8 out of 10
8 out of 10
Since taking up hiking, my friends and family have asked me: ‘What are the most challenging hikes in the Phoenix area?’ My generic answer is generally the Camelback Mountain hike because it’s, of course, tough for anyone. Plus, everyone in the Phoenix area is familiar with Camelback Mountain.
I also give mild consideration to Piestewa Peak via Summit Trail since it’s nearly as familiar to the locals. I can confidently say it’s absolutely worthy of being on the list.
However, if you’re willing to tolerate a 45-minute drive south of the Phoenix area to Eloy, the Picacho Peak hike is arguably one of the most challenging hiking trails in the state.
I’ve hiked Picacho Peak three times now. The first attempt was in April of 2022, on a day with very strong winds. Unfortunately, my cell phone died that day, and it came right after an 8-plus mile hike to Wasson Peak. By the time I reached the summit of Picacho Peak, my legs were already screaming from the earlier hike.
This winter, after having raved about this hike to my family for nearly a year, we drove south of the Greater Phoenix area to the Picacho Peak hike. The weather on that day was amazing, with gusty winds but perfect temperature and cloud cover for us.
When I first tried the Picacho Peak hike, I didn’t know much about it. I purposely didn’t read any reviews. I was aware that it was a tough hike and that the steel cables were a big part of it, but I didn’t realize how hard it would be or how much I would need the rails in the second half of the hike.
I hope this guide inspires you to try out the Hunter Trail. If you decide to take on this hike, it’s essential to wear appropriate shoes, bring enough water, and be capable of pulling your body weight while holding onto a cable.
This hike includes spots where you need to use cables to help you climb while making sure your footing is secure. If you’re ready for the challenge, the Hunter Trail could become one of your favorite paths to hike every year.
Entrance into the Picacho Peak State Park
Unlike many hikes around Phoenix, the mountain and its peak are easily visible from the road. The stunning beauty of this mountain can be admired from miles away in both directions on I-10.
Embarking on the Hunter Trail towards Picacho Peak requires you to enter the Picacho Peak State Park. Access to the park comes with a $7 fee for vehicles. However, if you’re on foot or cycling, the entrance fee is reduced to $3.
It’s worth noting that during great weather months, you should arrive as early as you can. I’ve been to the Picacho Peak State Park on busy days and non-busy days. On a busy day, it could take over 30 minutes to get into the park. Plan accordingly.
The Arizona State Parks & Trails group recently upgraded their software & product offerings, allowing for the purchase of a Picacho Pass, (you can find those here). Ask one of the park rangers for more information when you’re met at the gate. They are phenomenal.
The park is open year round and is open from 5a to 10p (which is when the gates will close). The trails, however, are only open from sunrise to sunset, which is common for most Arizona state managed trails.
Finding the Trailhead
Once you make your way into the park, follow the guide around to the Hunter Trail trailhead. As you drive around you’ll pass the restroom area, several covered sitting areas (with picnic tables and fire rings), and likely several other hikers.
This park offers restrooms and showers, but it’s important to check with the park rangers to verify if the showers are open, as they are not located with the restrooms. Check the Facility Information page to verify their status. Sometimes the showers are closed during water shortages.
Children’s Cave – Mini Hike
As you drive around to the trailhead, you’ll see the restroom area on the right side of the parking lot and a few picnic areas on the left side of the parking lot. Right next to the restroom we found a great hike for our kiddos.
This trail has a few signs that give great details on a few different types of animals you might see in the wild. The payoff of the trail is a great photo spot for you and your kids. A super small cave, just small enough for a couple of people. On a hot day, this is a great place to catch some shade.
Beginning the Hike to Picacho Peak
After you’ve conquered the Children’s Cave mini-hike, you’ll surely have the confidence to tackle the remaining 3.2 miles to reach the summit of Picacho Peak (out & back).
The trail head, from the Children’s Cave hike, is about 3/10 of a mile straight down the service road. Depending on when you arrive, you’ll likely see cars parked around the shoulder of the service road. The trailhead sign is large. You won’t be able to miss it.
The Picacho Peak hike
The Picacho Peak hike can mentally be divided into two halves. The first section of the hike takes you to the saddle and the second half of the hike takes you to the summit.
The first half of the hike is absolutely the easier part, though it’s not “easy,” and is just under a mile long. You can see the majority of this portion of the trail from the trail head.
The first section of the hike gets tiring quickly. I was at a heart rate of 170+ within the first 4 minutes. The incline is relentless until you get to the wall of the mountain.
As the incline gets steeper, it also gets slightly slippery, by way of loose gravel. Some of these sections actually have cable rails to hold onto. Whether you’re using the cable railing for better grip or to give your legs a break, they are a much appreciated component of this hike.
Just beyond the half-mile mark, you’ll find the wall of the mountain. This portion of the Picacho Peak hike offers a gorgeous walk against the side of the mountain that (in the afternoon) offers some great shade. You can rest here if you’re tired, but be careful, I’ve seen centipedes on this portion of the trail.
Along the mountain wall is where the trail starts to level out. The elevation at this point is around 2,650 feet. Once you work your way away from the wall, there’s one last segment of switchbacks to power through.
The Summit of the Picacho Peak Hike
The last push to the summit starts at the three-quarters of a mile mark. There are a few steep steps here, but this is a great spot to enjoy the shade and avoid winds.
Down and up to the summit
As you reach the summit you’ll see the welcoming site of a bench and a “Did You Know…” sign. This bench signifies another great spot to rest. The sign tells the story of how the Picacho Peak was founded and how the trail to the peak was designed.
There’s also a cool story about how regional travelers would use Picacho Peak as a directional landmark, which involved placing a 40-foot light beacon at the top of the peak.
Also at the summit, you’ll experience swirling winds. The winds have been heavy each time that I’ve completed this hike.
As you turn the corner, with the trail, you’ll notice that the trail actually declines – and is pretty steep. There is a railing that you can hold onto as you make your way down the climb. You’ll spend a lot of intimate time with this railing for the remainder of the descent.
The terrain is rocky for this part of the hike, but there isn’t much loose gravel. You’ll still need good shoes, though, because your feet will be pushing off the rock as you push and pull yourself up & down.
This downward portion of the trail is against the west side of the mountain and provides tremendous views. The journey back up this route will warrant some rest, so you’ll be able to take in the views on your way back to the trailhead.
The downward portion of the hike takes you to the 1.05 mile mark of the trail (the summit was at the .9 mile mark). Going down is much easier than hiking back up, but be very careful with foot placement.
It’s also important to follow the trail carefully in this section. Near the bottom of this section I went left when I should have gone right. You’ll see a steep drop down a rock that is not meant to be climbed down.
The rest of the Picacho Peak hike is back uphill. At the 1.25 mile mark you’ll see a giant Saguaro cactus, turn the corner left, which is where the fun part begins.
There are several cable rails that continue almost all the way to the peak. After you climb the first tough railing system, you’re introduced to a beautiful section of Saguaro cacti.
Continue around the wall of this side of the mountain to the “cable ladder.” This section is straight up and can be dangerous if you’re not very careful. Hold onto the rails, make sure each foot is secure before you take the next and be as confident as you can.
Upon reaching the top of the ladder, you’ll find even more beautiful views. You’ll see the top of the other side of the mountain, which you’re happy to venture over to. To date, I’ve not hiked to the other side – which is slightly lower in elevation than Picacho Peak.
Once you’ve made it up the ladder, the Picacho Peak hike is much more similar to the first half of the hike. The terrain becomes the slick gravel all the way to the top. My Apple Ultra Watch calculated my hike to the peak to be exactly 1.75m. There were a couple of times where I found myself off trail, so I believe this is pretty accurate.
One of the best parts about hiking is meeting people on the mountain. I ran into a super nice couple on the peak that gave me a Trolli’s neon worm. I am certain that was the best sour worm I’ve ever eaten. Thanks, friends!
Having hiked Picacho Peak a few times within the last year, I didn’t hang around the summit for too long. It took me 75 minutes to get from the trailhead to the peak and just under an hour to get back to the trailhead.
I don’t typically write too much about the hike back to the trailhead, especially on out and backs, because it’s obviously the same path. But this Picacho Peak hike is different, because it feels like a tremendously different hike going back. I like to joke that you have to climb this mountain twice.
It is important to mention, though, that when you make it back to the section that you climbed down initially, that it will seem daunting. You’re already exhausted and now you have to climb a pretty difficult section with more railing.
The technical component of having to climb using the steel cable rails makes this hike very enjoyable for me. I think the climbing on this hike creates a uniqueness that makes it much different than Piestewa or Camelback.
Go Hike AZ!