Travel: The Alamo Canyon Trail begins from the Alamo Canyon Campground. From the turnoff for the Organ Pipe visitor center, drive north on AZ-85 for 9.9 miles (mile marker 65.3). Turn east on unsigned Alamo Canyon Road. For those traveling from Why, AZ, drive 11.9 miles south on AZ-85. The 3.3 mile smooth and dusty graded road is suitable for 2WD vehicles. The trailhead is on the right by the outhouse. No water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.5 miles; 3,000 feet of climbing. This effort is bigger than the stats imply. Carry extra water; don't count on the spring in Alamo Canyon. Hike in the cool season.
Time: 7:00 -8:00
Difficulty: Mostly off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3 ten-foot wall; considerable exposure on the Point 4,180' summit ridge
Map: Mount Ajo, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: February 5, 2018
Quote: A route is much like a pathway of logic carefully proven true. The confidential language of logic is much like our negotiation of difficult terrain, the way our eyes find ways through what other people might see as dead ends.
Peak 4,180' with the double summit and Peak 4,220' are seen looking north from Peak 4,540'. (THW, photo)
Route: This loop may be done in either direction; the description is counterclockwise. Walk east up Alamo Canyon on the established trail. Hike off-trail up the North Fork and then the east branch of the North Fork. Climb north-northwest in a side drainage to gain the divide between Alamo and Grass Canyons. Ascend northwest to Peak 4,180'. Return to the divide and hike northeast to Peak 4,220'. Descend to the desert floor through Grass Canyon. Walk south on the bajada to complete the loop. Credit for this brilliant piece of navigation goes to John Bregar of Durango, Colorado.
From the Alamo Canyon Trailhead, elevation 2,280 feet, walk on an old road up the wash. This image was taken at the end of the hike as we approached the four-site campground.
Organ pipe cactus and saguaro are plentiful in lower elevations. Other expected regulars include chainfruit cholla, jojoba, creosote, mesquite, and paloverde. It has been an exceptionally dry year and the only flowers blooming were penstemon, four o'clock, sowthistle, ocotillo, deervetch, verbena, and fleabane daisy.
At 0.7 mile, pass Bill and Birdy Miller's line shack. On the other side of the wash is a sturdy corral beside a spring. We saw no water in the cement-lined stone troughs and cistern.
At one mile, Alamo Canyon splits. To the right is the South Fork which carries the waters of the Middle Fork--the confluence a few paces upstream. Turn left into the North Fork, shown, stone-dry on this day.
Off-trail now for the remainder of the hike, the granular wash bed is interspersed with stretches of volcanic bedrock. There is a fantastical display of liesegang banding at 1.4 miles, brick red streaks and swirls on grey rock. Boulders of porphyry embedded with feldspar crystals (phenocrysts), are scattered in the canyon bottom.
This multi-colored breccia ball is four feet across. Volcanic rhyolite flows over the earth's surface gathering up rocks and cementing them together to form new rock as it cools. Boulders in the streambed have been smoothed to patio quality. Lying on the floor of Alamo Canyon are black obsidian (volcanic glass) orbs.
It is extraordinary to walk on bedrock and jump from one splendid weathered boulder to the next.
At 1.9 miles, elevation 2,680 feet, the canyon splits. This is a critical junction--go right into the east branch of the North Fork. Walk over big blobs of rock. The landscape is so accommodating it feels wondrous, almost magical.
At 2.6 miles, elevation 2,860 feet, a side canyon comes in upcanyon-left. Turn north-northwest into this tributary. This drainage is slightly steeper and thinner, with Class 2+ bouldering. The divide between Alamo and Grass Canyons may be seen in the image below, the next objective.
All of the solid rock pitches on this hike have plenty of features so sliding is never an issue. Hikers live for these sorts of bedrock ascents; it's a killer hike.
Walk up this lava neck, perhaps a feeder dike, where later magma movement cut at a right angle through rhyolite layers that had already been deposited and are still in sub-horizontal position. Presumably, this feeder dike is the source of younger rhyolite layers higher on the mountain. (THW, photo)
Closing in on the divide the draw softens and disappears. Walk on broken rock up the open slope. East is a smooth rock apron. A golden eagle circles overhead.
Reach the Grass Canyon divide in just over 3.2 miles, elevation 3,780 feet. We see Baboquivari Peak way off in the blue distance but Peak 4,180' is out of sight to the west. We have almost no information about climbing either prominence. We heard tell of a scary, knife ridge so we are not sure if we can make the summit. That unknowing adds greatly to our excitement and anticipation.
Looking at the image below, from the saddle go due west, skirting the minor cliff band on its left.
There are no prickly pears or shin daggers to dodge. No tangling with teddybears. As you approach the south-north running ridge step onto a sheet of rhyolite. This is sweet! Ascend the solid rock slope with embedded risers.
This image was taken at the top of the ridge. Our peak is north, just beyond the false summit, shown. (THW, photo)
Skirt the false summit on the west. Bighorn sheep scat was abundant and their scent wafted from the cave, shown. We watch intently for them. (THW, photo)
Climb a red knob.
Pass by an arch hanging out over open air. The span is crumbly--please don't attempt a crossing. (THW, photo)
Traverse a roughly 200-foot long thin ridge on good solid rock. The knife is exposed on both sides. (Rich Butler, photo)
Mid-way, three bighorn rams and two ewes were spotted on the platform below. We hushed and stayed in place so the band could make their escape just feet from us, climbing up and over our ridge to safety. (John Bregar, photo)
Exposure eases on the summit block, shown. Crest Peak 4,180' at 3.7 miles.
The elevation of the peak is approximated and not assigned on the Mount Ajo quad. The peak register was placed by Bob Martin in 1998 and since then only five parties have signed in. A member in our group knew Bob who published Colorado's High Thirteeners in 1984 with Mike Garratt. Bob died in 2008 at age 88.
Seen from the crest is Montezuma's Head, image-left, and yellow hued Peak 4,220', image-center. (THW, photo)
Retrace your steps to the Grass Canyon divide. While I have not dropped into Grass Canyon from this location it looks like a plausible exit route if you have had enough. For those continuing on to Peak 4,220', the peak is north-northeast from here. We will stay close to the present ridge most of the way. A pilaster obstructs passage immediately. Pass it on the left, hugging the wall along its base. (THW, photo)
Sneak around the corner and then plunge down a stone slope with plenty of features, shown at the bottom of this image. In fact, it shows the entire route to Peak 4,220', image-center. (THW, photo)
Edging the downslope are fountains of rock. Volcanism creates the most marvelous structures!
The low point on the divide, the true saddle between the peaks, is elevation 3,460 feet, 4.4 miles. Proceeding on the ridge, gendarmes are easily avoided on the right. The biggest grunt of the hike is the next 400 feet up an open rubbly steep pitch, shown.
It's pure pleasure from the top of the slope to the summit. Scamper up yellow breccia with a tuffaceous nature covered in dayglo yellow lichen. Hot volcanic ash fell in layers, cooled and solidified as ash-fall tuff. If you stay on the ridgecrest you will be looking right down on Montezuma's Head, 3,634 feet.
Curve east with the ridge to the base of the summit block. It is a fun, too-short scramble to the crest at 5.0 miles.
A golden eagle proudly soars above broad Peak 4,220' (another approximated elevation). In the image below, a friend points to Montezuma's Head. The peak register records only five visitors.
Looking back on Peak 4,180' (extreme right in the photo), the two peaks compliment and contrast with each other. In the center background is the Mount Ajo massif. (THW, photo)
If your navigation skills have been tapped, retrace your steps to the Grass Canyon divide. If you are up for more adventure, descend south on the summit ridge and cut west back to the saddle. There is a fragmentary social trail for a short distance. This is a good time to mention there is a lot of evidence of migrants passing through this region. It is advisable not to hike alone.
At about 4,100 feet, we left the ridge and began maneuvering through the cliffs. If you intend to do this descent study it carefully before scaling the summit. There's not much wiggle room.
As indicated on my map above, our group split up. Two people left the divide and began descending into Grass Canyon at first opportunity (blue-line route). This worked beautifully. Three us us dropped from elevation 3,520 feet. The headwall is steep and rubbly, the going a little slow and tedious.
Weathered stones in the dry streambed are big but it is easy enough to hop from one to another. We found a smooth zebra obsidian boulder. There is a small arch on the west wall. (THW, photo)
Leave the drainage at about 2,480 feet. Walking is a dream on the open bajada provided you stay slightly away from the cliff base. Curve with the terrain, west and then south. The only impediments are the innumerable ditches.
It is almost three miles across the bajada. Psych yourself up because this is truly one of the most beautiful segments of the circuit. (THW, photo)
A friend who was on the bajada during peak bloom in a stellar spring said it was a flowerful fairyland.
(Lynn Coburn, photo)
In addition to the Alamo Canyon plants seen earlier, teddybear cholla thrive on the bajada. Before long you will see the mouth of Alamo Canyon in the distance. We got lucky and walked right into the campground. The road will catch you if you wander a little off course. (THW, photo)
So now when you are zooming along on Highway 85, Peaks 4,220' and 4180' are ultra familiar prominences.