Travel: From Tucson, drive south on I-19 passing the town of Green Valley. Take Exit 56, Canoa Road. Start measuring from the bottom of the ramp. In the rotary, go around and under the freeway. At the stop sign turn south on the frontage road. At 3.2 miles, turn left on Elephant Head Road. Turn right on Mount Hopkins Road at 4.7 miles. At 10.3 miles, go left on FSR 183. 2WD vehicles with decent clearance should be adequate on the graded gravel road. Park under a large oak in a circular lot 12.7 miles from the interstate.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.9 miles with 3,200 feet of vertical for both peaks. Roundtrip to Elephant Head alone is 6.8 miles with 2,500 feet of elevation gain. Little Elephant Head adds 2.1 miles and 700 feet of climbing.
Total Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with one, low Class 3 wall on the east ridge; mild exposure; carry all the water you will need.
Map: Mount Hopkins, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: January 26, 2019
Quote: There are some famous peaks in the Santa Ritas south of Tucson...Wrightson, Hopkins. None have the mystique of Elephant Head. The almost impossibly steep monolith crashing out of the western Santa Ritas into the desert seems to defy logic. fricknaley, Hike Arizona
The playful east ridge of Elephant Head will appeal to hikers who love to scramble on sticky rock with dependable holds.
Route: From the trailhead in Agua Caliente Canyon hike generally north on Forest Service Trail 930. Transition onto an abandoned mining road. Leave the wagon road and plunge via trail into Chino Canyon. Cross the creek and climb to the east ridge of Elephant Head. Scramble west to the summit then retrace your steps. Either going or coming, be sure to take the west spur trail to Little Elephant Head. At the end of the description is a brief summary of the alternative off-trail loop up Chino Canyon and down the north-northeast ridge.
The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory is seen from the parking lot. It is located on the summit of Mount Hopkins at elevation 8,585 feet. It is operated jointly by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the University of Arizona for solar system, galactic and extragalactic astronomy.
To locate Trail 930, walk a few paces back down the access road. It is on the north side of the track at elevation 4,580 feet. The trail crosses Agua Caliente Canyon then bears northwest while rising gently.
Mesquite, ocotillo, turpentine bush, agave, shindagger, and sotol grow in the desert grassland ecosystem. Santa Rita pricklypear is common on rocky hillsides.
Elephant Head comes into view from a low saddle at 0.7 mile, 4,700 feet. Note the cairn marking the westward trail to Peak 5,139'. I will discuss this spur to Little Elephant Head later. From here, the passage gives up 180 feet as it drops into Chino Basin.
The footpath dead ends at an old mining road that comes up through Chino Basin at 1.0 mile. Turn right. Make a note of this location so you don't blow by it later on. The image below shows hikers transitioning from the road onto the trail on their return trip.
For the next mile, we will be following the abandoned roadbed that accessed the Quantrell Mine located in Chino Canyon at elevation 5,100 feet. The mine was one of eleven claims held by the Elephant Head Mine Group. In 1902, Ben Daniels, a Madera Canyon resident, began mining operations. He had become friends with Theodore Roosevelt while serving with the Rough Riders, the first volunteer cavalry in the Spanish-American War.
The mine worked a quartz fissure vein in an area of intrusive granite and porphyry associated with the Elephant Head Fault, a young range-front fault. The miners extracted gold, silver, lead ore, and copper. The granitic stone is coarse grained and highly textured which accounts for the great climbing rock on the Elephant Head summit ridge.
Pass a mine shaft at 1.1 miles. The small, steeply inclined hole looks very dangerous so we dismissed any thought of crawling in. The old wagon road, vigorously shored up with scrounged blocks, thins to a trail.
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Enter the Mount Wrightson Wilderness. Both peaks are visible from a beautiful rise at 1.7 miles. Below, is a look back at the cliff profile of Little Elephant Head.
The trail rounds a corner and bears northeast. When Chino Canyon comes into view watch for a cairn on the left marking a social trail that plunges into the gulch. This important juncture is 0.2 mile past the vista point. The image below was taken from the trail descending into the canyon. Notice the saddle to the right of Elephant Head's summit ridge. From the canyon bottom the trail switches up the slope to the saddle. (THW, photo)
Leave the mine track (elevation 5,000 feet) and begin a 500 foot drop over the next 0.3 mile. The terrain is difficult so make every effort to stay on the informal trail. It is scrabbly, steep, and loose. In January, water was running over polished bedrock in Chino Canyon. (THW, photo)
Make sure you find the trail as you exit the creek. The path braids as it heads up the hillside; attempt to stay on the primary treadway. Elephant Head has a fair number of visitors and yet the crushed granite footpath is thin and plants, especially sotol, encroach. The image below looks south into Chino Canyon, over to the steep access slope, the Chino Basin depression, and Little Elephant Head.
Gain the east ridge of Elephant Head at 2.8 miles, 5,100 feet. The approach now over, before us is a magnificent ridge of solid stone. Roundtrip to the summit from here is 1.3 miles. It will take anywhere from half an hour to a full hour to summit. Scrambling is primarily Class 2+ and exposure is mild. If you get into anything over Class 3 or find yourself on a highly exposed pitch, you are off route. Social trail fragments leaving the saddle are followed by cairns that mark the route all the way to the summit. Follow them mindfully.
The initial slabs are great fun to scale. Stone clothed in pink, orange, and tan pigments contribute to the enchantment. (THW, photo)
Climbing is primarily just north of the ridgeline. There is a feeling of protection within troughs. The crevices are sometimes steep but the stone accommodates with natural steps and solid holds. Trees provide additional climbing aides.
A gathering flat at 5,260 feet effectively divides the climb into two segments. (THW, photo)
The standing rock is irresistible. (THW, photo)
From the flat, the cairned route skirts the initial rock face on the left and then moves toward the right side of the formation.
The ridge narrows but still, exposure is mild.
Arrive at the crux, a small Class 3 wall on your left. There are at least two options. This climber is making a slightly difficult move but there is no exposure. (THW, photo)
I came up at the lower end of the cliff. The maneuver is easier but it is more exposed. In the background, Pete Mountain hides Mount Wrightson. Mount Hopkins is on the right. (THW, photo)
Above the crux, stay right on top of the ridge. The route is as sweet as it can be.
The crest is surprising--roomy, broad, and flat. Arrive at the shrine to the elephant at 3.4 miles. From its location on the western perimeter of the Santa Rita Mountains, the view swings south to the Atascosa and Tumacacori Mountains, west to Baboquivari (shown) and Kitt Peaks, north to Pusch Ridge and Mount Lemmon, and northeast to the Rincon Mountains. Walk to the western edge of the summit to see the west-northwest ridge which a member in our group successfully climbed previously. (THW, photo)
Peak 5,139', Little Elephant Head
The standard route bypasses the spur trail to this ranked summit, known informally as Little Elephant Head in a nod to its remarkable likeness to its taller companion. Having visited once, I'll never pass by charming Peak 5,139' again. The roundtrip distance is 2.1 miles with 700 feet of elevation gain. One and a half hours will get you there and back with some top time.
Recall that the spur to Little is located after the minor climb out of Chino Basin (heading south). Look for the cairn marking the footpath and turn right. On a somewhat steep and rocky well-defined trail, climb almost 400 feet to Point 5,079', shown. (THW, photo)
The ocotillo forest is so thick I vow to return in the springtime when the torches are throwing flames.
From the rounded hilltop, drop to the base of the mellow summit climb at elevation 4,900 feet. The solid stone structure of Little Elephant Head is as beguiling as its counterpart but it lacks the difficulties and exposure--the peak is approachable for all hikers.
The Class 2 trail climbs up through bedrock and boulders on crushed granite. Approaching the top, ascend a stone ramp flanking a broad fin with a vertical face.
Little has something Elephant Head does not--a window to Mount Wrightson seen here in the wedge between Pete Mountain and Mount Hopkins. (THW, photo)
The weathered granite summit is linear and comfortably broad. (THW, photo)
Walk out to the north end of the summit ridge to get a feel for the true dramatic and precipitous nature of the mountain. There is a vertical cliff on the west side and the ridge ends in a sheer drop.
Alternative Loop: Chino Canyon and the North-Northeast Ridge
I first climbed Elephant Head in March, 2012 via a nonconventional route. We ascended through Chino Canyon until it intersected the trail at 4,500 feet. From there, we took the standard route to the peak. The gully had some nice bedrock but it was complicated by large boulders and choked brush, notably catclaw and ocotillo. This image looks down into the canyon from the peak.
On the summit that day we saw a golden eagle chasing around both a prairie and peregrine falcon. We descended from the peak on the east ridge and then transitioned onto the north-northeast ridge, taking it to the flats. Of note, one of my companions had preciously climb Elephant Head from Madera Canyon via the same ridge, shown. While the ridge was considerably less troubled than the gully, this circuit was more difficult than the standard route.
We enjoyed a look at Elephant Head's seldom seen dramatic north face.