Mt. Humphreys, Arizona

17 Mar 2000 - by Joe Budman

I was waiting for my car to be repaired in Flagstaff, so after spending 2 days hiking around beautiful Sedona, I decided that a day in the snow would be a good change.

The drive to the Arizona Snow-Bowl, which is the trailhead for Mt. Humphreys, is only 16 miles and under half an hour from downtown Flagstaff! Mt. Humphreys is the highest point in Arizona (elev. around 12,700) and it is a beautiful snow-covered sight from anywhere in the Flagstaff area.

Several groups were camped at the base of the ski resort along with me - a few other hopeful peak-baggers, and some people who just enjoyed the free camping in the snow. No camping signs are posted here and there, but it seems to be tolerated as long as you're not sleeping underneath the sign! Hearing the snow groomers working throughout the night makes it a less than pristine wilderness experience, though..

Needing to get back to Flagstaff by 4pm, i started up the hill at 6am. The trailhead in the summer is located "across the meadow" from the 2nd- highest parking lot in the ski area, which translates to somewhere across the ski slope in the winter and therefore impossible to find! After crossing the ski slope to the left of the parking area, i followed some faint snowshoe tracks into the forest hoping that they would lead somewhere. The forest on the mountain is quite thick, and I was told that the trail would stand out as the only obvious cleared path through the woods. Within 5 minutes, the faint tracks i followed merged with others and followed what was definitely the trail. The snow was about 4-foot thick slosh, making snowshoes necessary.

The trail switchbacks very steeply through the thick forest for the first two miles, gaining almost 2,000 feet from the 9,000-foot starting point. The weather in northern Arizona this time of year is consistently very windy, and this day was no exception: the forest was a good shield, but I could hear the howling above, making me wonder how doable the summit would be. When the trail met the first prominent treeless area (a steep slope that is probably avalanche or rockfall-prone), the snowshoe tracks dissipated, and I followed the edge of the forest up this steep mushy snowfield. That takes you above treeline, from which point I continued going pretty much straight uphill.

At no point can you see the summit or even tell where the summit ridge will be due to the steep slopes, making route finding somewhat frustrating.

But eventually all steep uphills must end, and I finally got to a ridge from which Agassiz Peak and the snowbowl ski area was visible. I used crampons above treeline since the snow's crust was very solidly windblown and iced over.

The steep final mile or so to the summit reminded me more of winter in New Hampshire than anything I expected to find in northern Arizona. My water bottle froze partially in my pack, and the wind was strong enough during peak gusts to make standing straight almost impossible, so I guessed that the temperature was about 20F, and the wind 50 mph, a very cold windchill! I wore a long-sleeve polypro, 2 fleeces, and a shell and couldn't stop for long without getting cold, so it was a pleasant surprise to come to the summit and find that not the slightest breeze could be felt! I didn't find a register, but views in all directions were tremendous. To the north, the Grand Canyon is visible, and to the south, neighboring Mt. Agassiz and most of northern Arizona. Being in a snowy spot and seeing dry land on all sides definitely gives a "top of the world" feeling.

For the descent, I went back down the ridge and then continued downhill towards the ski area. I hiked the last few miles out on the ski runs - not the wilderness, but it makes it easier and faster! Very few people were on the slopes given the cold and the wind. All together, only a 6 1/2 hour round trip.

This peak is very popular during the summer, but if you find yourself near Flagstaff in the winter, it's also a great way to spend the day.

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