Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park.
Enjoy the view as you hike the trails that wind up the peak and, often in the spring you’ll overlook a sea of Mexican gold poppies and other wildflowers. The park and surrounding area are known for its unique geological significance, outstanding and varied desert growth, and historical importance.
Because of its history and natural importance, the area was opened and dedicated as a state park in 1968. As a results of various adjoining land acquisitions up through the 1990s, the park expanded to its current size of 3,747 acres.
The unique shape has been used as a landmark by travelers since prehistoric times. During the 17th century, Jesuit priest Father Kino mentioned Picacho Peak in records of his journeys, and in 1775, the DeAnza Expeditions passed by the Peak. In 1846, the Mormon Battalion, on their way to California to fight in the war with Mexico, constructed a wagon road through Picacho Pass. The gold seeking forty-niners traveled the same road on their way to California, and in 1858, mail and passengers traveled this route via the Butterfield Overland Stage.
The most significant Civil War battle in Arizona took place near Picacho Peak on April 15, 1862, when an advance detachment of Union forces from California attacked a Confederate scouting party. The battle lasted 90 minutes, and three Union soldiers were killed.
One weekend each year in March (18-19 in 2017), “The Civil War in the Southwest” comes alive again as over 200 costumed and equipped re-enactors bring the battle to life.
The battle is re-enacted once each day during the weekend, along with two Civil War battles that occurred in today’s state of New Mexico: Glorieta Pass and Val Verde. The re-enacted battles include several firings of Mountain Howitzers and other artillery pieces, as well as mounted cavalry charges.
Between battles, visitors are free to walk around and talk with the re-enactors in both the Confederate and Union encampments. It is not hard to be taken back to an earlier and simpler time of soldiering in the Southwest.
Even if you don’t visit during the re-enactment weekend, you will find plenty to see and do. A visitors center contains exhibits and a gift store. Outside are hiking trails, a playground, battle historical markers, and an interpretive center, along with the usual park amenities, such as a campground, day-use picnic areas with grills, a dump station, rest rooms, and showers.
The campground has 85 back-in and pull-through sites with electrical hookups. No water or sewer utilities are available at the sites, but potable water is located in each campground area.
Picacho Peak has five hiking trails of varying difficulty. The most difficult is a four-mile round-trip excursion to the top of Picacho Peak and back. Called Hunter Trail, it’s been named the Best Winter Hike by a Phoenix visitors guide. Wear gloves if you intend to take this trek, for in some places it is so steep that you must grasp a chain “handrail” anchored to the side of the peak to make it to the top.
Sunset Vista is a more moderate hike of 6 miles round-trip. Calloway is approximately 1.5 miles round-trip and moderate. The Nature Trail (1 mile round-trip) and the Children’s Cave (.4 mile round-trip) are short and easy.
Weather in the desert can be unpredictable. Wear hiking boots and have at least two liters of water with you for the longer hikes.
The park’s wildlife list includes typical Sonoran Desert animals such as bobcats, mule deer, javelinas, and kit foxes. Three types of rattlesnakes, along with various lizards and geckos, crawl the desert floor. Vultures, hawks, hummingbirds, Gambel’s quail, roadrunners, and cactus wrens are among the bird species.
The sere landscape around Picacho Peak receives a splash of vibrant colors come spring, transforming it into one of the best wildflower spots in the state. The ephemeral Mexican goldpoppy is the litmus test for wildflower season: you’ll either spot sparse individuals or be blinded by a field of electric orange blooms. The more reliable brittlebush resembles a shrub sprouting a bouquet of mini-sunflowers. Your best bet for both is March.
Be sure to add Picacho Peak to your travel stops, whether you arrive for the re-enactment of the westernmost skirmish of the Civil War, or just come off the interstate for a break while traveling between Phoenix and Tucson.
Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.