September 4-5, 2020
It’s the tallest mountain in Arizona. And it’s volcanic (No, not active!). Well, every mountain around Flagstaff is volcanic in origin. In fact, I think Flagstaff is home to all five different types of volcanoes. The area is peppered with hundreds of cinder cones, but Humphreys Peak dominates the horizon in an otherwise flat expanse across the Colorado Plateau. At 12,637 feet with a prominence of 6,039 feet, the peak is an impressive site, so it’s no wonder it’s a popular destination for peak baggers and day hikers, as well as sacred to several native tribes.
There are multiple trails to the summit, but the most common is the Summit Trial that starts near the parking lot of the SnowBowl ski resort, just a few miles northwest of Flagstaff. This is the route my wife and I chose to do a quick backpacking trip over Labor Day weekend, 2020. It’s just over five miles long to the summit, but it is steep in many areas, and very rocky.
We started our hike after 8 p.m. after getting a late start to the trailhead. The parking lot was nearly empty, except for a few lovebirds cuddling after catching the sunset, and a lone car near the trialhead sign with a guy preparing a backpack. We parked nearby and I struck up a conversation. His backpack was even smaller than my lightweight pack, but he confirmed he too was going to camp up on the mountain and catch the sunrise. I’ve camped on Humphreys before and knew how difficult it was to find a level spot along the steep terrain, so I wished him well, with an off-hand comment about our hammocks.
The first mile of the trail is fairly smooth, with a few switchbacks that tease you into thinking, “this will be an easy hike” as it slowly snakes uphill. We continued until we hit a switchback that avoided a large rock slide. It was a perfect spot for hammocks. We scrambled over the talus field, hunting with headlamps until we identified the right spot. With no cloud cover, no wind, and no moisture in the forecast, we just set up our hammocks open to the sky. The night was eerily quiet. I don’t think I’ve ever been outdoors with such complete silence. No wind, no crickets, nothing.
We set up our hammocks in a “V” formation, allowing us to be close but not collide. After a few adjustments with our insulation, we were asleep. Bliss!
Our 3 a.m. alarm clock consisted of a small group of hikers trying to make the summit before sunrise. We had no intention of getting up that early, but it was a sign of things to come. By 6 a.m., we realized we couldn’t just lounge around forever, as the trail continued to fill with scores of hikers. LOUD hikers. A few groups of well-over 30 college students made me realize the trail was going to be a lot crazier than I anticipated.
Packing up our hammocks was quick and easy. I just love avoiding the ground! No messy clean up. No sore shoulders. It’s amazing.
The hike was much more difficult than I remember. Lots of rocks, roots, and elevation. When we got to the saddle, it was a party of pedestrians. We squeezed our way through to find a place to sit and rest before we tackled the last mile or so to the summit. The ridge to the summit is exposed rock and the climb is fairly tedious even without all the stopping, standing by, and averting as we passed or let pass all the other hikers.
Once near the summit, we stopped for a break. I packed my portable radio and set up an operating position for a SOTA activation. It was really fun to explain to passersby what were were doing and they all thought it was pretty amazing. My wife held the antenna as I operated the Morse code. With several contacts in place, we packed up and headed down the mountain.
The views from the summit are breathtaking. It’s well worth the strenuous hike.
Hammock gear used on this trip
This trip was pretty spartan, with no tarps and just simple systems. The fact that I wasn’t testing any gear this go-around made choices easier: we picked gear we liked!