Vulture Peak’s distinctive shape has become a symbol of Wickenburg for many. But did you know that you can climb to its top? In mid-January, while horseback riding in the area, we met an older gentleman who proudly told us he’d done it. A week later, we returned with good hiking shoes, an out of town guest, and a friend’s dog to see if we could do the same.
Getting to the Vulture Peak Trailhead is simple. From the center of town, take 60 (Wickenburg Way) west to the stop light at Safeway. Make a left onto Vulture Mine Road. Go approximately 6 miles south to the trailhead; there’s a sign right before you get to it. Drive in on the dirt road approximately 1/2 mile and park near the ramada. On the map below, the pinkish line shows the way.
There is another way, however and that’s how we went. We took our jeep to the turnoff near where Syndicate Wash crosses Vulture Mine Road. From there, it’s about a mile or so to where the Vulture Peak Trail crosses the 4-wd road. Continue on the road to the 4-wd Trailhead. This cuts about 1-1/2 miles off the hike. The yellow line on the map below shows the way. But don’t try this with the family car unless it’s got high clearance and 4-wheel-drive!
From Trailhead to Trailhead
From the Vulture Peak Trailhead, there are two ways you can go: the trail or the jeep road.
The most pleasant way is on the trail (the purple line in the map; pictured here), which you can pick up to the right of the ramada. It winds through hills full of saguaro, cholla, palo verde, mesquite, ocotillo, and jojoba. The trail is well maintained and relatively easy — at least for the first 1-1/2 miles. Just about anyone able to walk three miles can do it. The only obstacles you’ll pass are a few iron barriers designed to keep out dirt bikes.
Another way is to take the jeep road, which you can pick up at to the left of the ramada. This road starts off gently enough, but soon reaches a steep, greatly eroded section which I considered a bit too challenging for my jeep. (That’s why I came in at Syndicate Wash!) On the day we hiked the peak, two or more families had decided to block the jeep road by setting up campers on the road inside the day use area. This made it impossible to pass by vehicle an forced hikers on the jeep road to walk through their illegal campsite. (Some people can take inconsiderate behavior to new heights!) On the map above, this path is marked by the purple line, then the yellow line to the 4-wd trailhead. We did the yellow line portion of the ride.
Eventually, you’ll get to the 4-wd trailhead, where, if you’re fortunate enough to have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, you can park. There’s some information there, along with a sign-in book full of comments from other hikers. If you walked from the main trailhead, take a break. The rest of the hike gets pretty strenuous and you’ll need your energy.
The Hike to the Saddle
Vulture Peak’s “saddle” is the area between the main peak and the shorter rock formations behind it. (It’s marked with a yellow X on this photo.) From certain vantage points, the saddle isn’t even visible. For example, from my home, I can see the Peak, but I can’t see the saddle. (The reason for this became obvious when I reached the saddle.) The trail winds up the side of the mountain, with switchbacks most of the way to ease the climb.
As you climb, behind you, the view of the valleys and mountains is breathtaking. Halfway up, we paused to take this photo. The yellow circles mark the position of the main trailhead and my jeep. The trail gets very steep for the last few hundred yards. Dolly, the half-coyote dog we’d brought along for the trip, often ran up ahead, then came back to look for us. We didn’t have her stamina and needed more time for rest along the way.
After about an hour of hiking (from the 4-wd trailhead, mind you), we reached the saddle and basked in the afternoon sunlight. Winded and tired, we felt a real sense of achievement as we shared water bottles and trail mix.
The saddle is an interesting spot. With breathtaking views southeast on one side and northwest on the other, views in the other two directions were blocked. We could see Phoenix far in the smoggy distance (see photo below), but not Wickenburg. We could see Congress but not Buckeye. It was clear that the only way to get a a good view was to continue the hike…to the top ofVulture Peak.
Conquering the Peak
The trail beyond the saddle is not maintained and, as we started the climb, it was clear why. A good portion of the trail required hand-over-foot climbing up extremely steep rock walls. It was slow going — not because it was strenuous but because it required careful consideration of what to grab and where to place your feet. There was a lot of loose rock that needed to be pushed aside to secure firm footing. And, at one point, I became all too conscious of the sheer drop behind me that could easily kill me if I were careless.
As we climbed, Dolly climbed with us. She skampered up the sheer rock faces like a mountain goat. Halfway up, we were certain she could go no farther and she certainly seemed to agree. We decided to leave her behind, confided that she’d be safe and would wait patiently for us.
We climbed the last few hundred feet anxiously, eager to see the view. Rick reached the top first, then me, then Mike. Oh, the view! Wickenburg was spread out before us like a hundred white dots. We could clearly pick out landmarks — the golf course at Rancho de los Caballeros, the airport, the center of town. We even saw our house, high on a hillside not far from Los Cab.
And then there was Dolly! She’d found an easier way up (which we never found on the way down) and joined us. Rick snapped this picture of Dolly and I together on the top of Vulture Peak with Wickenburg spread out behind us.
The top of Vulture Peak isn’t the bare rock that it appears to be from the ground. It’s actually full of small trees and cacti. There are two Geographic Survey markers, one dated 1948 and the other (I think) dated 1985. There’s also an ammo can filled with notes left by other hikers. There’s a flat, relatively sheltered area that wouldn’t make a bad campsite — if you could sleep with the thought of what sudden gale winds might do to your tent. And there’s quite a bit of area to explore. In this photo, Mike is taking a reading on his GPS while Rick poses for the camera. The Estrella Mountains are in the distance behind them.
After a good, long rest, we decided to head back. It was nearly four p.m. and would be getting dark within two hours. After searching without luck for Dolly’s path up, we retraced our footsteps back down the Peak trail. Most of the climb down was on our butts, placing our feet carefully as we lowered ourselves down. Again, Dolly surprised us. She climbed down steep rock faces without losing her step once. The photo shows Mike (right) and Rick about halfway down from the peak, right after the very steep part.
The trail from the saddle down was easy — at least for me. I have a hard time climbing — I get winded very easily on the way up. (That’s why I was amazed that I could climb the peak!) But on the way down, I usually have no trouble. My knees got a good workout, lowering my body down the mountain trail, one step at a time. But we’d been smart about doing the hike and had plenty of rest and fluids. It was just the tight time of day (late afternoon) and the right time of year (winter) that the temperature was perfect.
As we approached the trailhead, we stopped several times to admire the way the sinking sun shined through the cactus spines, creating a halo-like effect. The teddy bear cholla and saguaro were especially beautiful, as shown here. The long shadows and changing light color made the desert a magical place, one full of mystery.
Moments later, when we reached the Jeep at the 4-wd trailhead, we turned to look back at the mountain we’d climbed. The sun was casting a pale yellow light on the mountain side.
We retraced our route back to Vulture Mine Road. By the time we reached it, the sun was painting the desert orange with its last rays of light. We felt a certain thrill over our achievement and were eager to share our story with our friends.
But somehow, I felt a little sad, too. Vulture Peak, which I can clearly see from my kitchen and bedroom windows, had once been this big, dark mysterious mountain. Now it was simply a landmark, one I knew better than most. We’d peeled away the mystery by climbing to its top and exploring its rocky terrain. The mystery was gone.
Distance: About 20 miles round trip by car; 4 miles round trip hiking
Time: About 4 Hours, including rest breaks
Features: Vulture Peak, local vegetation, views!
Driving Conditions: Most of the trip is on paved roads. There is a short dirt road to the Vulture Peak Trailhead parking area. If you have a high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle, you can shorten the hike by driving an additional 1-1/2 miles on a rough dirt road to the 4-wd Trailhead.
Equipment: Bring plenty of water, sturdy hiking shoes with good treads, and your camera.
Special Notes: The last 1/2 mile of this hike is extremely strenuous. The climb from the saddle to the top of Vulture Peak requires some basic rock-climbing skills, although no special equipment is necessary. This hike is not recommended during hot weather.
Related Link: Vulture Peak Rescue