Location: Kachina Peaks Wilderness Cocoino National Forest 2323 E. Greenlaw Lane Flagstaff, Arizona 86004
General Description:Coconino National Forest Coconino County, northern Arizona 10 miles north of Flagstaff 50 air miles SSE of Grand Canyon south rim Hiking Trail 9 Miles Round Trip - 7 Hours 3,300 Feet Elevation Gain Official Trail Description USGS Map
Humphreys Peak on September 11, 2000.
Humphreys is probably the easiest of the Western highpoints. The National Forest Service says you can hike the 4.5 miles from the Arizona Snow Bowl to the summit in 3 hours (although a more realistic time is 4 to 4.5 hours).
However, like all hikes above timberline the usual cautions apply. It can snow any month of the year, you can have altitude sickness and you are on an exposed ridge for about 2 hours each way and so must watch out for thunderstorms.
Humphreys' more unique aspects involve its ridge top gales and cinder walking base.
Humphreys rises out of the desert. It makes for nice views (you can see nearly 100 miles). However, this abrupt rise means there's nothing to block the winds. The summit log is full of tales of walking "tarantula style" across the ridge in 60+ mph winds. The winds are particularly bad in the Fall.
Humphreys (and the San Francisco mountains) are the remnants of a dormant volcano that exploded thousands of years ago in Mount St. Helens style. Signs note that virtually all 60 (or was it 600?) peaks you see from it are volcanic.
The cinder base on the ridge means that you will have uneven footing and are guaranteed to lose the trail. Signs tell you to stay on the trail to prevent damage to Arizona's only tundra but the trail is virtually impossible to find. I thought it bore to the north of the ridge and didn't cross the three false summits but I lost it plenty of times. The Humphreys Trail is not on topographic maps.
A third caution is that there may be some confusion about trails at the very beginning. Two trails head through the meadow from the parking lot at the trailhead. Take the one going uphill! This should be obvious. There are a bevy of signs around the appropriate trailhead now (including one noting that dogs must be on a leash). There were plenty of trip reports from folks who got lost at the beginning before the signs were in place.
It took us about 90 minutes to the trailhead from the entrance to the Grand Canyon on U.S. 180. We saw great views of the mountain from the north. This also took us through a huge swath of burned out trees from a forest fire in June 2000 that devastated Kendrick Mountain (the most prominent peak to the north of Humphreys). Burned out trees were even on the lower slopes of Humphreys on this side. The Forest Service has taken out brush and low limbs from unburned trees along the highway in what will be the prototype for the entire nation in the face of the devastated 2000 Western fires.
The turnoff for the Arizona Snow Bowl was quite obvious (in fact signs had given the mileage to it as we drove). We drove the 7 miles from the turn off to a huge sign pointing to the Humphreys Trail parking where perhaps as many as 100 cars were parked on this Sunday afternoon (and there was room for plenty more).
At this point Humphreys didn't look that far away
Taxis were even dropping folks off at the trail head (which is 7 miles from downtown Flagstaff on U.S. 180 -- appropriately named Humphreys Road).
We took the road on up (a half mile?) to the Arizona Snow Bowl complex to ride the chair lift for 1/2 hour up Agassiz Peak. Signs said the lift was only running on weekends during our Fall visit. It takes you above the 11,000 foot level which is just above timberline.
Many people who were wearing shorts and t-shirts at the beginning went up without a jacket and came back with warnings of it being very cold up there. The temps were actually around 60 degrees (it was 65 at the base) but the wind made it much colder. And this was in a period when the area was experiencing a record heat wave (temps 250 miles away at Las Vegas were around 106).
Flagstaff's cool weather at 8,000 feet has made it a hot real estate market -- particularly for folks fleeing Phoenix. Scanning the real estate section we found almost no houses advertising for less than $200,000.
An industrious spammer had managed to paste ads for a tattoo parlor on the ski lift supports. Most of the folks riding the lifts seemed to be Hispanics.
A short interpretative trail went up perhaps a hundred yards up the peak. Signs noted that a flower found here and nowhere else meant that you could not cross the fence to follow the ridge from Agassiz to Humphreys. You would be fined $500 if you tried. Other signs noted that the peaks are sacred to local tribes (it is part of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness).
We spent the night at the Arizona Mountain Inn on the south edge of Flagstaff which quite frankly was a come true with its cabins, ample trails leading into the Coconino National Forest for our dogs and gave us a chance to have a cookout while gazing at the San Francisco Mountains.
The dogs told me at 5 a.m. the next morning that it was time to hike. The stars were spectacularly bright (Lowell Observatory is near here and there are legal limits on the light that Flagstaff can emit). I made it to the trailhead by 6 a.m. where two cars sat.
I was the first on the trail. Deer in the meadow drove Zephyr crazy. The trail was obvious and was crossed at lower elevations by avalanche slides. I made great time as I navigated the switchbacks until I reached the ridge. Just a little ways below timberline is a sign noting that the summit is 2 miles away. Somebody had scratched it out and replaced it with a "4." In any event, from that point on, the mileage is just a decorative element. You can expect to spend 2 hours each on the ridge. I understand there was another sign a little further stating the mileage was 0.5 miles but I did not see that sign.
I had been dreading the summit gusts as there had been steady 30 mph winds at the base. But happily when I reached the ridge the gusts were perhaps about 40 mph. My dog was not going to blow away. Zephyr's face lit up as we hit the wind. As I huffed and puffed his face lit up each time I managed to move forward.
There are 3 false summits but they are not nearly as discouraging as those on other highpoints -- particularly Colorado. The worst is the second one. Once on the ridge you will not see the Humphreys summit until you have passed all three.
From the ridge it was quite clear that you were on an explosive volcano. You could see the crater below and it was covered in cinders. Rocks on the way up were not cinders.
The summit has a network of bunkers built against the wind as well as a wooden sign. I reached the summit about 10 a.m. The registry was in a black metal box. Lots of folks told of making cell phone calls. I became an ugly hiker by calling my aunt and work in New York. Nobody else was there so I was not totally violating etiquette.
From the summit you can see to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (really not much to look at), the Lowell Observatory to the west, as well as a domed Arizona stadium in Flagstaff. On the northwest horizon were magnificent white buttes that looked like grand monuments. I'm not sure what they were but there are probably more than 100 miles away since I saw them as I drove toward Kingman. You can see the Painted Desert (and presumably the famous meteor crater although I forgot to look for it).
Zephyr scouted the summit, licked my face, and then barfed. I'm not sure whether it was altitude sickness or because beef jerky was probably not the best treat. I took 3 liters of water. He drank half and I drank half on the entire trip. There is no water on the trail.
We stayed for half an hour. At about 11:30 I started running into folks coming up.
We made it back to the car about 2:30 p.m.
Zephyr was stopping to rest on the way down. He hid under the car to keep me from making him move anymore. He walked stiffly and even developed a limp. I was sure the cinders had gotten to him. However, after a good night's sleep he was back to form and ready for Vegas/Mount Whitney and Hollywood.