Name: Humphreys Peak. Arizona
Latitude/Longitude: 35.346662, -111.678491
Trail Distance (one-way): 4.5 mi/7.24 km
Elevation Gain: 3313 ft/1009 m
Average hiking time: 5 hrs. to summit (2.5 hrs descent)
Martin Classification: Class 6 (of 10)
Access to Trail: Parking lot
Special considerations: Watch out for exposed roots along the trail that can be trip hazards.
Closest town/supplies: Flagstaff, AZ (14.0 miles S)
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Humphreys Peak towers over its neighboring mountains which, together, make up the San Francisco Peaks of Arizona. All of the peaks in this range trace their heritage back to volcanic beginnings. Humphreys Peak was once an active volcano which was thought to tower upwards of 16,000+ feet in elevation. This once massive summit met its fate when a lateral volcanic eruption blew out the side of the mountain scattering debris miles away and leaving the iconic bowl shaped basin in its place. Even today standing at the summit of Humphreys you can look down into the inner basin of the mountain and gain an appreciation for just how powerful the explosion must have been. Humphrey’s is scattered with all sorts of great history and (at this point) goes down in our book as one of the greatest state high points to go exploring on. You’ll see what I mean soon.
We arrived to Humphreys Peak just a touch after midnight. I remember because I made Austin pull the car over in a lone patch of cellular service so I could submit my online paper before its 11:59pm deadline. That’s right. I was writing a paper. Surprised? Ya, me too. I’m surprised I actually did it. Thankfully by the time we pulled in to park the rain that had followed us from the Grand Canyon had tapered off a bit. We opted not to set up a tent in the parking area (although there weren’t any signs saying not to) and instead shuffled some gear around and rolled out sleeping pads in the back of the 4Runner.
We chose to hike the Humphreys Peak trail to the summit mostly due to ease of access. The trail head starts at the parking lot (see map) and brings you first across a large open ski slope clearing. Enjoy this smooth, flat, level section of the trail as it will only get more challenging. Continue on this well-worn trail across the field and soon you’ll enter into a heavily wooded area. Welcome to the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. From here you’ll begin to notice the trail becomes rougher. Tree roots crisscross their way over an already slick trail making this section of the trail a high risk area for rolled ankles. Be careful.
After roughly 20 minutes of hiking (give or take) we arrived at the trail register. It was so far into the hike I was worried we had missed it all together. We took a few minutes to sign ourselves in, grab some water, and we prepared ourselves for the switchbacks.
Parts of this lower section of the trail have seen better days. Rains and weathering made the trail surface uneven, but not un-walkable. As with many trails, we saw evidence that people had cut switchbacks. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, DO NOT CUT THE SWITCHBACKS! It only encourages further degradation of the trails and destroys the native wildlife you trample on. Ok. I’m off my soapbox. There is also a hidden secret below treeline on this mountain. It’s just a short trip across a rock field and 100% worth it. If you just can’t wait to hear about it, scroll down to the section titled “Finding Humphreys Hidden B-24 Liberator” below. Oops, I gave it away.
Finally, with perseverance, we broke above the treeline and reached the saddle. Standing here we could look down into the inner basin of the mountain. This void was once a towering mountain until Humphrey’s erupted in a fashion similar to Mount St. Helen’s in Washington. From here we took the trail North (left) up the ridge to reach Humphrey’s peak. If we had headed to the South (right), we would have hopped onto the Weatherford trail which would take us back down the south side of the mountain and away from the parking lot. If you’re curious why the sign in the photo is opposite of what I said, it’s because it was taken looking back from where we had just hiked.
From the saddle we could see the summit to the left. Once we began on the trail up though, we lost sight of it. In fact, we walked up to three false summits before reaching the actual summit. It’s a bit disheartening but knowing that these false summits were coming helped. It’s always noteworthy to point out that weather systems can move in very quickly in the mountains. Austin and I were always prepared to exit the summit quickly and get back below tree line. Lightening is not your friend.
On the Summit
Once we reached the summit we were treated to 360 degree views of northern Arizona and the surrounding San Francisco peaks. People had told us that on exceptionally clear days you can see the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the North. Figures it was just hazy enough to keep it hidden from sight.
At the top we found a summit sign with the words “Humphreys Peak 12,633 ft” along with an ammo can that contained the summit registry. With any luck we also found a few fellow highpointers logs in there. The weather was pleasant so we decided a break was in order at the summit. We earned it after all! We re-hydrated and refueled our muscles with some much needed carbs for the way back down. We were about to set off on an adventure… finding the crash site of the WWII B-24 Liberator.
Finding Humphreys Hidden B-24 Liberator
The story of how an Army B-24 Liberator came to rest on the side of Humphreys Peak goes something like this.
“Just after midnight on September 15th, 1944 eight Army airmen left Bakersfield, CA en route to Kirtland Army Air Field in New Mexico. By 3:20 am their TB-24J Liberator (the training version of the acclaimed B-24 Bomber) had veered 15 miles off the plotted course. On a moonless and overcast night, Humphreys Peak was nearly invisible to the crew and at 3:30 am their plane slammed into the side of the mountain at around 11,300 ft. All eight crewmen died in the accident that morning and the official army report cites navigational error as the cause of the crash. Today, debris still scars the side of Humphreys Peak and to those lucky enough to find it, the tales of WWII history will become a reality.”
When we first heard rumor of the bomber crash-site on the side of the mountain Austin and I knew we had to check it out. We asked almost every hiker on the mountain that day if they had heard of the wreckage and only one sole had. His directions were somewhat vague and were filled with more “follow this trail” and “turn at this tree” than useful directions. Thankfully we had done some previous research and had found these GPS coordinates.
If you don’t have your own GPS, you can plug those right into your Google maps app on your smart phone.
After a long scramble up one of the rock slides and cutting across forested patches of the mountain we began seeing airplane parts. First was an engine. Almost completely reclaimed by the growth in the area after 80 years we almost walked right past it.
Next was part of a wing.
And then we looked up…
There is it was. The remains of the bomber strewn across a rock field. Virtually untouched and laying as it was so many years ago. I was immediately filled with a sense of awe looking at it.
“This is…this is awe-some” I told Austin. Not awesome in a good and happy way, but awesome in a way that filled me up and overwhelmed me with a sense of awe, a sense of amazement. I tried to imagine what it was like that early summer morning of the crash. Fire and hot gasses must have illuminated the mountain, reflecting back across the heavy fog. Were any of the soldiers alive right after the crash? Did any of them see the mountain after it was too late to pull away? The weight of what happened was almost tangible as Austin and I walked across the debris field in silence. To this day it is still hard to put words together to describe it.
The Army decided years ago not to remove the wreckage but instead leave it as a memorial to those who died. Should you decide to visit, remember that you are walking across a memorial. Please don’t touch or move the pieces, and please, whatever you do, don’t try and steal parts of the plane. Not only is it disrespectful, it’s also illegal and the rangers that manage the mountain will issue you a fine. When we got back to the car I met up with one of those rangers who told me that he had not only written someone a ticket once, he also made the individual hike with him all the way back up the mountain and put the forty pound piece of wreckage back where it belonged.
By the time we had made it to the top of the wreckage, storm clouds began rolling in and a crack of thunder encouraged us to pick up our pace as we began working our way back down the mountain to the car.
Once safe in the car, we made a quick stop in Flagstaff to refuel our bellies and our vehicle and then we were off to the Lone Star State. Home, sweet home.