Hidden in plain sight (for millions of years)
I am Picacho Peak. Although there are seven other ‘picacho’ mentioned in this area, the Anza Expedition first recorded me as a prominent landmark in 1774. Picacho is Spanish for ‘big peak’ so picacho can describe any mountain.
My recorded history places me at 22 million years old, four times older than the Grand Canyon located less than 200 miles away. I continue to be a landmark for travelers seeking water and shelter during their journey in Arizona’s dry Sonoran Desert. For many years, people thought I was a ‘neck’ or molten core of a volcano. Although there are many volcano necks in this area of Arizona, I am not one of them. My soil composition is metamorphic core complex (MCC), an underground magma flow that never reached the surface.
MCC is a term used to describe land stretching. A way to describe the process is to think about breaking a caramel-filled candy bar in half. “The chocolate breaks but the caramel inside stretches and deforms,” Many displaced fault breaks result in my sharp, distinct peak.
My elevation of 3,374 feet is the highest landmark directly off Interstate I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson, the two largest cities in Southern Arizona. In 1932, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) attacked me with picks and steel rods as they doggedly fought their way to my highest tip. There, they sank steel rods to anchor a forty-foot tower. It housed a 500-watt beacon light. I was now part of a vast, Coast to coast mountain-top lighthouse road map, for airplane pilots flying at night.
Today hikers continue to use climbing aids constructed in 1932. ‘Ferrata,’ Italian for the iron road, and ‘Kletterstig,’ German for climbing path consist of cables, catwalks, handrails, and ladders. Such aids help nervous hikers overcome the steepest parts of the dangerous route without a little risk and the need for additional climbing equipment. Despite the difficult work performed in 1932, the lighthouse beacon was dismantled in 1965. Some steel rods still stick out from my sides.
I squatted on the desert floor for centuries. Over time, thousands have visited me. The Hohokam people lived at my feet for several hundred years. Raiding parties of Apache and Yavapai lived and fought in this area. The Anza Expedition passed by in the 1700’s followed a century later by the Mormon Battalion created the wagon road through Picacho Pass. It allowed the forty-niners to use this road on their way to California.
My most celebrated human event occurred on April 15, 1862. It was the only Civil War fought in Arizona between 13 Union cavalry and a band of 10 Confederate Rangers under Captain Sherod Hunter from Tucson, Arizona. Declared a Confederate victory, in March each year more than 200 re-enactors from many states wear their authentic Civil War gear and camp on me. I also dress up as nature provides a spring tapestry of color. The wildflowers are predominantly Mexican Gold Poppies around my base.
Small networks of hiking trails scar me. The Hunter Trail, in honor of Captain Hunter, is very popular. It is known as “a four-mile-round-trip butt-kicker.” I may be old, but I still present a challenge. A hiker wrote, “…we had to hang onto a cable and walk across an old make-shift-bridge while doing so to keep from falling down the cliffs. In other areas, you had to hold on to the cable and climb straight up the rock.”
Individuals and organized groups climb all over me. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed watching groups of Boy Scouts with their enthusiasm; confident they would reach my highest point and earn their Hiking Merit Badge. Geocaches have been cleverly placed for treasure hunters. This high-tech treasure hunting game, played by adventure seekers, equipped with GPS devices. My lower ground levels have always been available for camping from a blanket on the ground to today’s rolling palaces.
People of all ages test themselves on me. Some people turn back after reaching and resting, at my famous ‘saddle’ landmark. It is only 2,960- feet high, but for many people the hike is more than they bargained. Others return year after year.
Two men were talking. I overheard one man introduce himself as ‘Gary,’ He said, “About five years after my heart attack I decided to make the hike in March each year to celebrate my return to health. My annual hike has coincided with the Civil War re-enactment twice in those ten years.” He continued, “Before my heart attack, I weighed 210 pounds and never felt like hiking. After getting my body cleaned out (weight 158), I had more energy and needed a place to spend it.” His wife, Bonnie, is always with him on this annual pilgrimage. A difficult hike, and each year she indicates it is her last. The next year she is there, with him.
The key to a successful hike on me is doing it when the temperature is below eighty degrees. Hikers don’t try me when it gets hot. I am composed of dozens of awkward angles thus slips and falls occur. Although skinned hands and knees do happen, a foot injury is the most common. Proper hiking shoes or boots and gloves are standard. Even more important is plenty of water. Savvy hikers agree. Take twice the amount of water as you think you need.
Most people recognize my profile from a distance. Gary videotaped the entire hike. The video captured his labored breathing as he climbed me. Unlike viewing me from a passing vehicle on I-10, the video revealed me in vivid detail. I am composed of large chunks of andesite, a dark gray volcanic rock. Hikers stumble over my faulted lava flow, now eroded into smaller rock pieces, crumbling stones, pebbles and fine dust. Those who make it to my summit are rewarded by the same view I experience during daylight hours. My view is also exceptional at night, but I am closed to the public. It is not safe for people to be on me during darkness. In 1968, I became part of the Picacho Peak State Park system.
Fourteen-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqVbRoi3Rus&feature=youtu.be