I had built this trail up in my mind. I called it the World’s Toughest Half-Mile Summit hike. From what I read the way to the top of Lookout Mountain, at a mere 2,054 feet elevation, was short but not so sweet. Loose rock and steep with some scrambling near the top. I figured it might be one of those trails that was so ugly you might not enjoy the summit views, no matter how nice.
But I started out anyway on this warm and cloudless Sunday afternoon, knowing in a matter of weeks triple-digit temperatures would make this hike a death march.
Lookout Mountain lies in the far-flung Phoenix Mountain Preserve, well within the city limits and yet about 15 miles north of where I live near downtown. The Preserve is a large area of desert that has been spared from the city’s hungry-eyed developers and homeowners who can not gobble up pristine areas like this fast enough. Then as close to wild nature as they can stand, these goggley-eyed surbanites have the gall to complain about the javelina and coyotes in their backyards. Yes, I know. Another story, another time, .
I marched out from the trailhead at the end of 16th Street, south of the Greenway Parkway. There is a little parking lot there and it was nearly full. A bulletin board with a map and a water fountain rest nearby.
The Summit Trail, #150, veers sharply off the perimeter trail about 50 yards out and rises rapidly up into some loopy switchbacks. The trail, yes, is largely loose rock about golf ball size. But small paths of dirt have been worn through by the steady foot traffic. Though probably the least known of the half dozen peaks within the Preserve, I count about 20 other hikers coming up and down as I travel along. That’s a lot in a half mile. And the going is steep despite the switchbacks.
My definition of a steep trail is this: 1,000 feet elevation gain in one mile. The Summit Trail is said to rise 475 feet in a half mile. That by my math is equivalent to 950 feet in a mile. Close enough to qualify.
This is mostly a land of creosote, a wonderful desert plant. Shoulder high with long gray spider legs leading up to little greasy green leaves at the ends. I like the creosote so much I’ve grown one in my backyard. No water, no care. And it’s a mammoth thing. The creosote is in full bloom now with small yellow flowers, many of them already turning into small gray fuzz balls of seed. There are neighbors. Green-skinned palo verde trees dot the landscape and a few yellow-flowering brittle bushes are here and there. But I saw no cactus along the trail.
The trail is unrelentlessly steep and rocky. My wind is not great and my leg muscles above the knee are turning soft. Walking five to six miles a day for years on flatland does not prepare you for this. I see a saddle up ahead and plod onward, my eyes on the ground so as not to be discouraged by the grade. I drop down on a large rock in the saddle and look ahead, watching a man and a woman clamber down over uneven boulders in a very steep crevice. He is carrying a baby in one of those kangaroo pouches and at the same time helping the nervous woman over the boulders. I welcome the rest and the view. To the south, beyond the vast sea of upscale homes, I catch sight of Lookout’s sister mountains, North Mountain and Shaw Butte, a few miles to the south.
The saddle is by my reckoning three-fourths of the way to the summit. How much farther can the summit be? An eighth of a mile? Not far. Directly above me is a high point. I wonder, is that the summit? The couple with the baby passes and I struggle to my feet again and head up “the crevice.” I like to give names ot landmarks. It somehow helps me orient myself.
A woman is easing down as I go up. She is wearing flimsy shoes. I liken them to slippers you wear around the house. I’m wearing my thick-soled Garmont low-cuts, and feel no pain at all. As she passes, the woman, almost apologizing, says she regrets leaving her hiking shoes at home.
It’s a bit of a scramble at this point. Scrambling is halfway between hiking and climbing. You have to use the hands. No way a handicapped elderly person could reach the top, I think. Not on this trail.
The “high point” seen from the saddle was a tease. But it is near the summit, a short and flat walk to the signifying metal marker. I wait while a young couple take a quick view from the top and head back down. A teenage boy pops up from nowhere, with an I-Pod. I can hear the music. He’d never hear the rattle of a snake, never know what bit him until it was too late.
The summit itself was unremarkable. Flat and rocky. No register. Hardly any sound except the buzzing of some bees, fighting over water rights to a small tank in the rock. But the views, they were spectacular. Smaller Shadow Mountain to the east. Downtown Phoenix highrises and beyond in the light haze South Mountain. None of the radio towers and other crud you find on Shaw Butte or North Mountain.
Then down I go. Only 15 minutes to the parking lot, less than half the time it took me to get up there. In my time, I’ve sat on the summit of Mount Whitney in the Sierras, the highest U.S. peak outside of Alaska and Hawaii. I’ve been to the top of Arizona’s highest peak, Mount Humphrey, and reached the highest point in this county, Brown’s Peak, in the Mazatzals, one of the Four Peaks. But climbing little Lookout Mountain has its joys. To look out from any vista, no matter how high or low, is one of life’s pleasures.
This was a good day. And who can forget? I had conquered “the world’s toughtest half-mile summit trail.”