Arizona doesn’t have the spectacular 14,000 ft mountains of Colorado or the pacific states, but the state is home to the sacred San Francisco Peaks. These rise out of the crags of the Sonoran Desert to the south and the drier plains of the north, and tower over everything else in Arizona. You can see them from miles away in every direction, and when you are exploring the likes of Flagstaff, you can see evidence of the powerful volcanic activity that formed this place eons ago. Unsurprisingly, the San Francisco Peaks are home to Arizona’s highpoint, which can be reached via the Mt. Humphreys Trail. For those travelers who are willing to respect the mountain, its people, and their own safety, trying for the summit of Mt. Humphreys is one of the most beautiful adventures in Arizona. This 10 mile hike is a challenging day excursion, which is well worth the physical struggle for the spiritual experience, the beautiful views, and chance to visit the crown of Arizona.
For those interested in trying their hand at this trail, this guide will give you insight into the specifics of the Mt. Humphreys Trail, what it’s like to climb it, and how to stay safe and respectful on the mountain.
Is the Mt. Humphreys Trail For You?
This guide is not a promise of safety nor a guarantee that you can do this climb. It is your responsibility to decide if this is a challenge for you, and you are responsible for your own safety while exploring.
There is no doubt that the Mt. Humphreys Trail is not for everyone – at least not if you plan on trying for the summit. In order to do this trail safely, you need to be in good shape, have some trail experience, and be willing to change your plans for inclement weather. That all being said, this trek is relatively well-marked for most of its length, and with patience and an early start, I think it is a positive challenge. Even if you can’t make it to the top, the forest is breathtaking in the lower stretches of the trail. It’s one of the most vibrant places in Arizona. And if you make it to the saddle, you will be rewarded with expansive views of Flagstaff. From there, you can experience life above the treeline even without making it past the false summit to the peak itself.
In short, if you attempt the Arizona highpoint prepared, willing to turn around for safety’s sake, and you are open to enjoying the beauty of the mountain at every step, you will not be disappointed. That being said, this is not an accessible trail by any means, and the trailhead itself is not particularly noteworthy. In the summer, there are gondola rides that can be taken up to higher elevations, if you want to enjoy the mountains without hiking. You can learn more about this at Snowbowl’s website.
Need to Know Information
Trail length: 10.7 miles (out and back)
Elevation gain: 3,000+ ft
Difficulty: Highly strenuous to extreme
Season: Late spring – early fall
User fee: None
Toilet facilities at the trailhead? Yes, porta-potties.
4WD Required? No, a paved road is available all the way to the trailhead.
Trailhead location: 35°19’52.4″N 111°42’42.2″W
Land manager: Coconino National Forest
On the Trail Experience
Snowbowl and the Forest
If you have ever skied or snowboarded at Snowbowl, you will recognize the tailhead for Mt. Humphreys Trail as the bunny slope. One of the things that I love most about this very first section of the trail, as an Arizona-native, is that hiking here in the summer can really show you how much the mountain transforms through the seasons. The trail will cross the cleared bunny slope, passing under and around chairlifts, and through a field that is unimaginably beautiful during the wildflower season. This flat crossing is the perfect place to start paying attention to the impact that the altitude is having on your body. I was already having some trouble getting enough O2 here, and had to steel myself for the trek ahead.
After crossing the ski slope, you will follow the trail into the forest and begin to really start gaining elevation. This is the longest section of the trail, and although you will be hiking up, I would dare say it isn’t the hardest. This is your warm up. The Mt. Humphreys Trail will take you on several long switchbacks in the shade of the trees with a steady upwards direction. You will step over roots, around and over boulders lodged in the clay of the trail, and wind your way through a verdant, living landscape. You will pass back this way when you come down, so if you need to catch your breath, take the time to notice the little flowers and stunning moments of the forest. If you are feeling good on your way up and want to keep a good pace, consider slowing down on your way back to take it all in.
In the middle of a desert state, the forest is a very special thing.
To the Saddle
As you get higher and higher up on the mountain, you will begin to notice the trees thinning. There are also volcanic rock falls that the Mt. Humphreys trail marches over or turns back along the edge. These are hints of what is to come in the world above the forest. As the trees thin, the trail will also become somewhat steeper leading towards the saddle between Mt. Humphrey and Agassiz Peak.
If you don’t get too discouraged seeing how far you are from the top of any mountain, you can track your progress towards the saddle as the forest thins. You will also notice the gondolas off in the distance as you get closer to the top. Finally, when you have reached the saddle, you will be greeted by a signed and branching trail. Follow the sign to the left.
Here, before you begin your final and most difficult mile up, is a great place to stop for a snack and a prolonged drink. While the saddle can be windy and cold, there are many large rocks that you can huddle against. This is also a place with beautiful pictures to be taken in every direction. Enjoy the stark and beautiful landscape, and take in the forested, volcanic peaks that surround you.
The Longest Leg – Above the Treeline
The last time I hiked the Mt. Humphreys Trail, I felt like the hard part was over once I got to the saddle (even though I had done this hike before). But boy oh boy! The last mile or so of the upwards trail can feel very very long, particularly if you are tired.
From the saddle, you will follow the trail up the ridge, through the last few, small trees- heading west. The track here is not as easy to follow, due to the nature of the rocky terrain. You will need to do some navigating as you continue up. Look for trail signs and cairns. The trail itself becomes very wild here, and you will be required to climb up boulders and through fields of large stones.
The views above the treeline are, of course, spectacular. But along with the increasing difficulty of the trail, it tends to be quite windy as you near the top of the mountain. Be sure to be careful as you take pictures; keep steady and make sure that others can pass you safely on the trail. There is also another challenge to this section of the track… a false summit.
Try not to be too discouraged if you get to the top of what you thought must be the Mt. Humphrey’s summit, only to see that you have another incline to survive. The summit itself will be marked by a little stone wall and a wooden sign.
You will return the way you came.
Respect for a Sacred Place
When you take the Mt. Humphreys trail, you are walking on sacred land. The San Francisco Peaks are important places in the cosmology and religions of 13 Native American Tribes. (You can learn more at the Sacred Land Film Project). Thus, travel with care here.
Of course, we advocate for Leave No Trace in all wildspaces. But on sacred lands, please be extra courteous and respectful to the lands and people on it.
Do not leave trash, including bags of dog poop, used toilet paper, and micro-trash like the corner of your protein bar package. Stay on the trail at all times unless in an emergency situation. Do not trammel wildlife or plants, and do not approach wildlife. This is not an exhaustive list of how to be respectful of these sacred places, as I am not indigenous, but as an non-native taking the trail, these are some ways you can at least lessen your impact on this special place.
Monsoons on the Mountain – A Cautionary Tale
In 2016, three people were struck by lightning while traveling the Mt Humphreys Trail. They called 911 for help. But due to the intensity of the monsoon storm that had enveloped the mountain, and the frequency of lightning strikes at the time, rescuers weren’t able to immediately respond. One of the three people, a 17 year old boy, died.
This isn’t an isolated tragedy.
Arizona has two monsoon seasons, one in the winter and one in the summer, when many people plan their trips to the summit. These storms are no joke, and particularly when traveling above the treeline, it is extremely dangerous to be exposed during such a storm.
The safest option is to ensure that your hike does not coincide with a storm. Keep a close eye on weather reports, and make a mountaineering start extremely early in the morning. Many monsoons gather later in the day (although not always- again, check the weather forecast), and leaving early will help you avoid the storm.
I’ve seen many a hiker heading up the mountain when rain starts falling, even during monsoon season. Be safe and keep others safe as well, avoid attempting the summit in monsoon/storm conditions.
Safety on the Trail and Monsoons
Besides general safety concerns, the Mt. Humphreys Trail has a couple additional safety suggestions that I would make.
(1) See section above and beware storms. Do not hike in inclement weather.
(2) Prepare for varying conditions with jackets, hiking boots, and other cold weather clothing. Even if you are attempting the mountain in the summer, it can be very cold at the top. Bring layers with you so that you can stay comfortable and safe during your hike.
(3) Don’t expend all of your energy getting to the top of the mountain, because you have to get yourself back down. If you are feeling utterly wiped at any point on the way up, turn around. It is a very long 5+ miles back to the trailhead, and not an easy downhill.
Want to explore more of Arizona?
Check out our Guide to Arizona! We are life-long locals who are always exploring more and more of the state.
Want to save this guide for later? Pin it!