At 12,633 feet Humphreys Peak is not only the highest point in Arizona, it is also gives the hiker a great look at a volcanic caldera that stands alone amidst the high plateau of northern Arizona. Most hikers start at a trailhead adjacent to the Arizona Snowbowl, a ski area 11 miles north of Flagstaff. The trailhead is located at 9330 feet, on the left side of the road, just below the main parking for the ski area.
The trail up to the summit is 4.8 miles and climbs 3303 vertical feet to the summit. After crossing through the ski area the trail disappears into dense coniferous forest and steadily switchbacks up the west side of the peak. You pass through some large stands of aspens, eventually climbing to thin stands of trees as you approach the ridge of the caldera at 11800 feet. The saddle is 3.8 miles from the trailhead and offers a sudden beautiful view to the east and down into the moist, aspen filled inner basin. Here the trail forks, with one trail heading to the summit, and another heading lower into the basin. You will turn left (north) and continue up through the only expanse of alpine tundra in the state of Arizona. The exposed summit ridge is notorious for high winds and is not the place to be in a thunderstorm. If it is cloudy or threatening, turn around and come back another day.
The summit of Humphreys Peak has a grand view. On a clear day you can see the Painted Desert to the east, endless expanse of Ponderosa forest to the south, and thinly forested plateaus the lead north and west to the Grand Canyon. All around you is evidence of the volcanic history of the San Francisco Peaks. The main crater lies southeast of the summit and is surrounded by a ring of lower peaks. Multiple eruptions between 2.5 million and 400,000 years ago created the peaks we see today.
We reached the saddle after 2 hours of hiking, and took a short rest. From the saddle, the trail quickly becomes steep, rocky and exposed. At times it walks directly on the summit ridge, but generally it stays slightly west of the right before crossing to the east side just below the summit. It is a vigorous and rocky mile from the saddle to the summit. I've heard numerous stories of horrific winds along this ridge. When I've been there it has always been windy, but never unmanageably so. There are numerous wind breaks built at the summit which make it easy hide from the wind. If it is 75 degrees in Flagstaff, expect to be wearing jackets and gloves near the summit.
On this hike we spent a lazy hour on the summit absorbing the sun and the view. The hike down is steep and fast. We arrived at the car in less than 6 hours round trip. A great way to do this hike is to get up very early, timing your arrival at the saddle with sunrise. Then hike along the ridge to the summit as the sun warms up the air, eating a hearty breakfast on the summit, facing the warm sun of the new day.