OverviewBlue Jay Peak is the westernmost major summit of the Pinaleno Mountains (home to Mount Graham and its observatory, which can be seen from the highway) in Graham County, near the town of Safford in eastern Arizona. It is separated from the main body of the Pinaleno Mountains by Taylor Pass, and with nearly 1,700 feet of prominence, Blue Jay Peak has the appearance of a lone mountain over the desert landscape of the Gila River Valley.
Nearby West Peak (elevation 8,684 feet) is home to a seasonal lookout tower and residence, so a "decent" dirt road leads to this peak and nearby Blue Jay Peak. However, the road is long and somewhat rough, and relatively few people venture to this part of the range, managed by the Coronado National Forest, Safford District. A climb of Blue Jay Peak can be done via the Blue Jay Ridge Trail or via the road itself, but the final few hundred feet will be cross-country through grasses, shrubs and spotty forest of ponderosa pine. For such a major summit, the number of visitors averages out to just a couple dozen per year. The views from the top are, as usual, amazing, including some truly unique views of the Pinaleno Mountains, Mount Graham and Heliograph Peak.
The high country features healthy tracts of ponderosa, aspen and oak, and the scars of a burn from about 40 years ago on the east side. The ridge itself has some interesting cliffs, although the climb along trail is just steep in spots. You might likely be the only person on the mountain if you go.
The summit elevation is extrapolated from the map, which shows an 8,840-foot contour (40-foot intervals), and is relatively large. My hiking partner's GPS gave an elevation of about 8860 (give or take a few feet). His GPS gave readings consistently within 5 feet as to what the map said, so the 8,860-foot figure is reasonably accurate.
Getting ThereFind Tripp Canyon Road in the small town of Pima, Arizona, along US-70 about 10 miles west of Safford. Pima is about 170 miles from Phoenix via US-60/70, and about the same from Tucson via Interstate-10, US-191 and US-70.
The initial mile is confusing: go west on Tripp Canyon Road (also signed as Road 200 North) to Road 1200 West. Go south for 0.2 mile to Center Road, and turn right onto this dirt road, ignoring all the "Private Property" signs. The road angles into a wash, then you angle left and follow the road up a slope to top out on a mesa. The road is not well-marked in the residential sections and it looks like someone's driveway. Don't let the signs scare you off. The road is also kind of rough where it slopes up the mesa. Once on top, though, it gets much smoother.
Follow the road south and west through high-elevation desert, Blue Jay Peak in plain view. Stay on the main track, ignoring little side tracks that venture off. About 12 miles from the highway, the road gains the foothills and enters into Tripp Canyon. You'll pass the Coronado National Forest Boundary about 14 miles, and a gate at a small private in-holding at about 16 miles (close it behind you). You'll then come to a shady glen near spot elevation 5,229, where the road splits. To here it's about 19 miles from the highway, and passable by most vehicles.
Take the left fork at the Y, and start steeply up the road toward Sawmill Canyon. Stay on this road for another 5.5 miles to Turkey Spring and the trailhead for the Blue Jay Ridge Trail (#314), elevation 7,600 feet. You gain about 2,500 feet in these last 5 miles, and the road is narrower and rougher in spots, but any high-clearance vehicle with a strong engine will be fine in dry conditions. At worst, the road has segments of ruts and chunky rocks. Four-wheel drive is not mandatory, but some people might like to have it for better handling. Allow about 1 hour, 45 minutes to drive to the trailhead from the highway.
If you plan to drive beyond Turkey Spring to the top ridge, the road drops a notch in quality, with some very steep sections with erosion. You'll want 4-wheel drive definitely, but most stock 4-wd with high clearance and sturdy tires should be fine.
RouteFrom the Turkey Springs/Blue Jay Ridge Trail at elevation 7,600 feet, you can either walk the road toward West Peak then on over to Blue Jay Peak, or follow the Blue Jay Ridge Trail (#314) north, then south along the ridge toward Blue Jay Peak. Then it would be an easy road-walk back down that makes for a great loop hike.
Blue Jay Ridge Trail: Follow this trail north for about 2 miles. It contours in and out with the folds of the west-facing ridges of Blue Jay Ridge, alternating between shady ponderosa pine forest with low grass and clover, to more open, scrubbier semi-montane areas with woody undergrowth, mountain oak and grasses. The views are often quite impressive, especially of the rocky Pinnacle Ridge of the Santa Theresa Mountains off to the west. The trail gains and loses about 20-50 feet over and over again, but ironically, when it reaches the ridge at a rocky pass, you are at 7,600 feet, meaning a net zero feet of gain.
Here, the trail turns sharply south, and becomes a little overgrown at first. It starts to gain in earnest, switchbacking in places and traversing the slopes in other places. It can be easy to lose the trail sometimes, but look around and you'll invariably see it again. Some deadfall blocks it in spots, and it is clearly not well-maintained in this section.
Follow the trail southerly as it gains up and around various sub-peaks along the ridge, gaining and dropping elevation. Soon, you see the rocky cliffs of Point 8529 ahead. The trail worms up through the dense undergrowth and achieves the ridge a little to the east of this point, not west as the map would suggest.
Now on the ridge, you can see Peak 8681 up ahead. Keep with the trail. It angles slightly left and starts a slow descent, losing about 200 feet in about a half-mile. Try to situate yourself due east of Peak 8681, then leave the trail and ascend a long grassy slope to gain the ridge again just south of Peak 8681 and north of Blue Jay Peak. Then angle south and walk the final 250 feet to top out on the summit. The presumed summit is a rock outcrop about 8 feet high, slightly west of the ridgeline. Some rocks within the trees may be as high as are some rocks about 50 feet to the north. All are easily ascended. The views are nice, but better views of the surrounding landscape are found by escaping the trees for the open slopes nearby. Looking east, you have a great view of Mount Graham, its main telescope atop Hawk Peak, and behind it, Heliograph Peak.
The one-way hike covers just under 4 miles with about 1,260 feet of net gain, but including all the ups and down, close to 1,800 feet of actual gross gain.
Descend by angling southeast onto the open slopes with waist-high brush. You should see the road below. Just beeline to it, and walk it out to the trailhead. You can also visit West Peak and its lookout tower. From the lowpoint in the road to its top is about 300 feet of gain. The loop hike is just under 7 miles with a shade above 2,000 feet of total vertical gain.
If you approach the peak from West Peak and the road, we did not see any beaten paths, so you may have to leave the road when it feels right and barge your way through the brush. It isn't too bad, and it's only a couple hundred feet of gain.