Despite seemingly being in a totally different part of the state up near Flagstaff, Humphreys is a very real mountain for me because on most days I can easily see it from my office window nearly 70 miles away in north Prescott. (Actually, the summit itself probably isn't visible from Prescott, the view is mostly of sub-peak Mount Agassiz.) I nearly always see it during my runs up a small hill in a city park on the south side of town from 75 miles away, and on my frequent hikes in the hills to the south and west of town from as much as 80 miles away. When the air is dry and clear, it always looks much closer; the massif is that huge and isolated. It was only a matter of time until I climbed it, but I hadn't been in a big hurry.
I had made my first attempt at this hike during Thanksgiving weekend, but a cap cloud remained over the peak the entire day. I'm willing to forgive one of the following but it was cold, a little windy, negligible visibility, and I was unfamiliar with the route. Surviving a forced bivouac under the circumstances, including the approach of a (weak) storm system, seemed questionable so I left the summiting to a few guys I encountered while I was hiking back down.
The good news is that as of the date of this hike, there still hadn't been a significant snowstorm in Arizona. I guess this is bad news for the local ski resort, but ski resorts are generally bad news anyway, so that's good news to me. Anyway...the usual starting place is the lower parking lot below the ski area. Apparently at some times you can start your hike a bit higher from the ski area, but the road was gated just above the lower parking lot both times I was there.
I started hiking at 0715, just a bit before sunrise. Skies were clear except for some high clouds in the distant south that I had drove out from under when leaving the Prescott area. The temperature was surprisingly warm, in the 20s. To start the trip, you hike diagonally across a ski run underneath a ski lift. There are good views of the massif here, but not of the actual summit of Humphreys. After about a third of a mile, you enter the trees and the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. From here, the trail reaches a prominent saddle between Humphreys and Mount Agassiz via a handful of very long switchbacks and more than 3 miles of hiking.
The timber is tall and dense, so you rarely have any views below treeline. Above 10000ft, there was patchy snowcover on the trail and off-trail, which became more pronounced above 11000ft. Still, not enough to officially call it an inch of snowcvoer, and only required watching one's step occasionally on slick packed snow.
This part of the mountain is heavily shaded by Agissiz on a December morning and I did not break out into sunshine until literally a few feet below the major saddle between Agissiz and Humphreys at 11780ft. This is shortly above where you break out of the major tree cover, but there are a few stubby trees above the saddle. The views open up dramatically here, and as expected the snowcover was a bit more persistant on the north-facing side of the east cirque. This is the so-called "Inner Basin", the proverbial mouth of this massive stratovolcano. (Think of how Mount Saint Helens blew out its north side in 1980; the massive 16000-foot ancestral Humphreys did the same thing a few hundred thousand years ago but much more violently.)
Although people who haven't been to other areas where there are high mountains and/or don't live far enough north in the U.S. to get high winds tend to overstate the wind extremes on Humphreys, it is still often a windy place and occasionally a seriously windy place. However, today the aviation wind forecast of 10 knots or so at 12000ft in northern Arizona was verifying nicely. (This is about the only way to get anything like a reasonable wind forecast above the level of habitation for a mountainous area. Try: the Aviation Weather Center website, but recognize that local terrain effects can really screw with this "free-air" forecast.)
So, here I am at nearly 12000ft in northern Arizona on a mid-December morning and there is minimal snowcover, a wind only around 10 mph, and a temperature of around 25F. A very nice October morning! I never really get anything like altitude sickness up to at least 14000ft when living a mile-high, but this is definitely high enough to feel the altitude. Plus, this ended up being my longest mountain hike in 2 years and just short of my biggest gain in the same amount of time.
I mentioned the volcanic history of Humphreys and what makes this very different from hiking above treeline in Colorado is that you are basically hiking on dark grey and red volcanic cinders. Even if you didn't know about Humphreys past, you would still notice that it is very different geologically.
The general tread of the trail through the cinders is easy to follow, but there are many small places where it gets obscure. Considering its popularity, I was expecting a better trail, but it wasn't a big deal. There are some posts in strategic locations to help guide you. Much of the ascent stays on the west (left) side of the ridge (this photo is looking back down the route) and the most heavily shaded areas of the trail were covered with packed snow which was a bit icy this early in the morning. Just enough to spice up the route a bit.
People talk about there being 3 false summits on the summit ridge, but since the ridge bends a couple times, if you are paying attention there is never a surprise false summit. When I reached the summit a little before 0930, the weather was the same as in the saddle.
The views are truly expansive from the summit! There isn't anything even close to the height of Humphreys in view. Only the subpeaks on the massif block the view a little to the south. Nearby 10418-foot Kendrick Peak looks like a molehill from above. You can see a little ways down into the Grand Canyon to the northwest. Many small cinder cones from the ancient vulcanism are visible to the north. Although I don't remember if I made a visual sighting because I wasn't looking for it, even on the wide-angle photos I could see Utah's Navajo Mountain (10,388ft), which is an incredible 125 miles by air from Humphreys! Humphreys definitely has more of a "top of the world" feeling than any of the dozens of higher peaks I've climbed in Colorado. Of course, the overall snow and weather conditions would almost never be this wimpy on a Colorado peak this high in mid-December.
There was a summit register of sorts in a metal box, but it was a haphazard collection of sign-in sheets smooshed together inside. The large rock wind shelters looked like they would be a sight for sore eyes on a more normal December day, but today they weren't necessary. I've seen summit photos with a summit sign, but there wasn't a sign or its pole when I was there. Although GPS altitudes have to be taken with a block of salt, I got a high-quality reading of 12,645ft at face level, or 12,640ft for the natural summit. This seems to be almost dead-on, when allowing for the redefinition of the geoid several years ago, which boosted peaks in the Four Corners region by several feet.
I shot quite a few photos and since I didn't bring my real camcorder I shot some video with my new digital camera. (While it shoots excellent high-resolution photos, the video leaves something to be desired as compared to even analog video that I have ran through my computer's video capture card.) But, I sort of felt like I didn't dare linger too long on this summit on a December day no matter how nice it seemed. So, after less than 20 minutes, I started back down the ridge.
Shortly below the saddle, I encountered humanity for the first time. I ran into another guy a little below 11,000ft who was quite happy about my report of October-like conditions on the summit and I'm guessing he made it, too. I didn't see anyone else until the register at the junction between the main trail and the side trial that comes in from the ski area at 9700ft. A pair of hikers looked to be equipped for a summit attempt, but 11am is an awfully late time to be where they were, unless they were both as strong of a hiker as I am (unlikely). I actually saw a few more people on my failed attempt in crappy weather than on this nearly perfect day!
I continued down the long trail and reached the parking lot just before 1130. I used my GPS odometer on the descent and got 4.77 miles, which I think is pretty accurate and is the source for my 9.5 mile distance above. It is probably only 9.0 miles from the slightly higher trailhead inside the ski area. In case you are curious, I measured 1.06 miles on the trail from the summit to the saddle, as compared with a straight-line distance of 0.81 miles.
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File last modified: 15 December 2005