not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
The degeneracy of my generation can probably be measured by the number of people in their late 20s/early 30s who have referred to Picacho Peak as “Pikachu Peak.” We may be more well-educated than any generation before us, we may have fewer sicknesses and a greater ability to understand that gay people are people, but then we went and ruined everything with Pokemon cards, and now it’s impossible to look at this great church organ of a rock jutting out of the Tucson desert without thinking of the mouse-based electric-type Pokemon that was the mascot of the truly terrible TV series.
If you feel like you can climb Picacho without hearing that damn theme in your head the whole time, don’t look forward to a great deal of solitude. Picacho State Park is located almost precisely between Phoenix and Tucson, and gets a great deal of traffic from both cities. The trail is narrow and intimate, designed for individuals and small parties to navigate easily, and when you’re waiting behind 10 other people to get to a cable that goes through a particularly rough bit of trail, it’s hard not to think that the park’s popularity has moved it beyond its optimal attendance levels. But that just provides further evidence for how fun this hike is. If you’re not feeling quite adventurous enough to break out the rappelling gear, but you want something more than a slow walk up a big hill, this mountain is perfect for you.
There are two primary trails up Picacho- 2-mile Hunter Trail is short and steep, while 3-mile Sunset Vista Trail is long and gradual for most of its run, before merging with Hunter for a brutal final climb.
Last Saturday, I went up Hunter Trail with a group of six people and two dogs, both of which belonged to my sister. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed to go beyond the halfway point of the trail, near the saddle- something we didn’t realize until we got there- so my sister volunteered to go back down with them. The reason why dogs weren’t allowed beyond this point became clear as the five of us continued to a steep drop, where the Forest Service had anchored metal cables into the rocks, similar to the ones that hold up ski lifts, just a bit thinner (easier to grip that way). Hikers grab the cables for stability while walking down the rock slope. There’s only one set of cables, so traffic up and down these parts of the trail is one-way: if someone’s coming up the cable from the summit, you have to wait until they’re at the top before coming down. More cables appear intermittently the rest of the way up, with one final ascent that’s a few small vertical degrees removed from rock climbing. One of my fellow climbers did choose to climb up without using the cables, but most people are going to require them.
At the top, you have an excellent view of the unremarkable land that falls between Tucson and Phoenix. The highway between these two cities is a straight shot, and Picacho Peak is the only thing that even comes close to getting in the way. Farms and roads create a large geometrical grid on either side of the highway, but seem to fade out of the landscape rather quickly. It’s a vivid reminder of how we may cover the earth, but we still leave a lot of blank spaces around. Picacho Peak isn’t even that high, but it has a way of flattening out the earth around it. The coolest thing about the summit is that the slope of the mountain is so sheer that you can look into the parking lot from the top- or, for that matter, from almost any point on Hunter Trail. Maybe I’m just a sucker for high places, but looking down and trying to see my car felt pretty neat.
On the way down, one other member of the group and I decided to take the Sunset Vista Trail back, largely to see if we could avoid the extremes of Hunter Trail. The answer was yes and no. After splitting off from Hunter, we had to travel down the hairiest section of cable on the mountain, a drop that must have been at least 50 feet where you’re basically using the cable to slowly rappel yourself down the rock- or at least walk backwards in a manner that’s vaguely reminiscent of rappelling. Look, I’m not an extreme sports guy, it felt pretty cool to me, okay?
After that drop, it’s a pretty straightforward, rambling little up-and-down trail for the majority of the three miles to parking. This doesn’t mean you will not die, walking through the desert for three miles from the top of a mountain. My friend and I both made it, but it took a lot more out of us than I expected the trail to manage. A lot of it was probably the direct sunlight. Clearly, our decision to start hiking at ten in the morning won’t cut it for the rest of the season. Hell, the season might be over at this point. Time to start heading north, or getting up at 3.
After a fairly uneventful but mostly enjoyable trek, we mounted what must have been the seventh ridge in the trail and saw the parking lot ahead. Naturally, I chose this moment to turn my ankle. Fortunately, it didn’t do anything too bad, and after a minute’s hobbling, we were back in the parking lot, where my sis was waiting with her dogs, both of whom are completely crazy, but in a good sort of way. We weren’t too far behind the rest of the group, so we all met up at a nearby Dairy Queen that, according to a no-doubt reliable Yelp review, is “the shittiest Dairy Queen in southern Arizona.” Either this particular reviewer hasn’t been to the Dairy Queen at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street, or southern Arizona Dairy Queens are in it to win it, because it wasn’t half-bad. Of course, anything below 32 degrees was going to taste like food of the gods after the sun-soaking I got.
When I got back to Tucson, I planned to stay up and read for several hours, but instead I shotgunned about five glasses of ice water and passed out on my bed around six. I woke up at 8 the next morning. I honestly have no idea what that was, but next time I hike Picacho, I’m bringing more than three liters of water.