Hiking Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff, Arizona
About the Humphrey's Trail
Location of Mt. Humphrey's Trailheads: Snowbowl Ski area, Flagstaff -- Drive 7 miles north of downtown Flagstaff on Highway 180 to Snowbowl Rd (on the right). Take Snowbowl Rd. another 7 (winding) miles to the top and park in the large dirt lot on the left. The trailhead is at the far end of the parking area.
Distance from lower trailhead to summit: 4.8 miles, one way
Elevation at the trailhead: 9,300 feet
Elevation gain to the summit: 3,333 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous, especially if you're not acclimated to the altitude
There is a second trailhead (near the lodge) to summit: 4.2 miles, one way.
Note: In the winter, a free Backcountry Permit is required when accessing the Kachina Peaks Wilderness from Arizona Snowbowl or Snowbowl Road. You can get this permit from the Forest Service offices in Flagstaff, Monday - Friday, or at Arizona Snowbowl Agassiz Lodge on weekends.
My First Time to the Summit of Arizona's Highest Peak
Mt. Humphreys, the tallest of the San Francisco Peaks, tops out at 12,633 feet, which is also the highest point in Arizona. I'd never hiked to that altitude before today, and I was pleasantly surprised how it turned out ... although the thinner air was obvious as I climbed, especially after I passed the sign at 11,400 feet. I saw a few people, though, who didn't fare so well, including one young, fit-looking man who became ill just short of the summit and quickly (smartly) headed back down. Another woman was struggling, sitting to rest every hundred yards or so, but she eventually made it to the top. Seeing these people feeling the effects of the altitude, I continued sipping on my drinking tube every few minutes and kept my pace slow but steady. The hydration really made a difference.
And what a gorgeous day for my first climb up that mountain -- clear skies and only a negligible breeze at the top, which meant a large group of tiny black gnats were up there too, sharing our snacks. I'd stuffed extra clothing into my pack, including a fleece pullover, windproof jacket, hat and glove liners, and the bottoms halves of my zip-off pants, but needed only to add the fleece to be comfortable while I ate my bagel-and-summer-sausage sandwich at the summit, surrounded by more than a dozen hikers.
Regardless of the weather, though, definitely pack the layers for this hike--it's often much colder and windier at the top and along the rocky, barren ridge getting there and back, and it can snow at any time of year. The weather sometimes changes on a dime. (That may seem like a no-brainer, but I thought I'd mention it anyway.) The low rock wall at the summit offers only minimal protection from the wind.
The hike up the extinct volcano called Mt. Humphreys is, of course, strenuous, because the trail takes you up more than 3,000 feet from trailhead to summit, but the footpath is well maintained and generally easy to follow--the exception being on the ridge between the saddle and the summit, where the track is sometimes a bit hard to make out among the rocks. But keep a close eye on it and look ahead, and you should pick it up again soon. If not, I would take the time to backtrack a little to where you know you're on the trail and then try again.
On your climb from trailhead to summit, you'll pass through beautiful mountain meadow, ponderosa pine forest, which gives way to aspen, and then, after about three miles of hiking, enter the bristlecone pine, bent and gnarled by frost and wind.
If you're afraid of heights--or exposure, let's say--some sections above treeline may give you a slight case of the willies. Take it from me, though, and I'm one who has a significant fear of falling and a bit of vertigo from time to time: this trail is nothing to be nervous about. Where it traverses steep slopes with no vegetation to lend an added sense of security, there is more than enough footpath and traction. Obviously, it would be a much different trail when covered with snow and ice, but on a dry day like this was, it's very safe. I'd even go up there on a rainy day, though I certainly wouldn't want to be on that mountain--or any of the peak, for that matter--during a thunderstorm. Evidence of lightning strikes, where the intense heat has turned rock to black glass, were easy to spot all along the ridge. So if you climb Humphreys during monsoon season, which generally ranges from early to mid-July through mid- or late August, start out very early in the morning and be on your way down before noon.
We had considered taking our dog on this hike but opted against it at the last minute. And we were glad we made that decision. While she probably would have done just fine with the hike itself, it was much easier for us to hike with both hands on our poles than it would have been holding a leash. But the main reason I was glad we left our girl at home is that there were so many other dogs on the trail today. Unleashed dogs. And as friendly as I'm sure most of them are, our dog would have been approached by curious canines time and again. Often without any room to step out of the way, there would have been far too many snaps and growls on her part.
Anyhow, if you're up for a really good workout and awesome views near and far, I highly recommend a hike up Mt. Humphreys, and early September is an excellent time to go. You'll see Arizona in all directions, including the Painted Desert, the Verde Valley and Oak Creek Canyon, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, on a clear day, all of which you're likely to enjoy at that time of year. And even if you don't go the last mile along the ridge, over several false summits to the actual summit, you can take a nice long break at the saddle between Humphreys and Agassiz peaks, where the Weatherford Trail and Humphreys Trail meet. There, you'll enjoy a fantastic view of the Inner Basin.
Oh, and don't forget your sunscreen. You can get mighty cooked up there, year-round.
Other Recommendations for Hiking Mt. Humphrey's and the Rest of the San Francisco Peaks
Since I wrote that journal entry, I've hiked Mt. Humphrey's many times, in all sorts of conditions, both for recreation and also as part of our county's Search and Rescue team, on missions. These are some of other things I'd suggest when preparing for and hiking this trail and others in the area...
- Bring the "10 essentials," regardless of the current conditions or forecast, so you're prepared for pretty much anything. I can carry them all, including water and the weight of the pack, for less than 15 pounds. And definitely don't leave out a light source ... just in case the hike takes a bit longer than anticipated, and it gets dark before you get back to your vehicle.
- If you're not already acclimated to the altitude, spend at least a night in the Flagstaff area (7,000+) beforehand and allow yourself more time than you think you'll need to complete the hike. This 9-mile round-trip may take you twice as long as it would at sea level.
- Consider using hiking poles, which can save your ankles if you stumble on the rocks. Our SAR team has assisted quite a few hikers on the Humphrey's Trail with sprained or broken ankles and other trip- or slip-and-fall injuries.
- Turn around and immediately head down if a thunderstorm is brewing. Please?
And Always Carry a Map
I'm one of those people who never leaves home (to hike) without a map, even if I know the trail REALLY well, as I now know the Humphrey's Trail. And second to USGS 7.5-minute topo maps, this is the map I recommend for hiking in and around Flagstaff. It's weather-resistant, for one, and it's also a really good topographic overview of all the "official" trails in the area, including elevation profiles.
This map is also available at pretty much all of the local outfitters.