2019 was the first year for the Arizona Winter Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, featuring six iconic hikes based around Phoenix and Tucson. Until this past January, I had never done much hiking in Arizona. The challenge provided the perfect excuse to get acquainted with this beautiful area.
For this trip, I flew into Phoenix and rented a camper van from Escape Campervans. I had never tried traveling via a camper van before, and figured this would be a perfect opportunity. I could camp, hike, and spread the word about the latest challenge in the series.
My plan was to hike one per day, with work days in between each pair of hikes; two days of hiking, one off, and repeat until complete–a total of eight days.
On the off days, I met with local hiking friends and visited local outdoor retailers to share information about the challenge. A number of people have hiked this over three days, tackling two hikes per day. Our Arizona ambassador Richard completed the entire challenge in 18 hours and 26 minutes. I wanted to take a more relaxed pace and have a chance to check out the area, especially since it was my first time hiking around Phoenix and Tucson.
Rather than complete them in order from easiest to most challenging, I grouped them by geography, then ranked from shorter to longer and harder. The first two were Piestewa and Camelback, which are both in the city of Phoenix, and very popular. My first challenge with the camping idea is that there really isn’t camping in the city. I ended up getting a campsite about an hour north of Phoenix (which I wouldn’t recommend doing again). My plan was to hike Piestewa to catch the sunset on Saturday, then Camelback for sunrise on Sunday.
After fueling up and driving to the park, I took Trail 300 to the summit, the most direct route. The main parking lot was being expanded and was closed for construction, so I ended up parking about 1/2 mile further away. There were plenty of people on this trail, and it’s fairly obvious that a lot of people use it as part of their normal workout schedule. And it’s a great substitute for the Stairmaster, with much better views.
The sunset was beautiful. Not as beautiful as some hikers on Piestewa have captured, but much more interesting than the midday sun. My aprés hike dinner? At nearby San Tan Brewery, washed down with a well-earned IPA.
I was surprised by some of the scrambling that’s required for the final climb to the summit. Watch for the paint spots on the rocks that mark the easiest route, and take your time.
I was back down the mountain in time for breakfast at Morning Squeeze in Scottsdale and a celebratory Bloody Mary.
Monday was a work day, but also a chance to meetup with an online friend. Before I drove down to Picacho State Park for my next camping spot, I met up with R Scott Jones for a chance to sample local craft beer at Arizona Wilderness Brewing.
Scott is a big fan of challenges of another sort. He recently completed a long-time goal of visiting all National Park entities (includes National Monuments and other properties that aren’t specifically called National Parks). And that’s just one of his many quests. We have known each other online for a long time, but this was our first face to face encounter.
After more work (and coffee) I pointed the campervan south and headed to Picacho Peak State Park.
The next morning I woke at sunrise and was blown away by the colors in the sky. It was going to be an epic day.
Picacho Peak isn’t particularly long, but it’s a fun and challenging hike. I knew going in that there were cables to help you up and down various sections of this mountain, but I underestimated how steep and even a little scary they would be. This was very similar to the experience of climbing Angels Landing in Zion National Park, but even steeper (if you can imagine).
The campground at Picacho Peak State Park was designed mainly for RVs, with electrical hookups at each site. And the bathroom was super clean, with hot showers. I would highly recommend camping here. I stayed for three nights, using this as a base not only for Picacho Peak but also Wasson Peak near Tucson (roughly an hour south).
The trail itself was a breeze in contrast the the cable climb up Picacho on the previous day. The saguaros made the hills look like pin cushions. I had the summit to myself for about 10 minutes, then headed back down.
After the hike, I headed into Tucson. Got a little work done at a coffeeshop, then met up with an outdoor blogger friend from Tucson, Adam Nutting at Truland Burgers & Greens. You can find him in Instagram at hikingthetrail, which also happens to be the name of his blog. My wife and I had met Adam once before on our last trip to Tucson, so it wasn’t our first face-to-face, but it’s always great to catch up over a meal and a cold beverage.
I spent one last night at Picacho Peak State Park (which I will gladly camp at again), then I drove out to McDowell Mountain Regional Park for the next few nights.
A Look at the Campervan
When I wasn’t hiking or spreading word about the challenge, I was working, eating and sleeping in the campervan. The van has a seating area with a dining table that worked perfectly for getting a little work done on my laptop. When it was time to sleep, the table folds away and the rear bench seat folds out into a queen-size bed.
In the back of the van is the kitchen, complete with stop, pump-operated sink and a small refrigerated drawer. It worked well for this trip, and thankfully I didn’t have to cook in the rain.
It is considered “dry camping” in that while there is a small reservoir to supply water for the sink, there isn’t a toilet or shower. Each of the parks that I stayed at had flush toilets and sinks, and Picacho State Park had excellent, clean, hot showers.
You can travel with 2-4 people comfortably, although you would need to either bring a tent for a couple of them, or rent the optional rooftop tent available through Escape Campervans.
The trail itself was beautiful, climbing steadily upward to Fremont Saddle. It pays to stop every so often, turn around and look back as the views open up.
From Fremont Saddle, I had a great view of the iconic Weaver’s Needle. And the hike back down to the trailhead provided a spectacular sundown show.
The views from the top are worth the effort, and Flatiron is one of those iconic geographic features that everyone should add to their peak-bagging resume.
We capped off the final peak with lunch and a beer at Four Peaks Brewing Co. in Tempe.
Hiking the Arizona Winter Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge over an eight days was pretty easy pace. If I weren’t also working along the trip, I would have done it in six days (or less). You could also split this into two, three-day efforts.
I was really impressed by the beauty of the trails, and I’m looking forward to returning to hike them again from different routes.
If you’re interested in taking the challenge, you can learn more here.
Originally hiked January 12-19, 2019. All photos by Jeff Hester.