Picacho once again hitting its peak

Gervana Begaye, 41, hikes Southern Arizona's Picacho Peak on Saturday, September 12, 2015. Photo by: Skyler Brandt/Arizona Sonora News
Gervana Begaye, 41, hikes Southern Arizona’s Picacho Peak on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. Photo by: Skyler Brandt/Arizona Sonora News

Picacho Peak is back and booming.

More than twice as many hikers, climbers, runners and even average Joes visited Picacho Peak State Park this year than they did last year, according to the Arizona Office of Tourism.

In its Monthly State Parks Visitation Report, the Office of Tourism claimed that the park had 864 visitors in the month of June, which brought the yearly number of visitors up to 73,685.

Only 44,334 people visited the park between January and June of 2014, according to the report.

The park closed its gates to the public during the summer months of 2011 – 2014, primarily due to the extreme heat as well as to provide staff to assist the busier parks in the state, according to a 2011 Arizona State Parks’ press release

The 640-acre state park opened its gates on May 30, 1968, but it served as a historical landmark for nearly a hundred years prior. Picacho Peak hosted Arizona’s largest Civil War Battle in 1862. The park has grown to 3,747 acres and is covered in wildflowers, according to the park’s website.

Jared Walton, 16, a junior at Casa Grande Union High School hiked Picacho Peak on a recent Saturday with three of his friends. Walton drove the foursome the 30 miles from Casa Grande to the state park at 8 a.m.

“This is the first time they have been out here,” Walton said. “But I hike it (the peak) at least a couple times a year.”

Most of the visitors to Picacho Peak that day either trained for an upcoming athletic event or hiked to stay in shape, but not Walton and his friends. The friends had absolutely no motive to make the two-mile hike, other than the fact that they had “a whole lot of fun” doing so, Walton said.

Of the 12 visitors that hiked at the state park that morning, 10 of them trekked up the Hunter Trail to the top of the peak’s 3,374 feet elevation. Motivated not by the “breathtaking views,” Gervana Begaye, 41, said she hiked Picacho Peak because it challenged her. 

A scenic view of two saguaro cacti on Picacho Peak in Eloy, Arizona on Saturday, September 12, 2015.  Photo by: Skyler Brandt/ Arizona Sonora News
A scenic view of two saguaro cacti on Picacho Peak in Eloy, Arizona on Saturday, Sept. 12.
Photo by: Skyler Brandt/ Arizona Sonora News

“The terrain we run on in our marathons is very similar to the terrain here at Picacho, so it’s perfect training,” Begaye said. “Not to mention very challenging.”

Begaye a native of Tucson, hiked with a group of six fellow marathon runners, including Marvin Chee, 50, a truck driver from Florence who drove nearly 100 miles to hike with his friends that morning.

“I’m a runner, so I don’t really look at this as training,” Chee said. “It was an opportunity for me to spend time with friends, so I took it.”

If the opportunity arose, Chee said he would not hesitate to drive back down to Picacho Peak to socialize. Although his hike doubled as a social gathering, Chee recalled his last time at Picacho Peak being a solo trip.

Three weeks ago, Chee drove down to Picacho Peak a few hours before the sun rose, hiked an altered version of Hunter Trail and reached the peak by 4 a.m. He forgot his headlamp that trip and relied on the light given off by his cellphone and the moon.

“When it’s that early in the morning and pitch black out, it becomes more of a spiritual experience,” Chee said.

Marvin Chee, 50, comes down Picacho Peak a few paces ahead of his group.  Photo by: Skyler Brandt/ Arizona Sonora News
Marvin Chee, 50, comes down Picacho Peak a few paces ahead of his group. Photo by: Skyler Brandt/ Arizona Sonora News

Picacho Peak’s booming attendance this year brought more than fun, training, social and spiritual experiences; the influx of visitors increased traffic for the local businesses near the state park.

Janet Bircher, 65, an attendant at Bowlin’s Picacho Peak Plaza, said that business at the travel center has “significantly increased” this year compared to last.

The past three years, the state park closed during the summer months, Bircher said. She has worked for the travel center for four years and she recalled the park staying open year-round when she started.

Bircher claimed that last year when the park closed, many of the travel center’s customers assumed the businesses closed as well because the State Park’s signage on Interstate 10 read “Closed” all summer long.

“Now that the park is open and that sign came down, we got our normal summer business back,” Bircher said.

Skyler Brandt is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at skylerbrandt@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high resolution photos. 

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