Trailhead Elevation: 9,294 ft.
Summit Elevation: 12,635 ft.
Distance: 9.52 mi.
Elevation Gain: 3,656 ft.
Start Time: 6:57am
Summit Time: 10:10am (13 minutes on top)
End Time: 12:52pm
For my brother David and I we were looking for a good hike to spend our third full day on after having spent the first two hiking Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon. Its not like us to have a vacation and allow a full day to slip by without making the most of it on some trail somewhere. We've also come to learn that mountain and alpine environments are definitely our strong suit and personal preference and so after two days in the desert heat of the Grand Canyon going up in elevation seemed preferable as our best option. So with that in mind we took a look at the maps of the area and sought out the tallest peak we could find and in Arizona, that is Humphreys. We're not "State High-pointers" in the sense of those who are checking off the list, but we are mountain climbers and for that Humphreys was great. We're even wondering after having done South-to-North and North-to-South in the Grand Canyon, with the high point Humphreys in addition, if this could be considered some type of "Arizona Triple Crown" for epic hikes in the state.
Accessing Humphreys is a piece of cake. We followed US180 from just south of the Grand Canyon and took that all the way to the Arizona Snowbowl road which accesses the ski area. That road is nicely paved and a typically good mountain highway and we followed it to near its top and pulled into the first parking lot on the left, I believe it is Lot 8, and there is the well marked trailhead. The initial trail is a wide dirt trail that cuts across a grassy portion of the lower snow slopes. Its actually a pretty view to start with. The weather outlook for today was great with only a 10% chance of precip starting around 11am. I wore my long-sleeve capilene shirt with zip-off pants, my white running cap, and my Speedcross 3 trail-runners. This all worked out well for the day and didn't have to change anything.
Its not long and the trail enters the trees. This begins a series of four nearly even-sized switchbacks that gracefully make their way up the western slope of Humphreys. The grade of the trail was very consistent throughout almost all of the first half of the hike allowing you to work into a pretty good hiking groove. I found from the start I was a little slower than usual today. I wasn't sure how the legs were going to go after the challenging finish on the Bright Angel trail yesterday. In fact, I had allowed myself to prepare mentally over the night to tell David to go on without me if the legs wouldn't have it today. I did have continued soreness in my calves and a general fatigue and tightness in much of both my legs, but they would still go. David moved much quicker and better than I especially at first today.
When the first big switchback comes to its completion heading southeast you run into the Wilderness Register where we signed in and found there were 8 individuals who had signed in ahead of us. We hoped this meant the trail wouldn't be a crowded anthill today. We passed one of the couples very early and had a nice conversation. They had tried and failed 3 times on this hike. Once because of snow and twice because of getting lost. We did observe if one was poorly paying attention at the switchback ends, particularly on the south end, it was possible to miss them and end up in the ski area.
The switchbacks went by without much change in trail except for a drainage gully that was at the middle of the slope and we seemed to pass through it on every leg of the switchbacks. The only major hurdles early on were a number of downed trees blocking the trail. As we trekked southeast on the second leg of the second switchback we began to encounter some snow patches on the trail. They all had plenty of steps through them and their passage wasn't dangerous or exposed. With trekking poles in hand we made our way through.
The third long switchback had even more snow and by the time we hit the fourth, much smaller switchback, it was almost entirely snow-covered. These snow patches while safely passable did really slow down our hiking speed adding to the time we had predicted this would take us. On the plus side, at least our feet weren't getting wet despite all of the snow, and a lot of the dust our trail-runners had accumulated in the Grand Canyon was getting brushed off. The fourth switchback ends at a ridge and there the trail broke eastward with a nice mostly flat straight away that aimed at a saddle at the far south ridge of Humphreys. To gain that saddle there were a handful of short switchbacks. We missed the left turn into the first of these as it was somewhat obscured by a snowpatch and we got misled by dirt tracks heading upwards, but off trail. When the growing sense that we were now bushwhacking took over I checked the GPS and confirmed we were off trail. I could see on the map the trail was above us so we took a safe line upward to regain the trail. We followed the remaining few short switchbacks and then followed the trail up to a snow free saddle.
There was a trail junction sign at the saddle with another trail heading off to the southeast as another approach to Humphreys. We headed northwest to follow the ridge on towards the summit. There was signage up here warning hikers to absolutely stay on trail as there was a protected groundsel plant only found here in the San Francisco Peaks. The ridge trail hugged the west side of the ridge below the crest. It was mostly easy to follow. Instead of rock cairns there were tall white posts of deadwood. We didn't hit treeline til about 11,900 feet. There was one steep section of gain with a modest amount of near class 2 scrambling. I would liken it to the summit approach to Bierstadt in Colorado. In fact, up to this point we found much of the Humphreys hike to be comparable to the easier of the Colorado 14ers, just 1500 feet lower in elevation. In terms of distance and gain the numbers on this hike are similar to Quandary Peak.
After gaining a notable false summit we could see the true summit now not too far off. In this area we met two solo hikers coming down from the summit. One of them said he was speed ascending and would be off to New Mexico to hit Wheeler Peak, another state high point. We were curious the way he described things if he were somehow doing a speed ascent of all high points. This last section of the approach mellowed out as well and there was little elevation left to gain. We made the summit of Humphreys and the top of Arizona at 10:10am after just over 3 hours of hiking. The temps most of the way up to this point had been in the 50's. Increased winds on the summit, which grew stronger as we remained, pushed temps into the upper 40s with feels threatening to go lower. We had the summit to ourselves for the first few minutes until another group of 3 joined us. We all took pictures for one another. We had heard you could see the Grand Canyon to the northwest on a clear day, but this was not such a day. The "Boundary Fire" was just starting up to the northwest of Humphreys and another small fire was going to the southwest of the Grand Canyon leaving enough haze in the sky that we couldn't make out the Great Ditch.
We tried to make connections on the phone with loved ones back home but the signal was surprising weak. Some of the other peaks in the San Francisco's were slightly blocking our view of Flagstaff. We would find later a few openings on the descent that gave us improved signal. We spent about 15 minutes up top and then the winds and growing cold drove us off. We never did break out the gore-tex jackets or even gloves, but a longer stay would likely have made those necessary.
I was curious how my beaten up legs and sore feet would handle the descent and so again I hoped to rely on the trekking poles. The early descent would be slow either way as we had to navigate the rocks above treeline. For the most part this went well. When we regained the saddle and treeline we knew it was mostly trail and snow the rest of the way. My legs had loosened up enough by this point that I was able to move fairly well. Probably not near 100% but well enough.
As we descended we ran into more and more groups, most of which were still heading upwards towards the summit. As we progressed on the way down it was nice to be able to break it down into the 4 larger switchbacks and measure progress by their passage. As we've learned on many hikes, the way out usually has a death march feel to it, but breaking it mentally into smaller recognizable pieces helps. As we got past the last of the snow patches on the second big switchback we cranked the pace a bit and really moved. I was giving it my all to keep up with David who still seemed pretty fresh. I think on a regular fully rested day without snow he and I could really fly up and down this trail. In the last two miles we passed a junior Air Force ROTC group of 10 or so that had already turned around on trail and was descending.
It was 12:52pm when we finally regained the car. Temps had risen into the mid 70's at this point and we could tell the increased warmth. Its funny, at high elevations, the sun always has a warmer feel to it and I could tell it was trying to bake my neck and warm me up. We were just shy of 2 1/2 hours on the descent having shaved 30-40 minutes off the ascent time. With a Humphreys hike in such close proximity to the Grand Canyon hikes David and I both confessed that we really enjoy the alpine more. To be sure, the views in the Grand Canyon are hard to match, but at heart we are high mountain types of guys. Who knows, we may have to set our sights now on more of the taller state high points. We know Whitney is high on the list and maybe even a go at Mt. Rainier someday. For now, we're happy with our Arizona accomplishments and look forward to a summer return to home in Colorado.