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Internet reports forewarn hikers that you will actually encounter three false summits before you reach Humphreys Peak, so we weren’t fooled by each new peak that appeared in front of us – we just kept climbing (and mentally counting each one). At one point, we were able to look behind us and spot Agassiz Saddle. Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen, but it was hard to wrap our minds around the fact that we’d had lunch so far below just an hour before. Shortly thereafter, one of us gasped as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon came into view. Even in hazy conditions, its red-rock rim was unmistakable and awe-inspiring.
Finally, we were making the last slippery push to the summit where a wooden trail marker indicates that you’ve reached your final destination, 12,633 feet above sea level. We were lucky: The winds had died down and we were able to comfortably spend time at the summit, taking in views that stretch all the way into Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Mexico. There’s a fair amount of space at the top, and we found tattered Tibetan prayer flags, a rock shelter where a bunch of college students were relaxing and posing for photos, a bench situated on the eastern edge of the peak, and an ammo box filled with notebooks scribbled with the thoughts and thanks of peak baggers who had come before us. Highway 89 was a thread of black asphalt far below and the cars that traveled its route were tiny ants. We were reminded of the area’s explosive past by the sight of the many cinder cones that dotted the region. There was a feeling of giddiness, accomplishment and even gratefulness for what we were witnessing. We were at the very top of Arizona with our beautiful and complicated state spread out below our feet. It was a feeling unlike any other because it’s a hike unlike any other – one of the best Arizona has to offer.
After congratulatory cookies, we painstakingly made our way back down the trail, which, for some of us, was much harder than the climb up because you are trying so hard not to slip and fall. Do not even think about attempting this trail without a sturdy pair of hiking boots. The 5.75-mile hike to the car felt infinite, and the last 2 miles were hiked in darkness since we had underestimated the length of the trail. (Thanks to Brady Smith and the Coconino National Forest Service, no one should ever do that again.) In our opinion, hikers should plan at least nine hours for this adventure. Luckily we were prepared with headlamps. But when we look back on Sedona Monthly’s many adventures over the past few years (the Grand Canyon, Navajo National Monument, slot canyons, Havasupai, the Wave and others), there has to be some sort of peril involved or it just wouldn’t satiate your appetite, dear reader.
Humphreys Trailhead is located at the base of Arizona Snowbowl, 43 miles from Sedona. Permits are only required during the winter, and they can be obtained at no charge. Generally, the ideal time to hike to Humphreys Peak is late spring and fall (summer can be good, but watch out for monsoon storms and lightning). Camping is allowed, but there is no camping within a mile of Snowbowl or above the tree line. According to our measurements, the trail is 11.5 miles round trip; plan at least nine hours including stops. Wear sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support, and bring plenty of layers since the weather can be cold – even in the summer – and unpredictable. Drink lots of water and electrolyte-replacement fluids, and eat regularly to help combat altitude sickness. A headlamp doesn’t hurt, either. For more info, www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.