A few years ago, I was on a small island off the coast of Maine when a friend strode into the kitchen with a topographical map of Mount Wrightson. “You really should climb this mountain. It’s the tallest in Arizona.”
Well, at elevation 9,453 feet, it’s not the highest peak in the state, but it possesses indisputable supremacy amongst the Sky Islands of southern Arizona. If you are traveling to the area this spring, “you really should climb Mount Wrightson,” midway between Tucson and the Mexico-United States border.
Miles are rather long and the elevation gain is substantial, but the superior trail mitigates the effort. Study the informative placard at the Old Baldy Trailhead, elevation 5,460 feet. Both Old Baldy and the Super Trail will get you to the summit, but the former is considerably shorter.
The trail parallels one of the tributaries of Madera Canyon. Moon-white sycamore and Arizona Walnut edge the stream. Madera Canyon is a world renown destination for the birding community. Durango ornithologist and all-around naturalist John Bregar identified the following birds as we made our way up the trail: Mexican jay, Bewick’s wren, red-shafted flicker, white-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco, canyon wren and spotted towhee. We did not see an elegant trogon, but we could have because they begin arriving in Madera Canyon from Mexico in the spring to nest. They favor deep sycamore canyons and Arizona madrone berries.
At 0.3 mile, Old Baldy curves sharply around to the left and crosses into the Mount Wrightson Wilderness. The wide footpath is interspersed with bedrock and stone water bars. The lower mountain is composed of a crystalline igneous granitic. In places it spans the treadway. Round a corner and see the serrated north ridge streaming from the solid stone crest of the mountain.
The diversity, age and girth of trees is a compelling feature of the trail. Name the pines: Southwestern white, longleaf, Chihuahua, ponderosa and Apache. There are silverleaf oaks and magnificent Arizona white oaks.
Reach Josephine Saddle at 2.5 miles, elevation 7,100 feet. On the saddle is a memorial to three boy scouts who lost their lives in 1958 during a storm that “came out of nowhere” and dropped three to four feet of snow on the mountain. As we rested, a hiker happened by who was on his 41st annual Mt. Wrightson climb. He recounted the tragic details with great animation. Sixty years later, the story retains gripping power.
The Old Baldy and Super Trail meet in the saddle and share the footpath briefly. Remain on Old Baldy. All junctions are marked with hand stenciled metal signs.
The geology transitions to rhyolite volcanics in the Mount Wrightson Formation of Middle Triassic age. The desert floor recedes as the trail swings in an arc through a high basin making for a narrow break in the cliffs that affords passage to the jagged-capped north ridge. Switchback up the slope and approach a no-nonsense stone wall. Water is usually plentiful at Bellows Spring but don’t count on it.
A relic aspen forest is symbiotic with blue elderberry at 8,200 feet. Rise a little higher and encounter limber pine. The trail is confined by crags and chutes, so there is a series of tight zigzags. Gain the north ridge at Baldy Saddle – 4.5 miles and elevation 8,780 feet. The presence of the mountain radiates ascendancy. Turn right on the 0.9 mile-long Crest Trail.
What follows is one of the finest passages up any mountain. The Crest Trail begins on the east side and wraps around to the north before taking a surprising jaunt to the south for the final approach. The north side platform is blown out of bedrock. It gathers snow and ice that may linger into spring. Now on solid rock with holding-the-earth-down kind of power coupled with bird-like loftiness, there is an absolute knowing that one is approaching the highpoint of a Sky Island.
Nut-leaf oak cloaks the uppermost slopes on the south side of the mountain. The summit trail switches up between fanciful rock features to the crest at 5.4 miles. Upon the expansive summit is a concrete foundation, the remains of the Mount Wrightson Lookout. The six-foot square fire lookout was active from the early 1900s until it was decommissioned in the late 1950s.
The peak was formerly named Mount Baldy. On Feb. 17, 1865, William Wrightson and Gilbert W. Hopkins were working as surveyors for the General Land Office. The two men and a Mexican boy were traveling from a ranch in the Santa Ritas to Fort Buchanan when they were attacked and killed by Apache warriors. Mount Wrightson and Mount Hopkins were named in their honor.
Neighboring Mount Hopkins is two miles west. The Whipple Observatory is owned by the Smithsonian Institution. The observatory complex is operated jointly by the Smithsonian and the University of Arizona in Tucson. At skyline in the west are Baboquivari Peak and Kitt Peak, site of Kitt Peak National Observatory.
The city of Tucson is visible in the north laid out beneath the Santa Catalina Mountains. The Patagonia Mountains roll on south into Mexico where they partner seamlessly with ranges in the soft blue distance.
Almost everyone is contented to climb Mount Wrightson as an out-and-back. However, the trail is so well constructed it doesn’t beat you up. Even after 4,000 feet of vertical some hikers will have enthusiasm remaining for the Super Trail circumnavigation, an additional 1.5 miles.
Descend on the Crest Trail back toward Baldy Saddle. The junction with the Super Trail is located just before the saddle. Hang a hairpin to the right. The southern slopes of Wrightson are simply stunning. Rock fracturing created an array of squared-off towers that appear as vertical straight-edged columns. Caution: wear long pants to protect against encroaching graythorn and assorted brush.
In Josephine Saddle, hop on the Old Baldy Trail. If you wish, return to the trailhead on the Super Trail. It is 1.2 miles longer and traverses south-facing, high-desert, arid slopes. People often fall in love with this mountain, many seeking to repeat the climb 100 times.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.