LOOKING LIKE A giant multi-colored snake winding up the mountain, the surge of humanity stumbling up Picacho Peak amazes me.
I gaze upon it for minutes, entranced. Dozens and dozens of people are all on the slope at once, their bright clothes marking the exact plot of the trail. The crowd looks like an immense Chinese New Year dragon dancing up the 3,400-foot mountain. I feel as though we've stumbled onto some earthy shrine visited by thousands of adherents paying homage.
Though the line continues moving, the procession maintains a constant mass, continually replenished by a steady supply of new pilgrims pulling off Interstate 10.
Usually I loathe crowds, but I've never climbed Picacho. It's the most fetching landmark between here and the megalopolis to the north. The peak always beckons on the long dull drive. Today I'm one of 2,734 people who answer that call and enter, according to official State Park department statistics.
For some reason the crowd doesn't bug me. Being next to the freeway between two huge cities, the peak never had any hope of solitude, so there is no reason to lament its absence.
And what a peculiarly American pilgrimage it is descending on this place. Fleets of immense RVs roll by, their drivers festooned in penny loafers and plaid pants. Motorcycle tribes and mini-vans cruise up to the guard gate while somebody lights up a barbecue. Dogs bound out of cars and little kids crop up all over. It is as if Daytona Beach met Disneyland and the cast of Cocoon.
Above it all towers the lofty basalt peak.
We pay our $3 and enter the park.
Picacho translates to "peak" in Spanish. In other words the park is named peak peak park, in the same way the Rillito River means little river river.
According to Byrd Howell Granger's Arizona's Names, the place was occasionally called the Great Pocatcho. Great Pocatcho State Park--now that would have been vastly more catchy.
While the park is known for its fields of Mexican Goldpoppies, those flowers are in short supply at Picacho this year. There are, however, wonderful clumps of blue lupines and excellent specimens of globemallow.
"There is more variety of wildflowers this year than in previous years," says Tamara Westberg, an assistant park manager.
There are two ways to hike up the peak. You can take the 2.2-mile Hunter Trail or the 3.1-mile Sunset Trail (double those distances if you plan on coming back, by the way). The Hunter Trail is steeper, but more direct. The Sunset Trail wraps around behind the mountain and sees less traffic. The Sunset Trail reconnects with the Hunter Trail right before the steepest and most challenging final leg of the climb.
We opt for the Hunter Trail, as do most people.
The Hunter Trail climbs steeply, just about from the get-go. The faithful have beaten the path before us, making it easy to follow; though some of the flock have strayed from the path of righteousness by bushwhacking across switchbacks. The ensuing erosion has created multiple routes in some spots. Whenever apparent, we try to take the official path.
While most visitors hover around the parking area and campground, quite a few climb up toward the peak. Many of these people shouldn't step out of their cars, much less climb a mountain.
"A lot of people are improperly prepared," says Westberg. "You need proper footwear."
Many of the injuries suffered by visitors come from twisted ankles and the like, says Westberg.
People encase their feet in all sorts of impractical footwear. We see slippers, cowboy boots, sandals and, of course, sneakers.
The trail is well worn, but rocky. The best piece of equipment to have is a good pair of hiking boots. We pass some guy with a broken ankle about to be carried out by Pinal County Search and Rescue. Naturally, he was wearing sneakers.
Sufficient water is also critical. Westberg says this is the time of year when they start extracting folks suffering dehydration and heat stroke.
We see two clowns we dub the "shirtless boys" sharing one liter of water and a good sunburn between the two of them. They fail to make it to the top.
Picacho is a steep, narrow peak with a lower ridge running north from its base. When you reach the top of the ridge prepare for disappointment. You have to go back downhill along a surprisingly steep trail. Steps have been placed into the slope in some places, but don't let that lull you into a false sense of comfort. While only a measly 4.4 mile round trip, this is a pretty tough hike.
In some places it's a fusion of hiking and rock climbing. If you don't like scaling over rocks, the climb to the top might not be for you. It's definitely not a good hike for dogs.
Beyond a certain athletic strength however, little skill is involved. The park staff have installed cables for you to grip on your way up, and that takes the guess work out of the harder sections. Along with good boots and water, a pair of gloves might be handy. The cables don't provide the greatest traction and can be rough on the hands. Abundant natural rock hand and foot holds are another alternative.
When you finally reach the top, the view is reward for your efforts. You can see north to Casa Grande, south to Tucson and east to the Pinaleno Mountains. The view is so nice it's worth hiking among the masses.
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