Newman Peak, Picacho Peak


By: Bob Michael



The stretch of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson will never be immortalized in Arizona Highways. Most of it drones along through cotton fields or dusty gray saltbush flats, with here and there a powerplant or housing development. Even Saguaros are few and far between. Breaking this monotony in a most remarkable way are the Picacho Mountains southeast of Casa Grande. The highway is routed through the broad gap of Picacho Pass - site of Arizona's only Civil War battle - between the two major parts of the range. The larger chunk, to the north, is a massive granitic fault block which thrusts in magnificent isolation above the vest expanse of flatness on all sides.. South of the highway, is Picacho Peak State Park, is the namesake peak, a sheet volcanic neck which is the quintessential abstract cubist desert peak, instantly recognizable from comic strips, Road Runner cartoons, and K-Mart oil paintings. It also looks perfectly unclimbable.

Newman Peak (4,5O8')

Just a couple of miles behind the screen of motels and gas stations which comprise the burg of Picacho, Newman Peak is a mini-wilderness, a remnant enclave of primeval Arizona. It's also darned tricky to get to the roadhead from the town; the road layout has changed a lot since the topo map was surveyed (1946). The land east of town is now citrus end cotton fields, decorated with unfriendly signs. 2 miles E of Picacho, (see map) I was stopped cold by a 10' deep ditch cut across the road. I then headed south on the only other possibility. At .9 miles, I found an unlocked gets which opened onto a gas pipeline road; almost 2 miles later, I swerved onto a tire-track road which meandered in the general direction of the mountains. I left my car at 1725' elevation, where the tire tracks joined a washed-out road to an old gravel pit. 1/2 mile NE of the pit I finally gained an eroding old road which ends at a mine at 2200'. An extremely rough "trail" - really more a route - begins at a cairn here and continues to the top, marked by ducks and some painted arrows. The topo shows "airway beacons" atop both Picacho and Newman peaks; a small concrete base remains atop Newman. Evidently, these erstwhile radio (?) devices account for the routes on both peaks.

The trail heads up en extremely rugged, brushy canyon walled with soaring banded cliffs of Precambrian gneiss and granite.. At about 3500', just when the imminent headwall seems insuperable, the 2nd class "trail" turns sharply left and shoots straight up a very steep and loose couloir. You exit the top of the couloir into more gentle terrain, and a faint trail materializes which leads you the remaining couple hundred feet of gain to the lightning-seared top. Because of its total isolation, Newman Peak seems much higher than it really is, and views are limitless in all directions.

Picacho Peak (3,382')

Not another Picacho! Maybe this could be called "Medium Picacho". Had it not been for a friend in Phoenix who counseled otherwise, I'm sure I would still believe in the absolute impossibility of this thing. The 800' overhanging wall visible from the freeway is especially intimidating. However, the ranger at the State park will be glad to discuss the route. First, a normal steep trail leads to the skyline saddle between Picacho and its 3158' NW summit. Then the fun begins. First, it's necessary to

drop 2 to 300 feet on the back side along a very steep fissure-ramp covered with lava ball bearings; a cable here makes a welcome grabbing belay. When the terrain allows, the route then heads E along the base of the SE face of the peak. It's easy to get off route during this traverse; I sure did. Presently, you came to the first of several cable ladders, two cables body-width apart with which you haul yourself up 20' or so 4th-5th class pitches. Each time the route starts to look desperate - voila, a cable! Further up, an easy enough ledge with sickening (ca. 1000') exposure is protected by a cable handrail. Just below the summit, the route crosses a hanging basin - a little saguaro garden suspended above a shear face. One more cable, a few switchbacks, and you're on top! In all my rambles through the West, I've never seen such a fearsome eerie which was accessible to your basic hiker without rope work. (We'll, Half Dome,) I highly recommend "Picacho #3" for the List. Given the gas situation, some might look askance at considering such a distant peak; but this one is almost unique, both in visual impact and in the natures of the route. Moreover, it's right on the way from the Superstitions to Baboquivari.

Brown Bear Mountaineering Club
Denver, Colorado

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