Humphreys Peak: Highest Mountain in Arizona

Fast Facts About Humphreys Peak

Last Light on San Francisco Peaks
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Humphreys Peak is Arizona's highest mountain and the highest point of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff in north-central Arizona. It rises to an elevation of 12,637 feet (3,852 meters). Native Americans are believed to have made the first ascent of the mountain.

It is also the 26th most prominent mountain in the lower 48 states with an elevation rise of 6,053 feet. The 56 Ultra-Prominent U.S. peaks rise at least 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) above a nearby saddle or low point.

Geology: Huge Stratovolcano

The San Francisco Peaks range, also called San Francisco Mountain, was once a huge, cone-shaped stratovolcano that rose somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 feet high and looked like Mount Rainier in Washington or Mount Fuji in Japan. Eruptions built the peak between 1 million and 400,000 years ago. After that, the mountain blew itself up in a similar fashion to Mount Saint Helens in 1980 when it had a massive sideways eruption that left a gaping hole in the side of the mountain. The peaks, including Humphreys, lie along the outer rim of the blasted caldera.

Composed of Six Peaks

The San Francisco Peaks are composed of six peaks, including the four highest in Arizona: Humphreys Peak, 12,637 feet (3,851 m), Agassiz Peak, 12,356 feet (3,766 m), Fremont Peak, 11,969 feet (3,648 m), Aubineau Peak, 11,838 feet (3,608 m), Rees Peak, 11,474 feet (3,497 m), and Doyle Peak, 11,460 feet (3,493 m).

Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area

Humphreys Peak lies within 18,960-acre Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area. On the San Francisco Peaks, there is no off-trail hiking to protect the endemic and endangered plant, the San Francisco Peaks Groundsel. Groups above treeline are limited to a maximum of 12 people. There is no camping or campfires allowed above 11,400 feet.

Climbing Humphreys Peak

The Humphreys Trail, starting at 8,800 feet at the Arizona Snow Bowl ski area on the west side of the mountain, is the standard ascent route. The popular 4.75-mile-long trail is moderate but can be strenuous for lowlanders. Elevation gain is 3,313 feet. Hikers must follow the trail above timberline and not venture cross-country to avoid damaging the alpine tundra.

History: Named after Civil War General

Humphreys Peak was named about 1870 for Brigadier General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, a Civil War hero and U.S. Chief of Engineers. Humphreys' link to Arizona was that he directed the famous Wheeler Surveys, the United States Geographical Survey that explored the region west of the 100th Meridian, mostly in the southwestern United States. The surveys, done in the 1870s, were led by Captain George Wheeler.

Humphreys was a Civil War General, who led Union troops at Gettysburg, Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville, and others. His troops called him "Old Google Eyes" for his reading glasses, but he was a profane and no-nonsense soldier. Charles Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, called him "one of the loudest swearers" he ever heard and a man of "distinguished and brilliant profanity." He loved war and always led his troops into battle on his horse.

Peaks Named by Spanish Priests

The San Francisco Peaks were named in the 17th century by Franciscan priests at a mission at the Hopi village of Oraibi. The padres named the mission and the peaks for St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order.

Sacred Mountains

Humphreys Peak and the San Francisco Peaks are sacred and holy mountains to Native American tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, and Navajo.

Sacred Navajo Mountain of the West

For the Navajo or Diné, the San Francisco Peaks are the sacred mountains of the west, Dook'o'ooslííd. The peaks, held on Earth by a sunbeam, are of the color yellow, associated with sunset.

The San Francisco Peaks and the Hopi

The Hopi, living east of the mountains, revere the San Francisco Peaks or Nuva'tuk-iya-ovi. They are holy places that are desecrated by continuing recreation and use. The Hopi have long made pilgrimages to the peaks, leaving items at sacred sites. The peaks are the home of the Katsinas or Kachinas, special beings that bring rain to the Hopi's parched fields in summer. The Katsinas live in the mountains for part of the year before taking flight during the summer monsoon season when they fly as rainclouds to nourish crops.

Arizona Ski Resort

Flagstaff's ski resort, the Arizona Snowbowl, lies on the western slope of Humphrey's Peak.

Only Tundra Plants in Arizona

The only alpine tundra plant community in Arizona is found on two square miles on the San Francisco Peaks.

The Six Life Zones

Clinton Hart Merriam, a pioneering biologist, studied Arizona's geography and plant and animal communities, including those on the San Francisco Peaks, in 1889. His landmark work described six distinct life zones from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the summit of Humphrey's Peak. The life zones were described by elevation, climate, precipitation, and latitude. Merriam's six life zones, still used today, are Lower Sonoran Zone, Upper Sonoran Zone, Transition Zone (also called Montane Zone), Canadian Zone, Hudsonian Zone, and Arctic-Alpine Zone. A seventh zone not described in Arizona is the Tropical Zone.