Hiking the Highest Peak in Arizona!

Updated: Jan 14

Include hiking to the summit of Humphrey Peak as part of your Arizona bucket list. The amazing 360 degree views from the top won't be the only on this challenging hike.

Erron and I had been talking about hiking Humphreys Peak. Everything we heard about hiking this trail in the fall was nothing short of stunning beauty. Located in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness of the San Fransisco Peaks these mountains are routinely referred to as "Arizona's little Colorado." That only built our excitement for standing on the highest point in the state of Arizona. When the colors are popping in fall, it is nothing short of a brilliant.

Erron and I had been talking about hiking Humphreys Peak. Everything we heard about hiking this trail in the fall was nothing short of stunning beauty. Located in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness of the San Fransisco Peaks these mountains are routinely referred to as "Arizona's little Colorado." That only built our excitement for standing on the highest point in the state of Arizona. When the colors are popping in fall, it is nothing short of a brilliant.


We had only one available day in October to hike the summit. Beyond that, to see what we wanted to see, we'd have to wait til next year. This is how it went.


The afternoon of October 2nd I spent tooling around the mountain and Lockett Meadow looking for photo opportunities to capture the color change. I also hiked the first two miles of the Inner Basin Trail to get underneath the aspen canopy and see the groves from the inside. During the transition from vibrant green to the most yellow of yellows towering over the vertical white beams shooting skyward, among the trees is beautiful, captivating, and calming. At the right time it's down right magical.


Erron was hyped to hear about the mountain and color change in full swing. Checking the calendar, the following Wednesday would be her only opportunity this October.


"Wednesday is my only day off this month. We could hike Humphreys then if we leave Tuesday night after work."

She already had the timeline figured out. I couldn't say no. Didn't even cross my mind. Of course we're going.


We got to the meadow near midnight on Tuesday. It was cold and wet. Monday it had stormed in Flagstaff. Tuesday was on and off with rain. As we pulled into our selected site there was a light rain. Under the cover of a large pine we set up as quickly as our chilled knuckles could get moving. Soon enough, buried in our sleeping bags, covered by a large blanket, we are warm and soon sound asleep.


BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! 6a.m.


The sun is my alarm clock. It's far less harsh than that horrendous shrieking image. It is however, for me, as immediate. When the flooding light of the sun fills my tent with just enough ray power my eyes open. The mountain is calling. Challenging you to stay warm and comfortable while it sneaks away the necessary time it knows you need to accept and start the fight.


I hate the cold. First order of business is get moving to get warm and adapt to the chills outside the warm enclosed capsule of my tent. I walked the loop to see if anyone had filled in after us or if others were arriving this morning. As I left the campsite I noticed Humphreys had been busy. Mountains don't sleep. They are always active.


The low temperature hovered around 41 degrees. When attempting any hike that has significant elevation gain always keep in mind for every 1,000ft of gain you will loose about three degrees in temperature. Going up roughly 4,000ft, the summit, in the dark of night would drop to the high 20's. Saturday the mountain top was bare. Wednesday morning it was snow capped.

It was bluebird day to start(not a cloud in the sky) but the remnants remained from Monday and Tuesday weather on Humphreys cap. Challenge accepted.


We made it to the trailhead at 7:50a.m. Not a soul in sight.


We took a brief look at the trailhead message board and marched into the forrest, upright and full of excitement. It always starts that way... "What an adventure!" we'll say.


No matter your skill set, mountains always fight back. Blows thrown are handled by all of us differently. What might break me today could be brushed off by you or even myself on previous or future hikes. Some days you make it. Some you don't. Knowing this we still push forward, steady marching.

This forest of mixed conifers and white bark aspens is enthralling. Gradually the forest gives way to a dense aspen grove within the first mile. Our march was soon halted by the transition. The serious business of taking the summit turned to a casual scavenger hunt of the most perfect aspen leaf we could find. This is one of the many reasons I love the outdoors. It encourages play, imagination and thought. Sorry to disappoint but we came close enough to confidently say, you'll have to look for the perfect pinecone or something.


Just shy of the two mile mark we came to an old gravel road. This is Waterline Rd. Aptly named, the roads primary use is to access and bring water to Flagstaff from the Inner Basin. It is non-motorized except for administrative uses. Roughly a third of a mile after turning right we came to a few structures used to facilitate this purpose. Walking around these old, worn, green buildings gives you a feeling of history and the importance the role this road and structures must of had in the growth and development of Flagstaff.


Waterline Road also provides access to the Inner Basin. As we approached, the canopy opens up. Fallen trees steam as they warmed in the morning sun. We were surrounded by the mountains that encase this once active volcano. This place was created with one hell of a paintbrush. The swirling of conifers and yellow aspens blanket the basin. Looking to the mountains we saw the scars from previous avalanches near Doyle Peak. These scars are a warning sign of Mother Natures' power. Thick pines leveled and torn from the ground. Others snapped in half like toothpicks. Stare at it long enough and you can hear the sound of destruction. You can see the path that unstoppable amounts of snow and ice took, crashing to the basin floor. It is a reminder that you are getting deeper and higher into the wilderness. Elevating the possible risk of high altitude summits.


Beyond Inner Basin the trail parallels Doyle Spring as it comes to a set of switchbacks that quickly gain elevation over a short distance. Approximately 1,000ft in less than a mile. This is where the mountain begins to push back. The first 500ft are some of the steepest on the trail. You begin to feel the burn in your legs as you breath the thinner air. Here we turn right and connect with the Weatherford Trail. Snow that had covered the path the previous two nights was melting where the suns could break through the progressively thinning trees as we climbed making the trail wet, soggy and slippery.


Doyle Saddle sits at the top of these switchbacks. The stepper climb that began to take our breath was quickly forgotten when we heard an elk bugle. Enthusiasm is heightened with the possibility of a large wildlife sighting. The saddle was empty. No majestic beasts but a wonderful view of the land to the west. Then more sounds. Someone was coming up behind us and it appeared they were coming quickly. We stepped off the trail into the saddle. In no time four runners came cruising by. Chatting.


It was impressive. I just sucked air coming up that short section and these dudes ran by like they were still at a resting heart rate. I'm question my health and fitness decisions.


Humphreys is playing psychological games now too. It's part of the game. She sent them.


Two switchbacks after the saddle are far less aggressive but the trail becomes narrow and perched on the backside of Agassiz Peak. Completely covered in a thin layer of snow the trail became slippery and loose with lava rock. It's easy enough to follow the footsteps of the supreme runners. The snow actually helped highlight the trail as we looked forward to where it would lead us.

Around Agassiz is the saddle between our goal and itself. Take a minute, or several, to look at how far you've come. From here we had a spectacular view of Lockett Meadow and the Inner Basin more than 3,000ft above from where we started. Arizona Snowbowl is visible for the first time at the base of Agassiz. Less than 1.5 miles to go. Plenty more in the tank. This is our psychological blow to Humphreys.


As we moved forward we started to decline in elevation. Significant enough to make us second guess if we were headed the right way. We could see the summit but it seemed too high to match up with the remaining gain. We turned back. At the saddle I studied our map and orientated us to the surrounding peaks and Snowbowl. We couldn't have been wrong.


As we are standing there, again, at the saddle, team gazelle comes charging up the trail we turned back on. The leader is talking to the team bout their time. They paused for just enough time for me to ask, "Did you guys run all the way down Humphreys Trail and come back up?"


"No. Just to the summit."


I gestured. "That trail goes to the summit?"


"Yep."


And they were gone. Humphreys put us on the mat.


Rising to our feet from the floor, Erron and I exchanged looks. At that moment I knew I messed up. We were headed the right direction. Our double back added a half mile. Not much but not necessary. We are still this far. Time to get it done.


Reaching the bottom of this drop puts us at the intersection of Weatherford Trail and Humphreys Trail. 1 mile and 823 more feet to climb. The home stretch.


Humphreys has some left in the tank. The trail post blend in very well and are difficult to spot. Not exactly a scramble, rocks are bigger requiring some large steps up and limited use of hands. Humphreys is trying to take some more from you. Three false summits tighten their grip on our mental and physical strength.


I needed more moments of rest than Erron. She was winning the battle at all costs. The summit is within reach but we have to move and can't spend too much time on the top. We were approaching our return time. No matter where we were on the mountain we would have to go back not to put ourselves at greater risk. The final push.


A short time later Erron delivered the final blow. Bagged summit.

We win.


We reached the summit at 2:00p.m. We stayed for a half hour. We had it all to ourselves for the last 25 minutes.

We could see everything. The Grand Canyon is 70 miles away and visible on clear days. Clouds are below us, level with us and above us. Swirling and dissolving as they pushed east. The aspen groves below are colliding with the forest splashing the mountains with color and beauty. We are struck with awe.

The hike down is obviously easier but not without its own challenges. As the sun dipped lower and lower temperatures dropped. Wind increased. Light was fading. We hiked the last 1.5 miles in the dark with fading headlamps. At one point Erron felt we were wandering in the woods. I wasn't falling for Humphreys last trick. We had to be close to the end.


7:02p.m. we returned to the trailhead.


Back at camp we sat around the fire, ate a little, enjoyed a single "summit celebration" beer, looked at pictures and were prideful in what we had accomplished.


"At this time yesterday, we were just leaving work. Today we were on the highest point in Arizona."


"What an adventure" we said. It ends that way too.


Keep Killin' It!











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