Webmaster Note: I just updated this article, which originally appeared in March 2000, to add some photos that were lost when this Web site was converted to the new software last January. Although the text remains pretty accurate, if you do visit the observatory, it may look a bit different. On one of my morning flights up there a few years back, I noticed that they were doing some rennovation work on the building. These photos are from our first visit in 2000. If you have some newer photos, please use the comments link to let me know and I’ll make arrangements to get them. — ML
wickenburg-az.com site visitor Marilyn Evans, who commented on our Ghost Ranch trip, suggested that we visit the Harquahala Peak Smithsonian Observatory. On a beautiful March day, we loaded a picnic lunch into our Jeep and headed west.
Armed with a good map of the area, we left Wickenburg, heading west on 60. We zeroed the trip odometer at Safeway (Wickenburg Way and Vulture Mine Road) so we could provide relatively accurate mileage estimates for this account. (I believe my odometer is slightly off, so these readings really are estimates.)
In Aguila, we made a left onto Eagle Eye Road (odometer reading 24). Now heading south, almost directly toward Eagle Eye Peak, the road ran straight as an arrow for at least two miles (see photo). We passed an airpark on the left, then wound up the road to the west of Eagle Eye Peak. State land starts around there and there’s open range, so we kept an eye out for stray cattle.
We reached the turnoff for Aguila Road (odometer reading 29), a dirt road that travels east to connect with Vulture Mine Road near the Vulture Mine. At this point, our map indicated that the pavement on Eagle Eye Road would end, but it continued. (So much for “good” maps!) We continued south on Eagle Eye Road driving through beautiful desert scenery, on a road that dipped through dozens of tiny washes. We crossed Tiger Wash, a major wash, twice.
At odometer reading 42.8, we reached the turnoff for Harquahala Peak. It’s well marked and easy to find. The pavement ended and a well-maintained dirt road began. We were now driving northwest, toward the Harquahala Mountains. There were some dirt bikers and ATVers in the area, but many. There were, however, numerous other 4WD vehicles headed the same way we were. This surprised us: we thought this particular destination was virtually unknown.
Although there were multiple turnoffs for other dirt roads, the main road was obvious. It wound into a canyon and was impossible to miss. That is, until we reached odometer reading 46.6. At that point, the road forked. The path to the right descended to a wash while the path to the left climbed above it. We correctly chose the left fork but after climbing above the wash, noticed some ruins accessible trom the other path. We backtracked to explore.
The ruins were obviously mining-related. There was a relatively large stone building standing on a flat area not far above the wash. One full wall and half of a second wall remained. The floor was concrete, the windows were wood-framed. A pipe held one window frame up, preventing further deterioration of the ruins.
Beyond the building ruins, on the hillside to the east, were the remains of concrete-lined tanks and platforms used for ore processing or some similar task. There were garbage piles with rusted cans, mattress frames, and other debris.
A rough stone road ran up from the building ruins to the hillside platforms and beyond. Although we didn’t explore much farther, we believe there may be mines further up the hill. If you decide to explore, be careful! Mine shafts are extremely dangerous and, in warm weather, snakes and poisonous insects pose even more danger.
After the ruins, we continued up the road toward the peak. The road’s condition deteriorated somewhat, becoming rockier and steeper. Then the switchbacks began as we climbed up the side of the mountain. Still, we kept out Jeep in 2WD and felt confident that the road could be travelled by just about any car in good condition.
At the top of this first major climb was a ridge. The road ran along the ridge-top toward the peak. Looking down, we could see the road we’d climbed. Looking ahead, we could see the next climb, to the peak.
It was this final climb that we considered the hardest part of the drive. We were determined to stay in 2WD as long as possible, just to see if it could be done. Our rear wheels spun occasionally on the loose rock as we climbed, but we never lost control or enough traction to continue. But an extremely steep, loose area convinced me that it was time to put all four wheels to work. What a difference! The rest of the climb was smooth. So although I don’t think a 4WD vehicle is required to make the climb, it certainly does make it easier!
At the Top of the World
At the top of the peak is a series of parking areas, as well as picnic tables and even a few barbeque grills. There were quite a few people there, mostly order folks who’d come up to take in the view. We drove up the road until our way was blocked by some inconsiderate visitors who’d decided to park in the middle of the road, blocking anyone from passing in either direction. We pulled out of the way, parked the Jeep, and climbed out to investigate.
The corregated metal building that once housed a solar observatory is on a flat area just short of the summit. According to a flyer available in front of the building, it was occupied from 1920 through 1925. It was used to take readings from the sun for a project designed to forecase weather based on solar data. Originally, there were two buildings. Now ony one remains. It’s fenced off to protect it from vandals. The flyer provides a wealth of information about the observatory, as well as period photographs showning life atop the peak.
An array of solar panels and microwave antennas are several hundred feet away, closer to the top of the peak. According te the peak flyer, these antenna are used to relay instructions to the Arizona Project Canal system for regulating water flow. They form a sharp contrast to the old metal building.
Between the building and the microwave antennas is the peak, with a brightly colored windsock and geographic survey marker. A helipad is nearby. (Since making this first trip, I’ve landed my helicopter there three times.)
The view is — as you can probably imagine — incredible. On a clear day, you can probably see well over a hundred miles. On that March day, it was somewhat hazy. Still, we were able to see Four Peaks beyond Phoenix (although we could not see Phoenix’s skyscrapers), and multiple mountain ranges in every direction. To the east, we could see Vulture Peak just south of Wickenburg, as well as Aguila (both are labeled in the photo below). To the northwest, we could see the farming communities of Wenden and Salome, huge patchworks of farmland in various stages of cultivation.
Looking down, we could also see part of the road we’d travelled to reach our lofty peak. It looked like a narrow beige ribbon along the top of the ridge that wound to the left, out of sight in the canyon we’d come up.
We enjoyed our lunch overlooking Wenden and Salome, using the binoculars to pick out landmarks in every direction. Then we wandered around the area, noting the differences in vegetation at 5691 feet. The saguaro were replaced with agaves and yuccas. Prickly pear were scattered around, but there were reddish in color, unlike any other prickly pear I’d seen.
After about an hour on top of the peak, it was time to go home. I kept the Jeep in 4WD on the way down, using 1st gear in the steepest areas. It was slow-going, but were were in no hurry.
Once we emerged from the canyon, we decided to try a few of the turnoffs to see where they’d lead. We found a few filled-in mine shafts and other evidence of mining activity. If you’r interested in mines, this is yet another area of Arizona to explore.
Back on the main road, we reset the trip odometer and set off to find the road to Sunset Canyon, which was on our map. We found it 3 miles back toward Aguila on Eagle Eye Road. It’s a left turn, relatively easy to miss. We travelled north in the canyon until we reached some private property; then took a different road back to Eagle Eye Road. It was an uneventful side trip.
We did, however, stop at an abandoned mine right off Eagle Eye Road, directly across from where our side trip ended. (You’ll see this mine on the left as you travel south toward the turnoff for Harquahala Peak.) The mine shafts had been filled in with fine black gravel and there wasn’t much to see. Just the remains of the two heavy wooden posts that had once supported the shaft’s heavy machinery, some foundations with stairs, and a lot of rusted cans and other debris. We drove around on some of the dirt roads in the area but didn’t stay long. It was getting late and we were ready to call it a day.
We retraced our path back through Aguila to Wickenburg, thinking about our day. We’d expected to do some serious off-roading to get to a place few people knew about. Instead, we’d arrived at a relatively popular 4WD destination, a perfect place for looking down on the world and enjoying a picnic lunch. We’ll be back.
Distance: About 110 miles round trip.
Time: About 4-5 Hours, including time to get out and walk around
Features: Incredible views, picnic areas, ruins and mines along the way.
Driving Conditions: Most of trip is on paved roads. Last 10 miles is unpaved. The first 5 miles of the unpaved secion is easy and can be done by any car. The remainder is steep and rocky; a high-clearance vehicle with 4WD is recommended.
Equipment: Bring water, your camera, and a picnic lunch.