Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hiking Humphrey's Peak--the Highest Point in Arizona

If you've ever wanted to hike Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona, I'd say, "Go for it!"  But plan ahead.

Me at the saddle
I did it for the first time in the middle of October this year, while the aspen were putting on quite a show.

Aspen grove near the trailhead--later in the afternoon
I've heard that the best months are June (snow gone/mostly gone, not yet monsoon season) and October (monsoons over, leaves turning, not yet too cold). 

I agree about October.  I really, really enjoyed my time.  It was quite chilly in the morning.  The coldest part was when the winds really picked up coming down from the peak.  Temps were barely above freezing and the wind was fierce enough that it made my nose and my lips on the windward side go numb for a few minutes.  I was very glad I'd packed some winter wear.  I dawdled and geo-cached and enjoyed myself on the way down, and by the time I got to the gorgeous aspen groves near the trailhead, it was a very pleasant temperature:  a bit chilly, but with nice warming sun.  I much prefer hiking while chilly to hiking while hot.  And you definitely lose less water.

Next time, I'll have to try June and compare.

I also went on a Monday, to try to reduce crowds.  Though the aspen groves near the trailhead were full of leaf gawkers, I had the rest of the Humphreys Peak trail almost to myself all morning.  The afternoon was busier but not bad.  I've heard that weekends in summer can be Disneylandish.

First good views from the trail--and so colorful!
Because I knew that the altitude, paired with fairly good elevation gain, might be a challenge, I did several good training hikes through the summer, including high-elevation practice near Flagstaff and the Mogollon Rim.  I'm glad I did the training, because when I finally tried Humphreys Peak…it wasn't nearly as hard as I'd expected.  Yes, I had to go slower than usual and stop more often to catch my breath, especially the last 1500 feet or so, but it really wasn't bad.  I remember once—when I was less in shape—taking a very short uphill walk at about 11,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and huffing and puffing like crazy.  That memory is what made me train.  And I guess it worked. 

If you're not experienced with either the altitude or the elevation gain, I suggest doing some training before you try Humphreys Peak.  It will make it a much more pleasant experience. 

At the summit!

Hike details:

Length:  About 9.5 miles (15 km) roundtrip

Elevation Gain:  About 3340 feet (1019 m)

Elevation at Summit: 12.633 feet (3851 m) So, yeah…the air might be thinner than you're used to.

Trailhead:  about 14 miles (23 km) out of Flagstaff, at Arizona Snowbowl, Flagstaff's ski resort.  Take US 180 to the Snowbowl turnoff.  The trail takes off from the first big parking lot.  There are outhouses at the trailhead, and if the chairlift is open, there are nicer restrooms, food, etc. there.  Just follow the road up a bit into the ski resort.  You can also take other trails from this trailhead (though currently they're doing earth work and the Aspen Nature Loop is re-routed)

Views from near the summit of Humphreys Peak

If you go, take:

-Plenty of water.  A gallon is the recommendation on warm days.  You may be able to reduce a little on cool days or if you have done this or similar trails before and know how much you need.  Remember, though, that there's no water on the mountain.  If something goes dangerously wrong, you may have to wait hours—or overnight—for help.  Or walk a different and far longer route than you expected.  You want to have enough water that you won't get dangerously dehydrated during an unexpected delay.

-Plenty of food, including some salty snacks for electrolytes

-Layers appropriate to the weather (remembering that conditions at Flagstaff, at the trailhead, and at the peak are all very different, and it's often windy above the treeline).  I started on a very chilly morning in mid October.  Forecast on the peak was barely above freezing with 25 mph winds.  I was very glad I had gloves, scarf, winter hat, and three layers.  Summer will be different, but still be prepared for significantly cooler and windier conditions above the tree line. 

-Good shoes you've already broken in.  I recommend hiking boots for their serious tread and ankle support, but it's doable in good sneakers. 

-Other safety gear (they recommend whistle, knife, flashlight, first aid kit, matches/lighter, sleeping bag/emergency blanket, map/gps etc.)

Volcanic Glory--Agassiz Peak

If you go, do this:

-Start early.  Like, really early.  ESPECIALLY IN MONSOON SEASON (roughly July-August, sometimes a little earlier or later) plan on getting to the peak, enjoying some time there, and heading back down by 11:30 AM at the latest so you can return to the protection of the trees before afternoon storms hit.  That means most people should be starting by 6:30 AM..  Start earlier if you're a leisurely hiker or haven't trained sufficiently for the altitude and/or elevation gain.  If you're hiking outside of monsoon season and there's "no chance" of storm according to the forecast, a slightly later start time will usually be fine, but don't push it too much.

-TURN BACK if it gets stormy. Lightning can kill on peaks like this.  Even if the forecast predicts clear weather, things can change.

-Pace yourself, especially if you're not used to the altitude.

-Stay the night before in Flagstaff or higher elevation to start acclimatizing--and so you can get that important early start.

-Consider taking aspirin the night before and the morning of your hike. I'm told it helps against altitude sickness headaches. I would suggest also taking a dose during or after the hike if you start getting headachy. 

-Drink that water you're carrying.

-Eat more than normal

-Take pictures

-Go with a companion for the most safety. If you love solo hiking, at least make sure someone knows where you're going and when to expect you back.

-Try to go on a weekday for less crowds.

If you choose to hike up the Inner Basin, here's your path.

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