Dec 28 - Vulture Peak hike

GENERAL INFORMATION: (from BLM website) Vulture Peak Trail, seven miles south of Wickenburg, Arizona, is a short but steep trail that takes hikers from the base of Vulture Peak (2,480 feet) to a saddle (3,420 feet) just below the summit in only two miles. From this point, experienced hikers can scramble up an extremely steep and narrow chute to the summit of Vulture Peak itself (3,660 feet). The final ascent is not maintained and should be attempted only by experienced and well-conditioned hikers. Vulture Peak Trail meanders through classic Sonoran Desert landscapes, including dense stands of saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, and other cactus varieties; crosses wide desert washes; and offers dramatic scenic vistas of rugged desert mountain ranges and valleys in all directions.

Congress, AZ
Sun rises in these parts at this time of year about 7:30am. I wanted to be rolling by 10am. A little math here reveals the habits of a slow-starting couple who have grown to really savor mornings with no serious plans or commitments. For me, I use that time to mostly read, sip coffee, and nibble. Whether it’s internet news and commentary, one of the few remaining blogs I still read, or the current book I’m reading… I love those quiet a.m. hours.

Today we decided to hike the Vulture Peak trail. And our objective was only the saddle (see description above) as we need to remind our bodies and minds what hiking is all about again. Recent sedentary habits must be reversed; muscles conditioned and strengthened; and minds re-educated about the joys of getting out and doing physical things.

Even getting to the saddle requires some effort as it’s almost 1000 feet of elevation gain between the trailhead and the objective. The steeper and more challenging climb from the saddle to the top is only 240 feet more in elevation... it looked pretty much straight up. But we decided to go easy and since we’re so close we can always do the summit on a subsequent hike.

Heading south on AZ-89 at 10:15am. The drive to the trailhead can’t be more than 15 or 20 minutes. There are two trailheads for the Vulture Peak trail… the first, suitable for almost any vehicle, is only 4 tenths of a mile off Vulture Mine Road, about 7 miles south of Wickenburg. The second is a little more than a mile further, beyond the first, and is posted as a “4 wheel drive, high clearance only” trail. Since our truck is 4 wheel drive and a quick check below revealed relatively high clearance, I wanted to try getting to the second trailhead… mostly just to do it.

After only a few hundred feet beyond the first trailhead the 4wd trail drops down into a large wash. I stopped at the top of this decline, got out and walked the way ahead to see what we were getting into.

Whether it was the rains of this past wet spell or whatever, the trail was severely washed out. And there was another feature a few feet beyond the washed out portion that would certainly high-center the truck. There was really no decision to make. This was a no-go.

click on image for larger size

I do believe a lighter and much shorter wheelbase vehicle would probably make it by judiciously seeking a best-path and slowly easing around obstacles. Our truck, which actually weighs less than 5 tons (about as much as a modest three bedroom house) and has a 152 inch wheelbase, isn’t in the same category as a Jeep or Razor-type desert-buggy. Being more in the mood for a good hike today instead of retrieving a busted truck from a desert washout anyway, we judiciously returned to the first trailhead and started our hike from there. We needed the walk anyway. Interestingly, during our time in the area I saw only one vehicle traverse that portion of trail that spooked us… and it was a Razor desert-buggy. And there was one Jeep that also declined to give it a go. We never saw even one vehicle in the second 4wd trailhead parking area during our 4 or 5 hours there.

The first two-thirds of the hike to the saddle varies from a little uphill to a lot uphill. Once beyond the second 4wd trailhead there are a dozen or more switchbacks and the trail eventually becomes more about gaining elevation than linear distance. Recommend a very good pair of hiking shoes with aggressive soles that can tackle loose rocks and schluf… and keeping your hands free as you’ll need them to assist in climbing. Dar uses a hiking (or trekking) pole and swears by it. She’s pole-ish. I’ve never gotten into the pole thing. I don’t know why… they just don’t feel right to me.

After 2 hours we found ourselves up on the saddle of the mountain and took a break to absorb and enjoy the views of both the east and west sides of the surrounding valley. Since we were climbing up the west side, those views were old-hat by the time we got to the saddle, but the views of the east side were new… at least from this elevation.

A good number of folks continue on up a much steeper “hand and foot” scramble/climb up an unimproved trail to the top of Vulture Peak. Since we’d already climbed about 1000 feet in elevation, another 240 feet was tempting… and Dar, the energizer bunny on this day, almost convinced me to go. But alas, considering our fatigue from the climb the old man held to our agreement that the saddle was the objective today. We will be back in the next few weeks to make an assault of the summit.

What a great day.

Click here for even more photos from our hike up Vulture Peak.

Not what you'd call an easy walk in the desert.

The trail gets steep and rough.

Composite image looking southeast from the saddle.

Vulture Peak in the background... and Dar.

Teddy Bear Cholla look cute and cuddly... but will reach out and grab you...
and won't let go easily.

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