-10, so it is easily accessible.  It is $7 per vehicle to enter the park.  The park opens at 5am and closes at 10pm, though the hiking trails are open from sunrise to sunset.

I have been to Tucson a number of times over the last few years, whether for vacation or job interviews.  Picacho Peak is a landmark that shows the trip is almost over.  It is very recognizable, and juts out very high over the desert.  There is something in me that wants to stand on peaks when I see them.  I am not any kind of intrepid mountain climber, but I want to see the world from up there.

A couple of weeks ago, I moved to Tucson to start work.  I had the opportunity to go hiking yesterday, and chose Picacho Peak.  There are many other places I want to hike here too, but why not start with the place I have been looking at for a few years.

Safety First


This trail is rated difficult and it is actually difficult.  I have been on trails that said difficult, but really was just a steep elevation gain.  This one has steep elevation gains, rocky trails, loose rocks, and more.  This is only for people who have some experience hiking and who are in at least decent physical condition.

This sign says to bring 2-3 liters of water. Depending on the time of year, I would say that is a minimum.  Even on a cool day, this is Arizona and it is dry and sunny.  About a month ago a group of Boy Scouts were hiking this trail and one of them died after they ran out of water.  Personally, I bring enough for myself plus enough to share with someone who might have ran out.

The park website recommends bringing gloves.  I tossed a pair of leather work gloves in my bag just in case, and I am glad I did.  There are places on this trail where you will be pulling yourself up the trail using steel cables.  Then on the way down you will need to use the cables to keep yourself from going too fast.  The gloves are useful to keep your hands from getting friction burns.

There are currently bees on the trail due to the blooming Palo Verde trees.  I heard many more than I saw. I only had one disturb me, and it just wanted to check out my backpack when I set it down. However, if you are allergic to bees you might want to take precautions.

The Trail

The trail is about 2 miles long.  It starts out at a fairly steep climb.  It goes from about 1500 feet at the desert floor to 2900 feet at the “Saddle” which is about the halfway point.  Then it drops down again from the Saddle at least halfway to the desert floor before climbing to 3374 feet at the Peak.  There is this lovely but rather faded sign at the Saddle that gives that info, plus some history on the trail.  In short, the sign says that Picacho Peak has been a landmark for centuries.  It helped early explorers, and had a light beacon put on it in 1932 for aviation navigation.  The trail was created to help service that beacon before it was removed.

Did you know

There are plenty of “steps” put into the trail.  They are somewhat helpful, but are rather irregular.

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The trail itself isn’t always easy to see. In fact, I ended up taking a few accidental trips off the trail because I followed a rock slide or something that looked more trail-like than the trail.  Some kind person has put arrows and other helpful markers at most of the difficult to see sections though.

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You can also tell that parts of the trail were made by blasting rock that was in the way.  It was never smoothed out by the builders.  It is rough and can be slippery on the downhill parts.  At a few points I had to use my hands to help me up the trail.  A few people I observed had difficulties on these sections. I would recommend decent hiking shoes and not running shoes on this trail for the grip.

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Remember how I mentioned gloves?  There are helpful steel cables on the trail for the really bald rocks and the really steep areas.  Without them the trail wouldn’t work.

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There are a couple of particularly fun sections.  This first one doesn’t really show well in pictures.  You have to pull yourself up using the cables.  There are not many great places to put your feet, but it can be done if you take your time.  I thought it was a lot of fun, but I am also taller than average.  Some of the shorter people I watched had a bit of difficulty.


Then there is a section where you are walking along the edge of a drop off.  It isn’t a particularly tall drop off, but the steel cable comes in handy.  Also someone put a handy little bridge to make it easier to walk.


There is certainly plenty to see on the trail.  The plants are particularly beautiful right now.  The Palo Verde trees are blooming, as are some of the Saguaro cactus. There are also many overlook points where you can see for miles.  Many people do not like the desert, but there is a rugged beauty to it that I love.

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Of course the point to this trail is to get to the top of the Peak.  It does not disappoint and thoroughly makes up for all the work to get there.  There is a 360 degree view of the surrounding desert, with views for miles and miles in all directions.  I am still new to the area, so I wasn’t really sure all that I was looking at.  It is still impressive nonetheless.  I don’t think I got images that do justice to what I was seeing.  The IPhone has a good camera, but I don’t know that it does well in this type of distance situation.

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The Negative

This is a great trail in all ways.  However, its close proximity to the Interstate and railroad tracks makes it a noisy trail sometimes.  It isn’t overwhelmingly loud, but it is definitely noticeable especially when trains pass by.  This picture shows the Interstate and just past it is the train going by.



I will definitely hike this trail again.  I need to get in better shape for the second time because my legs are telling me how much they hate me today.  I am thinking I may try to take my oldest son with me in the fall so he can learn how to hike a trail like this.  It may have been a lot of work, but the beauty made it all worth it.










Johnny Sack Cabin

One of the places we found on our Idaho solar eclipse vacation was the cabin built by Johnny Sack located at Big Springs.  The cabin was located only a few miles from the house we were staying at in Island Park, ID.  There is parking for the cabin at the Big Springs campground off of Highway 20.  There are signs that will get you to the campground.  There is an easy path to walk from the parking lot to the cabin.

Johnny Sack was an immigrant from Germany in the late 1800s.  He and his brother ended up in Idaho because they wanted to work with cattle.  Sack had been a cabinet maker and worked for Studebaker making wagons.  The skills learned in those occupations would help him build his cabin.

In 1929, Sack leased land from the Forest Service for $4.15 a year.  Three years later he would build start to build his cabin on this land.  It took him about 3 year to build the cabin, because he built it entirely by hand.  He even built the furniture that is in the cabin.

After his death in 1957, the cabin passed to his sisters. In 1963, his sisters sold the cabin to the Kipp family who used it as a summer home for some years.  There were originally other cabins located near by that people used for summer homes, though Johnny lived in his cabin year round.  The forest service decided they had made a mistake in allowing those cabins to be built since the ground underneath is volcanic.  Apparently, there is no way to create proper drainage in this area.  Thankfully, the Kipp family was able to get the cabin turned into an historical site.  This is truly a beautiful building and it would be a shame if it had been torn down.

Johnny in particular did beautiful work using the bark of the trees as decoration.  In the pictures below, you will be able to see how that bark is used.

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The cabin is located next to Big Springs.  Johnny built a water mill at the spring that he used for electrical power.


The spring is constantly streaming water, in fact, it pumps out 120 million gallons of water a day.  What a perfect place to put a water mill.

The spring itself is also incredibly beautiful.  There are many animals that make it their home.  We saw trout, muskrat, and ducks on our trip.

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This is a great location to spend a few hours if you are in the area.  We went here in the morning, and then drove up Sawtell Peak later in the day, so it is possible to do this will visiting other locations in the area.  I would highly recommend checking this spot out if you are in the area.


Borrego Springs, California – Wildflowers

The second week of March is supposed to be the best weekend to go to the desert and look at the wildflowers. We hadn’t been to the desert during the spring wildflowers for almost seven years!

Borrego Springs wildflowers – March 2009

With this year being an El Nino year, we were hoping that the wildflowers would be blooming like crazy. We still found a lot of wildflowers but they weren’t as obvious as the last time we were there. We had to look for them this time! When we stopped by the visitor center to pick up a map of the area, the ladies there told us that in spite of El Nino they had only gotten 3 inches of rain this year. The average rainfall by this time is 7 inches.

Borrego Springs – March 2016 – My boys loved the way the hills looked. They said it looked like a painting.

We decided to check out a few of the trails in the area. Because of the high winds though, we were only able to hike one small trail called Little Surprise Canyon. There will be a lot of pictures from now on in this post.

Heading out on the trail. Gwen, the youngest, is riding in the hiking backpack Josh is wearing. Ian, Rhys, and now Gwen have ridden in that backpack.

This was a good trail for kids. It wasn’t too long. The trail “next door” to this one is called Hellhole Canyon and that would have been a 6 mile hike. If the wind hadn’t been so bad, we probably would have hiked at least part of it.

All of our kids are rock hounds so they were also picking up rocks to take home.

The wildflowers were so tiny that it was very easy to miss them. I kind of liked them this way though. The purple flower is purple sage, and the tiny yellow flowers beside it are a kind of poppy.
This is ocotillo. They are everywhere here! And grow very tall.
Desert lavender – my focus was a little off on these. I’m still figuring out how to use my camera.


Yellow poppies. These were so nice to see everywhere. The yellow is cheerful.
Matthias and I found this flower. It was the only one of its kind we saw during our hike. It’s called a ghost flower because of the yellowish-white almost translucent petals. It was so small that we could have easily stepped on it!
Rock daisy – I didn’t see too many of these either
I always love to see cactus flowering. This is a barrel cactus.
Probably my favorite flower I saw during our hike. Beavertail cactus. The hot pink flowers are easy to see from very far away!
It was so fun to go out on a hike with my family. I think it has been a while! Our last hike together was probably in the Petrified Forest in Arizona. The boys had a great time exploring rocks, dirt, and the little canyons here and there.
We probably went through every color of the rainbow during our hike. This is indigo bush.
Josh said this might be a packrat nest. I’m glad we didn’t see any rats!
Desert chicory – this one caught my eye because it was all by itself by a rock.
This yellow wave of flowers is called brittle bush I think. It is a type of sunflower.
At first I thought these were ocotillo flowers, but then I realized that they weren’t the right shape. These are chuparosa.
I love blue flowers. These are wild heliotrope. Very small flowers. I’m glad I was able to get a picture of them.
This is teddy bear cholla cactus. It looks cute but you don’t want to hug it!
We drove through the mountains to get to the desert. There was an overlook of Borrego Springs you could stop at. It was interesting to be able to look down on the town like this.
In the far distance in this picture, you can see a thin line of water that is the Salton Sea. It is about 30 miles away from Borrego Springs. On a whim, we decided to drive there after we were finished with our adventure in Borrego Springs. I’ll write about the Salton Sea in another post. Now that was an adventure!

Josh took some pictures too. So I’m going to talk about a few of those.

You can see in this picture where water obviously runs down the mountain during a rainstorm. I was hoping it might rain while we were in Borrego Springs, but it ended up raining later, while we were driving home!
A panoramic photo Josh took of our hike at Little Surprise Canyon.

Thanks for coming along with us on our hike in the desert! My next post about Borrego Springs will be on some metal sculptures we stumbled across in town. We were going to look for more wildflowers but ended up spending the rest of our time at the sculptures


Thanksgiving Vacation: Part Four – Sedona

I know that it is almost Christmas, but I thought I had better finish our Thanksgiving series anyway. Our last stop on our vacation was Sedona. I had been wanting to visit this town for a while and was glad we finally did! We didn’t get to visit both the parks we wanted but I know my kids had a great time.

I had read a lot about Cathedral Rock at Red Rock Crossing and wanted a certain picture of the rock formation with Oak Creek in the foreground. Unfortunately, we ended up walking the wrong way and I never got my picture! At first, I thought we might have wasted $14 getting into the park but my kids had such a good time that I thought it was worth the $14!


It took us about 3 hours to walk a mile and a half. There were so many things to see and we also were just a little bit lost. The park ranger at the gate gave us a map, but it was not very clear how we were supposed to get to Oak Creek/Red Rock Crossing. We stopped at Buddha Beach and disturbed the peace there quite a bit. There is just something about a pool of water that inspires boys to throw rocks into it. After eating lunch at the swimming hole (making sure to pack out what we pack in!), we headed back down the trail.

We found our way back to our car and took a few pictures of Cathedral Rock in the distance. I also played tour guide a little as a few fellow tourists asked me about what was in the park and the walking trails.

We had some worn out kids by the time we made it back to Flagstaff. We stopped at a natural water source on our way back. I’m not sure if it was an artesian well or if was water from Oak Creek. I do know that it tasted cold and delicious!

Since we were only able to visit Red Rock Crossing/ Crescent Moon Picnic Area on this trip, we are hoping to come back and hike in Red Rock State Park another time. Maybe when our kids are older and can handle a longer hike.