Humphrey’s Peak is the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 ft. It’s been on my must-do list for a while now. A couple months ago, I started chatting with Matt on Twitter about hiking Humphrey’s Peak in June. My only worry was that I have not been at high elevation in a long time. The last time I spent any real time above 10,000 ft was hiking the Mount Rose Summit (10,776 ft) in Tahoe in 2010. Prior to that, my last experience above 10,000 ft was in Peru all the way back in 1998. I’ve never really had trouble with elevation, but things change over the years so I needed to see how my body would react at elevation and I wanted to do it before making a run on Humphrey’s Peak.
My buddy Bryan does a lot of bike races (he was the reason I was in Prescott for the Whiskey Off-Road). A few weeks ago he asked me, kinda of last minute, if I wanted to go camping with him for another bike race. The race was a popular 104-mile relay called the Barn Burner. The Barn Burner Mountain Bike Race covers a 26-mile loop that weaves in and out of the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness area, home of Kendrick Peak. Kendrick Peak tops out at 10,418 ft and is part of the same volcanic San Francisco Mountain Range as Humphrey’s. It would be a perfect warm-up for hiking Humphrey’s Peak so I packed up some gear and set to drive out to Flagstaff.
That day I had some work that needed to get done before I could get on the road so I got a later start than I wanted. I didn’t leave the house until close to noon. By the time I was on the freeway headed north, it was already pretty hot and weekend traffic headed out of town was getting thick. To make matters worse, there was an accident reported on the freeway about 10 miles ahead and all of us were stuck in a slow crawl up a long grade out of the valley.
That’s when the truck stalled.
I spent the next hour or so with the hood up on the side of the freeway as vehicles crawled by trying to figure out why the truck would have stalled. I was certain my weekend was ruined and I’d be headed back in to town in a tow truck. I had managed to get it started once or twice only to have it die on me again seconds later. Eventually I got it started again and it was done stalling…probably water in the fuel line, but at least it was running again and I was headed north to the wilderness.
A few hours later I was at camp at the C&C Ranch with nearly 4,000 other people in what was probably the dirtiest, dustiest piece of land in Arizona. There were signs on the way in describing how the land had been destroyed by overgrazing and the soil was loose and devoid of nutrients. The soil was so soft and dry that it would billow up in front of your vehicle like water as if you were driving through a shallow pond.
Crazy amounts of dust along with the crowded nature of the camp area convinced me to hike up above the flat into the trees with my hammock and camp above the chaos. Before it got dark I wandered up to the tree line and found a good spot to hang camp, then walked back down to be “sociable” and have dinner with the race crew.
After a nice dinner and a cold beer, I headed up to my hammock and snuggled in for the night. More and more I find myself enjoying this style of camping. The temps got down to about 40 degrees that night and I slept like a baby. I’m getting used to using a top-quilt and keeping warm with an insulated sleeping pad.
Early the next morning, I shuffled down off the hill and back to my truck to make some camp coffee (thanks to Coffee Brewers). My plan was to wait until the bike race got going before heading to the trailhead. The road I would take to the Kendrick Peak trailhead is the same road being used for a portion of the bike race and I didn’t want to be in the way, or creating unnecessary dust for the riders. I headed out about 8:30 and was near the trailhead by 9am. The first wave of bikers had made their way around and I couldn’t drive all the way to the trailhead without impeding the race so I parked off the road a half-mile or so down from the trailhead parking lot and hiked up.
The parking lot is well kept and big enough for nearly 20 cars. It also has some posted trail and wilderness information as well as a permanent bathroom. The trail wasn’t crowded but there were several cars in the lot and a couple of groups getting on the trail about the same time as myself.
I really love hiking in Northern Arizona. The pine forests with thick green grasses and ferns remind me of a slightly drier version of the Pacific Northwest. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow. Though the 4-mile hike to the top is a continuous incline, it’s not terribly aggressive making the hike fairly moderate. Hiking up the mountain, the trail weaves though Ponderosa Pine, Aspen, Oak, Fir, and Spruce trees and is home to Mexican spotted owls, mule deer, elk and black bear. I didn’t get to see any real wildlife while I was up on the mountain, but the scenery was amazing even with large sections of the forest along the foothills still recovering from the 15,000 acre Pumpkin Fire back in 2000.
Most of the trail zig-zags through the forest, but occasionally opens up to offer views to the to the south as well as casual glimpses of Humphrey’s Peak to the east. I kept a solid pace marching up the switch-backs, passing many of the hikers who were already on the trail. Surprisingly, many of the hikers seemed to be in the over-fifty set. With the exception of a young woman running the trail and two other women hiking together, I think I was the youngest hiker on the mountain. When I reached the grassy saddle there were a couple of groups of day-hikers resting on fallen logs enjoying a mid-morning snack. Smack in the middle of the saddle, surrounded by tall pines and green grass is the old, historic fire lookout cabin.
Built around 1911, the old log cabin is still in pretty good shape. It was originally built as a shelter for the men working the fire lookout at the summit of Kendrick Peak. It still has a functional door and glass windows. Inside, the cabin is kept up with an old spring bunk bed, desk and storage chest with some emergency gear. On the desk, along with other miscellaneous items, is a small notebook used as a trail sign-in book.
The trail splits at the saddle. To the west you head up a rocky, narrow trail to the summit and the fire lookout building and can continue west along the ridgeline on the Pumpkin Trail. To the northeast the Bull Basin Trail can take you down the north side of the mountain where it connects back to the Pumpkin Trail. Having done this shorter trail, I would like to go back soon and hike the Pumpkin trail, hammock at the meadow next to the cabin, and then hike back down the Bull Basin Trail.
I left the cabin and headed up to the summit, so far feeling minimal effects from the elevation. The hike from the saddle to the summit is less than half a mile and, though rocky, is not difficult. At the top, the fire lookout dominates the peak. In fact, you can see the massive fire lookout building from quite a distance (I was able to see it from camp that morning). I’ve been to several fire lookouts in Arizona and this one is different than any of the others I’ve seen.
The first thing that makes this fire lookout unique in Arizona is that it is the only lookout post that does NOT have vehicular access. The volunteers that work this post have to backpack the 4 miles in with all the gear and supplies on their backs. There is a very small helipad near the structure for emergency extractions. I hiked around the back of the structure and across to the helipad where several hikers were stretched out on the warm concrete like lizards soaking up the morning sun. I pulled an apple out of my pack and soaked up the view from the peak while I ate my snack.
After a short rest, I noticed that most of the hikers had left. So I secured my pack and walked up to the lookout building to meet the guy working there and have a chat. It turns out that many of the Arizona fire lookouts are manned entirely by volunteers, most of which have no affiliation with the Forest Service. I also discovered that they are typically in need of more volunteers on a regular basis. The guy I was talking to, Ken, said he lives in Phoenix and comes up to man this post for about 5 weekends out of the summer. He works a regular 9-5 during the week and uses this as his Summer getaway. Where do I sign up??!! I asked a few questions and managed to collect some contact information for the guy who manages the schedule for the volunteers. I plan to call and get my name on the list.
The lookout building itself has a propane stove and fridge, solar power, a bathroom, two double beds, a hammock and 360 degree views from one of the highest peaks in Arizona. Sounds like the perfect Summer cabin to me!
I thanked Ken for the information and headed back down. The total hike for me was nearly 9-miles round-trip because I parked further away from the trailhead. The hike is typically about 7.5-8 miles RT with an elevation gain of nearly 3,000 ft. The total trip took me about 3 hours. All in all, I never really felt any issues with the elevation even at the solid pace I was keeping. Humphrey’s, here I come!
Side note: My phone battery has not been working properly lately so I have no track map. I also had some technical difficulties with my DSLR right before reaching the saddle so I don’t have any pictures of the fire lookout. Guess this just means I really need to hike this one again!