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Humphrey's Peak - At the Top of Arizona
Humphrey's Peak, north of Flagstaff, Arizona
Humphrey trumps Harley
As far as I can tell, few people ever heard of a bucket list until that damn movie came along. But now? Me, and perfectly healthy people like me, are globetrotting around the planet like the grim reaper is waving a back-dated death certificate in our faces. No locale is too remote, no mountain is too high, and no political climate is too unstable to experience immediately, today, before it’s too late. We’ve been co-opted by a Hollywood-induced, mid-life crisis that even a Harley can’t cure.
Economy of scale dictates, and mine is necessarily limited to hiking boots and minimal tanks of gasoline, rather than boarding passes and a suite at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai. Were I to be diagnosed with some tragic disease and given just weeks to live, my travel budget still wouldn’t be any larger. My wife’s budget, though, would benefit handsomely from my demise, a fact that isn’t lost on her. “Why not try shark baiting. Or base jumping?” she suggests. “My treat.”
Good ideas, but I had already decided to join a group that planned to climb Humphrey’s Peak, one of the San Francisco Peaks in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness north of Flagstaff, Arizona. The mountain is volcanic in origin, snow-covered in inimitably picturesque fashion for much of the year. It rises to 12,633 feet, making it the tallest mountain in Arizona, and a visible landmark for hundreds of miles in all directions. The trail to the top is slightly less than five miles, but it gains 3300 heart-pounding feet of elevation along the way, roundly placing it in the strenuous category. Up-endicular is what my hiking partner Rocky would call it, and I planned to make it to the summit in less than three hours.
No locale is too remote, no mountain too high, no political climate too unstable. We’ve been co-opted by a Hollywood-induced, mid-life crisis that even a Harley can’t cure.
The hike starts at the beginning
I was an hour late to the trailhead on our chosen day in late August, so my first goal was catch up after the rest of the group who had had left at 8:30 a.m., giving them a firm one hour head start. The leader was 75 years old, a spry 75 at that, but still only 5 years from 80, so if he was dictating the pace, I had a fighting chance.
The hiker volume on this particular Saturday morning hiker was heavy, and ran the gamut of ages that tilted towards an older set, mainly small groups in their 30’s and 40’s who were out for an age-appropriate adventure, peppered with annoying 50-somethings like me who had something to prove. I like to dig my trekking poles into the trail surface on these uphill climbs and use my upper body to pass slower hikers, especially if they are noticeable younger than me. I rarely belittle their tortoise-like pace as I pass; instead I take the high road and simply demonstrate the level of ability they want to strive for by the time they reach my age.
3300 feet elevation change in 5 miles
The massive amount of foot traffic that this trail has to endure has eroded two to three inches of soil away from the roots that crisscross it, leaving a tangle of arching, rib-like impediments, all thin and bony. They are the forest’s version of varicose veins, polished a smooth pewter-color by the thousands of Vibram soles that preceded mine. The roots snagged my poles tips and threatened to turn my ankles, but weren’t much more than just inconvenient..
The first mile of the trail winds through thousands of dead and downed trees with sections sawn out of them where they had formerly blocked the trail. A high wind event or two was undoubtedly the culprit that sent many of these trees either crashing to the ground, or pushed them precariously against one of their standing neighbors. The aspens that were still standing, to which each of these roots were connected, were laden with old graffiti, mainly calloused-over, black and unreadable, the remnant of a pastime that can’t die fast enough.
The San Francisco Peaks are part of the The Kachina Peaks Wilderness, which includes Humphrey’s Peak, and they are the closest you’ll get to Colorado without leaving Arizona. The last saddle at the Weatherford Trail junction marks the tree line at about 11,500 feet, and the last mile to the summit continues through a large boulder field with bright flashes of alpine plants, dominated by the ubiquitous, yellow-flowering Alpine Avens, Acomastylis rossii, tucked neatly between many of the rocks.
By 9:30 a.m., I had caught up with the group—in almost exactly 60 minutes—but I wasn’t patient enough to stick with their relatively slow pace, so I pushed on and didn’t run into any of them again until after I’d eaten lunch at the summit about 1:45 p.m.
I rarely belittle the tortoise-like pace of other hikers as I pass; instead, I simply demonstrate the level of ability they want to strive for by the time they reach my age.
Not far up ahead, I slowed down for a 12-year-old kid who sat on a rock, partially blocking the trail, swinging his legs lazily while wearing what looked like his older brothers letters jacket. His 40-something, slightly pudgy dad paced impatiently nearby, clearly agitated. The scene defined itself: Here was dad, ready for a bonding adventure with his son, decked out in a newish-looking daypack, complete with cell phone, water bottle, vest, khaki pants and shirt. His pre-teenage son had already had enough and wanted no part of any more hiking. The snotty kid only begrudgingly moved his feet to let me by. I never heard any cussing or yelling, either as I approached them or passed them, but I was sure that ole dad was ready to let him have it at any moment.
Some walk, some run, a few fall down
As I approached the 11,400 foot level about 11:25, I had to move to the side to allow a series of young women with zero body fat to pass. Each was clothed in some variation of dark-colored spandex and each clutched a water bottle in one hand like they would a cocktail, and trotted steadily toward the saddle that marked the tree line. They ran ahead effortlessly, like deer, through the same boulder field and numerous false summits that I would soon face on the way to the 12,633 foot summit of Humphrey’s Peak.
This is a popular hike, particularly on this Saturday, and I passed hundreds of people on my way up and down. On a particularly steep section of loose rocks, a woman just a few steps in front of me slipped like she’d hit a sheet of ice. Her feet went up and she went down, hard, landing on her butt. Her husband helped her up from behind, and she came up smiling, saying only, “I hate these little slippery rocks. That’s going to leave a mark.” She looked to be in her mid-40’s and was a good sport about it, but then, what else could she do when she was still four miles away from the parking lot? She had plenty of time to feel it by tomorrow morning.
JUST THE FACTS
- Elevation change: 9,266 – 12,633 feet
- Trail: Humphrey’s Trail
- Length: 4.8 miles one way
- GPS info: 35°19'52.4"N 111°42'42.2"W
- Location: 14.5 miles northwest of Flagstaff on paved roads.
- Directions: From Flagstaff drive north on US 180 for 7 miles to FR 516, the Snowbowl Road. Drive 7.4 miles on this paved road to the lower parking lot of the Snowbowl facility. The trailhead is located at the north end of the parking lot
- USGS Map: Humphrey’s Peak Quad
- Scenes from the summit: Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Hopi Indian Reservation, Verde Valley, Oak Creek Canyon, Flagstaff.
I’ve heard many stories of the wind at the Humphrey’s Peak summit being so strong that hikers had to shout at each other to be heard. But today, when I finally reached the summit, the wind was completely calm, and everything was scary quiet. Several three-sided wind barriers have been constructed of dry-stacked rocks for protection, but the weather was in the 60s and perfect, and these windbreaks were totally unnecessary. I had been in tee shirt and shorts up to this point, and only pulled out my light wind shell because of the chill from the sweat on the back of my shirt that was exposed to the air when I took off my pack. I ate a half hour lunch at the tallest point in all of Arizona, lazily admired the 360 degree view and my accomplishment, then started down, passing several in my group who were now just arriving at the top.
I had one good fall myself, just above the saddle when I slipped on loose gravel on top of a boulder. I was saved from going down harder because my trekking poles inadvertently wedged between two rocks and softened the blow. With nothing to dig into, poles are often more trouble than they’re worth—but not this time.
Not far down from the summit, I caught up with a hiker who was trying to negotiate a dicey downhill scramble through a boulder field while holding a zip lock bag full of trail mix out at arm’s length for balance, looking like a one-armed tight rope walker. I offered to put the bag of trail mix into her daypack so that she could have another free hand, and when she agreed, I noticed that she had a thick African accent. By her age, I assumed she was a visiting student, perhaps staying with a sponsoring family in the States. She handed me her trail mix, and when I opened up one of the zippered pockets of her pack, I saw her wallet and passport tucked neatly inside. Had I a mind for criminal mayhem, I could have easily lifted her wallet. I could have stolen her trail mix, too, but, out of respect for the great African nation from which she came, I did neither.
On this day, my round trip was seven hours in length, and after hiking across the broad meadow that led to the parking lot, I realized that I had barely spoken a dozen words to any of my intended hiking companions. Their agenda was different than mine, and so I drove home, completely satisfied with my accomplishment, though a little disappointed that I let my late-onset machismo force me into a self-aggrandizing and ultimately solo experience. Whether they crossed this hike off their personal bucket list is anyone's guess. I only know that it's no longer on mine.