a classic southern Arizona hike up the Hunter Trail and down the Sunset Vista Trail via the cables on Picacho Peak
Picacho Peak Trail Guide
MAP: paper map available at the Visitor Center
PERMITS: park entrance fee is $7 per vehicle, $3 on foot or bicycle
HOURS OF OPERATION: park gates are open from 5am through 10pm
DESIGNATION: Picacho Peak State Park (Arizona)
BEST SEASONS: spring, fall, and winter, but avoid crowds in March
DISTANCE: varies from 3 to 7 miles (see below)
ELEVATION: Hunter Trail gains 1,370ft to summit (3,374ft)
ACCESS: paved roads
DIRECTIONS: Take exit 219 from interstate I-10, and travel about one mile west on Picacho Peak Rd to the park entrance. The main trailhead for the Hunter Trail is on the Barret Loop, but immediate parking is limited.
ROUTE: well maintained, signed junctions – steep trail involves the use of cables for handholds, similar to Angels Landing in Zion National Park.
GUIDEBOOK: Best Easy Day Hikes Tucson
Picacho Peak is one of the most well-known mountains in southern Arizona, due to its prominence along Interstate I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson.
The word “Picacho” simply means “peak” in Spanish, so the name has a silly redundancy. This oddity reminds me of Bill Williams Mountain in northern Arizona (William Williams?).
The mountain is the centerpiece of Picacho Peak State Park, otherwise known for its campgrounds and wildflower blooms in March and April.
Dogs are allowed on the park’s trails, but I’d strongly advise against bringing a dog up the cabled sections near the peak.
An interpretive sign on the Hunter Trail reads as follows:
Picacho Peak has been a navigational landmark throughout history. It helped direct early explorers such as Father Kino and Juan Bautista de Anza.
In 1932, a 40ft light beacon was installed at the top of the peak for air traffic navigation. Hunter Trail on the south side of the peak was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps to facilitate servicing the beacon which was dismantled in 1965.
When Picacho Peak was dedicated as a state park in 1968, the second phase of Hunter Trail was built beginning on the north side – crossing the saddle, and connecting with the first phase.
Here’s a couple of the maps that show the trails in Picacho Peak State Park. The first map shows the entirety of the park, whereas the second one shows a closeup of the Hunter Trail that leads to the top of the peak. You can right-click on these images to view larger versions or download them.
The Hike – 3 Ways to Do It
There are two different trails that lead to the top of Picacho Peak. Both of them ultimately involve the use of cables and catwalks to get through sections that are steep and/or have significant exposure.
This is not a good hike for those with a fear of heights!
As you can see in the maps above, the classic approach via the Hunter Trail is the shortest and simplest. You may get the impression that the Sunset Vista Trail could be more gradual, but it’s just a longer approach that gets equally steep toward the end. The Sunset Vista Trail also had less shade in the morning.
1) Hunter Trail – 3.2 miles round trip
The most efficient way to get to the top of Picacho Peak and back is through doing a round trip on the Hunter Trail. The most direct approach is via the trailhead on the Barret Loop Road. Slightly longer approaches via the Nature Trail are possible, adding about a half or full mile to your day.
2) Sunset Vista Trail – 5.2 miles round trip
The Sunset Vista Trail begins at the west end of the park road, contouring along the south side of Picacho Peak until it climbs and joins the Hunter Trail near the summit. This south-facing trail has more direct sunlight and offers a lengthier meander through the desert landscape than the Hunter Trail.
3) Use the Park Road Trail to complete a loop.
Finally, the 3rd option for the hike is to do both the Hunter and Sunset Vista trails, using the Park Road Trail to close the loop. The total distance for this day is slightly less than 7 miles. The path along the park road is surprisingly pleasant, especially when wildflowers are in bloom in the spring.
You can cut some mileage by spotting a second vehicle at one of the trailheads.
The park is home to popular campground that often fills in March and April. Despite the otherwise empty desert scenery, interstate noise abounds. Overall, this seems to be more of an RV hotspot than a car camper’s destination.
More information, including pricing and making reservations, is found here.
Falls & Deaths
Online research reveals 4 deaths along the hiking trails in Picacho Peak State Park during this century, and none of these incidents were the result of falling from cliffs! Rather, all of the incidents involved high temperatures causing heat exhaustion and stroke.
Most tragic was the recent (April 2019) death of 16-year old boy scout Joshua Michael White. His autopsy revealed that he died from “dehydration and hyperthermia.”
In May of 2015, a 29 year-old woman from Texas died on the Sunset Vista Trail. She was a native of Texas vacationing with her fiance. Her death appeared to be heat-related, though no further details seem to be available.
Back in 2002, this article reveals a cursory story about a young couple (aged 26 and 30) who both died on a hike together of heat-related issues.
Civil War Battle
One of Picacho’s claims to fame is the Civil War “battle” in the area that marks the westernmost engagement of the war.
In the grand scheme of things, this was a mere skirmish that pitted 13 Union cavalrymen against 10 Confederate cavalry, resulting in about 8 casualties (3 killed, 5 injured).
Union Lieutenant James Barret was patrolling the area. Reportedly he was under orders not to engage any Confederate troops, but chose do so anyway.
The State Park holds a re-enactment each year in late March. It has grown so popular that the re-enactment often involves more “soldiers” than were actually engaged in the battle.
My Trip Review and Additional Photos
I stayed at the campground here with Haley and my friend William in the spring of 2019, after our trip on the Arizona Trail. We stayed for 2 nights, and Will and I hiked a full loop up the Hunter Trail and down Sunset Vista.
The wildflowers were in full bloom. A view from the summit of the distant, orange glow of countless globemallow is especially memorable. I was in a black-and-white phase with my photography at the time and unfortunately lost my color picture files of the trip.