Emboldened after the quick hike up South Mountain I eagerly scanned over other quick hikes in the Phoenix valley. If Camelback Mountain, one of the more challenging treks in the city, was doable (climbed back in August) and South Mountain was that easy than I should have no problem on any other local hike. My searches began to narrow on the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and the central highpoint: Piestewa Peak, formerly known as Squaw Peak.
Piestewa Peak interested me for a few reasons. Even though it is ninety feet shorter than Camelback there is some debate if it is a 'tougher' hike or not. Apparently the trail is more rugged than Echo Canyon or Cholla. A rugged trail seemed insignificant to me, as I'm used to simply bushwhacking, so I ignored that factor. If I could climb Camelback, bagging Piestewa should be possible.
It was pitch black when I rolled out of the driveway and headed north to Scottsdale. A quick thirty minute drive had me at the preserve and it took some time to find a parking spot. By the time I made it to the actual trailhead, having to park some distance away, I had less than an hour before sunrise. Most of the 90 minute trek would be done in the decent pre-sun temperatures.
The first part of the trail was weird. Once I climbed out of the wash and made it to the true route I was walking on a cobble path that looked more like a narrow road than hiking trail. Found out later that there was a mine in these hills and some of the roads were used for horses to haul goods to and from the shafts. This cobble section could easily be an old horse route up the hill, though I'm not sure where the mine was located.
The path switched back and forth, quickly climbing above the parking lots. It wasn't terribly steep, all slope and no stairs, it just didn't take much time for views over Phoenix to open up. The route would take me up the southern face to a saddle, with vistas of the city lights stretching away towards South Mountain, before cutting over to the north and up the ways to the peak.
A few steps of stairs began to pick up here and there, natural and worn things that felt more than a few hundred years old. I kept looking ahead to where the peak should be, off to the east, but I couldn't pick it out. I wasn't familiar with the shape of this mountain and what I would be looking for. There were rocks above me, though. As long as there was hill and rocks above me I could just keep going up.
The crowd wasn't bad. There was a lot of cars filling up the lots, and more cars coming in as I climbed, but the trail didn't feel congested. There must be other trails that people were exploring today. A few people passed me and I passed a few slow groups, everyone polite and gracious in the early morning. It wasn't a silent solo hike, sure, but people seemed nicer here than the cluster at Camelback.
A dull red glow was shining in the southeast by the time I hit the saddle, reminding me that I was running out of cool temps. I had refused to stop so far on the climb, more interested in keeping the darkness than breath, and the glow merely pushed me forward faster. Today would be over a hundred today, a hundred degrees in September, and it was already a balmy 85 out.
A few benches showed up along the path, neatly tucked to the side and offering small views over the city, though I didn't dare pause. Maybe on the way down. I just kept climbing, up and steepening route, the route that was turning into more stairs than slope.
That is an interesting comparison to make. As Camelback began to poke into view to the south I thought back to how those trails feel. Both Cholla and Echo Canyon are more bouldering and rocky paths than anything else, semi-natural routes up the ridges. Well, ignoring the occasional railing and railroad tie, that is. Piestewa had a lot of stairs. They were carved into the rock or made of cement and boulder, but they were stairs. It's a different kind of climb, a more natural way to move your feet, and worked different muscles. I'm not sure which is 'tougher', but I knew going down this one would be a cakewalk.
A bit over an hour into the hike and I finally saw the sun. I wasn't on the peak, not yet, but a convenient twist on the route brought me face to face with the harsh light. It glared like desert suns do, brighter and meaner than the Midwest sun I was used to, and the skies around it was vibrant. One day I'll get used to this different sky.
Now the peak was visible, a short haul up the rock. A few people were already up there. I hauled on the rest of the trail, taking the last switchbacks and jumps with speed, and pushed to the peak gasping for air. There was maybe dozen hikers up here, spread out in little groups chatting and gazing over the view, a nice change to the din on other mountain peaks.
There wasn't a ton of room up here, either. No wide, flat area for congregating. The peak was rugged, sharp rocks and deep chasms, a tortured landscape that was difficult to traverse. I was happy sticking close to the trail, looking around at the cloudy skies that hid the sun, trying to pick out landmarks in the dull gray morning light.
Once I had my breath back and a few photos I turned and headed back down. It was a nice hike up, a nice peak to bag, but I didn't feel any special reason to sit up there a long time. I headed down the blocky rocks and started slip-sliding my way back down the trail.
There were more hikers now, their numbers swollen by the later hour, and with greater variety. This morning I had mostly seen fit Camelbak-wearing people zipping up the mountain with moisture-wicking clothes and earbuds. Now there were tourists hauling their children, larger people puffing, and chatty teenagers strolling along. It was nice to see so many people out choosing to do a quick climb instead of sleeping in, though it did slow my descent.
It took half the time to descend, even with the crowds. I wasn't too tired when I swung back into the car and headed back to Gilbert. If Katie and I were to move down here (which we ended up doing) I could see going for early morning hikes like this to wake up. My hours would be a bit weird, working for a company in an eastern timezone, though I'm sure something could be figured out for that. Waking up hours before dawn, heading out on a quick cardiac-thrashing hike, and then getting back to house with the sunrise sounds like a great way to kickstart the day.