Driving westbound on highway 74 near Morristown, Arizona, the ominous hump of Vulture Peak dominates the horizon ahead.
Glancing out the driver and passenger windows, many of the neighboring ranges are taller and more massive, yet there’s something unique about how Vulture’s dome stands out from the surrounding desert.
I relived this experience many times over the course of a few years and the mountain climber in me desired to set foot on Vulture’s summit.
One breezy Thursday afternoon in March, I decided to act on that desire. As I once again rolled down the highway and saw that familiar silhouette in the distance, I cracked a smile. Somehow I knew right then that the view from the top would be something special.
At an elevation of 3,660 feet, Vulture Peak is the highpoint of the Vulture Mountains, a narrow string of sharp peaks just south of Wickenburg. Surrounding this ridgeline, saguaro-clad hills bleed into flat valleys. Higher mountains are dozens of miles distant, allowing the Vultures to stand in solitude.
The hike is accessed via Vulture Mine Road, a two-lane blacktop shooting off from US 60 on the western outskirts of Wickenburg.
Winding back and forth through the foothills of the Vulture Mountains, this is a nice little scenic drive worthy in its own right. Passing through a classic Sonoran Desert landscape, Saguaro cacti dot the hillsides along the gracefully curving road.
At one point the highway splits between two hills, and Vulture Peak’s rugged massif comes into view. Even though I was about to hike the damn thing, I couldn’t help but stop here and snap a couple photos at the roadside.
About 7 miles from the junction, a large dirt lot appears on the left with a sign for the Vulture Peak Trail. There’s almost always at least a few RVs camped here so you can’t miss it. A dirt road leads from the back of the lot out to the trailhead.
This dusty track has a few dips and bumps, but my little Toyota Prius handled it fine. The trailhead is pretty nice, with a dozen or so designated parking spots, an outhouse, and a couple of benches under a sun shelter.
Folks with four-wheel drive can opt to drive a 4×4 trail another 1.5 miles to an upper trailhead. However, if you’ve got the time I highly recommend doing the full 4-mile round-trip hike. Skipping the lower reaches of the hiking trail means missing out on some cool terrain.
Don’t Sleep on the Cholla
At the trailhead, a cool breeze greeted me as puffy clouds drifted overhead. I pulled a fleece sweater over my head and strapped on my trusty backpack, camera in hand. An older gentleman painted next to his VW Microbus. With no other cars in the lot, I knew I had the trail to myself.
After exiting the parking lot through a rusted iron gate, the trail immediately entered a dense stand of Teddy Bear cholla cactus. Standing four feet tall, these healthy-looking specimens were a lovely sight, especially with a dramatic view of the Vulture Peak for a backdrop.
This stand of jumping cholla continued for a few hundred yards. For those unfamiliar, care must always be taken around these beautiful but dangerous plants.
Most people know not get too close to an upright cactus. However, chollas drop little spine-covered segments on the ground. These are easily overlooked, especially if the hiker is not paying proper attention to their feet.
After a cautious walk through the cholla, the trail dropped off into the sandy bed of Syndicate Wash. In the typical fashion of BLM-managed trails, crossing the wash was confusing. The trail did not continue directly across the stream bed, and after a couple minutes of hunting, I discovered the correct route about fifty yards downstream.
From here, the trail climbed back out of the wash and through a section of rolling desert hills. Along the way, the trail took on a variety of forms: sometimes smooth and well-groomed, sometimes rough and littered with ankle-busting rocks.
Despite an occasional rough patch, the mellow grades kept the walking easy as I slowly gained elevation. Passing through another forest of jumping cactus, I watched my step and enjoyed the scenery.
Overhead, I noticed some dark figures floating in the air, their silhouettes set dramatically against white clouds and blue sky.
I had an “ah-ha!” moment. Vulture Peak isn’t just cool name, it’s an actual home to a committee of vultures. I’d see more evidence of their presence at the top of the mountain.
Saguaros soon replaced the cholla and the trail steepened a bit as it climbed up to the crest of a small hill. From this little promontory, views opened up across the Vulture foothills, and I stopped for a minute to take it in.
As I set down my bag and swigged on a water bottle, I noticed a hint of spring in the landscape.
Although an unseasonably dry spell afflicted the last few months of our winter rainy season, this stretch of desert looked better than anything I’d seen that year. It wasn’t the lush green as a typical March, but at least the triangle leaf bursage produced their pale green leaves.
On a triplet of ocotillos growing nearby, little orange-red flowers capped the tops of the plants’ spindly arms. Further inspection revealed tiny leaves sprouting amid the rows of spines.
Continuing on, the trail dropped off the hill into a dry wash. The path here was a bit more obvious with a pink ribbon tied to a bush marking the way. I walked up the bed until reaching an intersection with the 4×4 road.
Crossing the road, the trail climbed upward for a few hundred yards before reaching the terminus of the 4×4 trail and the upper trailhead. I took another break here, sipping my agua and peering up as Vulture now towered above me.
Signs at the upper trailhead indicated the trail ended at a saddle just below the peak. Another eight-tenths of a mile and I would be there. Checking my watch, I was a little short on time — perhaps I’d stopped to take too many pictures along the way. I might not make the summit before hitting my turnaround time.
With this in mind, I continued on. The trail immediately steepened. I knew the hike ceased to be easygoing as my heart pounded and breathing labored.
With visions of the summit wafting through my conscious and the increased challenge invigorating my spirit, my mind focused on making a quick ascent.
Up and Up
The trail switchbacked up a steep hillside. The cadence of my feet was only broken as a bend in the trail turned my line of sight to the vista below me. I stopped for a moment to enjoy the bird’s eye view as the sun dropped lower in the western sky.
Breaking back into my uphill march, the slope transitioned into rugged cliffs. A gully provided a break in the cliffs, and the trail took advantage. The path steepened again as I passed a spectacular over-hanging “wave wall” carved in the gully’s edge.
My anticipation heightened as I neared the top of the gully, the saddle just minutes away. Already impressed with the scenery thus far, I told myself to be smart and turn back at the saddle as the day slipped away.
A pair of iconic saguaros stood tall just below the saddle. I enjoyed their company as I took the last few steps up onto the high pass.
In all honesty, I felt underwhelmed by the view from here. The saddle itself is narrow, with tall cliffs rising almost straight up to the north and south. It didn’t feel much different from the views hiking up the gully below.
However, I noticed an interesting detail up on the ridge to the south: patches of white up on the rocks. At too low an elevation for snow, I concluded it must be large deposits of bird poop from the mountain’s resident turkey vultures.
My watch read 5:30pm, my turnaround time. Dead set on achieving some wow-factor, I ignored it and decided to go for the summit. It couldn’t be too far out of reach.
From the saddle, a social trail drifts up a scree slope to the north. I carefully but deliberately hiked up it toward yet another gully, this one much more narrow and steep.
Once in the gully, scree gave way to cliffs and walking gave way to climbing. Staying in the gully bottom seemed the best way to navigate this class 3 scramble. At one point I left the bottom and climbed up a steep rock face only to bail halfway up the pitch as the exposure got to my head.
Regrouping, I stayed in the gully bottom and climbed a tough spot using the stump of half-alive chuparosa. From here, I was golden.
The Glorious Vulture Peak Summit
I successfully completed the last bit of the scramble and reached the top just fifteen minutes beyond the saddle. The summit greeted me with a 360-degree panoramic view.
To the northeast, the 7,000-foot-tall Bradshaw Mountains towered over the smaller ranges in front of it.
To the west, the razor-backed ridges of the Harcuvar and Harquahala Mountains created a dramatic contrast to their neighboring valleys.
To the south, sheer cliffs extended beyond Vulture’s high saddle, adding a rugged a photogenic middle ground to the expansive views.
To the southeast, the wide profile of the White Tank Mountains rises abruptly from a broad desert plain. Squinting, the suburban sprawl of Phoenix glistens in the haze with the jagged tops of Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains just visible on the far horizon.
The summit itself was a couple dozen yards wide and broken into a network of hogback ridges sloping off into sheer cliffs. Neon green lichen grew from the pale red metamorphic rock, creating a dynamic yet complementary contrast of hues.
On a dome of rock surrounded by miles and miles of desert, this blossoming shrub seemed like a miracle.
Not too far from the peak’s highpoint, a single chuparosa bush bloomed majestically with its tubular red wildflowers.
As I stood on this platform of rock elevated two thousand feet above the valley, it felt like I was floating on an island as high as the clouds.
As much as I wanted to sit and enjoy the views for a while, I was now well past my turnaround time. Stowing my camera back in my pack, I retraced my steps down into the gully.
Walking into the Sunset
To make up for lost time, I made haste on the descent. The downhill scramble went quickly, and in no time I was back at the saddle hiking past the twin saguaros.
Camera back in hand, I maintained a quick pace but stopped often to take snapshots in the rich, golden light. As the sun neared the western horizon, I ran past the upper trailhead, hoping to catch the fields of saguaro lit from behind by the setting sun.
I got my wish and then some, and continued on toward the cholla forests as the sun disappeared. I looked back at Vulture Peak to see it drenched in a red-orange glow.
Coming back over the rolling hills, a patch of clouds caught the blaze of sunset in the western sky. After one last encore, the sunset left the stage for good, and the sky resolved into a palette of pale blues.
I snuck back through the sea of teddy bear cholla as civil twilight settled on the desert and returned to my trusty Prius without even turning on my headlamp.
As I drove the dirt road past the RVs, a feeling of satisfaction washed over me. Yet my time at the summit seemed so short, and I knew Vulture Peak would call me back sometime in the future.