Coyote Peak lies in central Pima County of southern Arizona, about 35 miles west of Tucson and directly east of the famous Kitt Peak and its signature observatories. While Kitt is visited often by tourists, hikers and star-gazers, Coyote is rarely climbed; the log book averages out to about two teams per year, and the Southern AZ Hiking Club is usually one of them. Kitt and Coyote Peaks are parts of two distinct ranges. Coyote Peak is the highpoint of the Coyote Mountains, separated from Kitt Peak (and the Quinlan Range) by a deep-cut valley. In fact, Coyote Peak has significant prominence, over 2,300 feet of clean prominence, a rare case of two highly prominent peaks with such close proximity to one another.
Coyote is a highly visible peak, if often by accident by those viewing Kitt Peak from afar. From the north, including points along Interstate-10 south of Picacho Peak, Kitt Peak is easily identified by its huge observatory tower (the Mayall Telescope). Coyote Peak is the big mountain immediately to your left (Kitt’s east). In 1994 most of the Coyote Mountains were designated as a Wilderness Area and are currently managed by the BLM. The Tohono O’odham Nation borders the wilderness on the west and north, and state and private lands border the range on the south and east. A slightly confusing road net allows for access to the lone (as far as we know) public access point into the wilderness, coming in from the north and east.
A hike up Coyote is a grueling, all-day journey. A fine old road and trail gets you to the range crest at 4,850 feet elevation (and for many, this would be a good point to call it a day and go back down: the views up here are outstanding!). From here you follow a very old trail, way overgrown with cactus and grasses, for about 2.5 miles west along the ridge. In places the trail is hard to spot, but cairns help, a little. If you can stay on route, the "trail" does go to the very top. However, you need a keen set of eyes to not get off-route at least a couple times. Allow a full day for the hike.
The trail was put in by ranch hands working at the ranch that used to exist at the base of the peak, owned by Randolph "Pat" Jenks. He had the trail built for the benefit of his wife, so that she could ride her horse into the raneg and to the summit. The trail was built about 50 years ago. It's unmaintained and withering away slowly, but it's fascinating to ponder the work needed to build such a trail.
Getting ThereFrom the junctions of Interstate-10 and Interstate-19 in Tucson, proceed south for 1/2-mile on I-19 to Ajo Way (Arizona State Highway 86), and turn right (west). Drive about 30 miles west, passing through suburbs, open desert and the community of Three Points (last chance for gas and food, but avoid the restrooms). All the while, Coyote Peak looms high, seemingly merging with Kitt Peak and forming one mountain. Look for a sign for Hayhook Ranch Road, and turn left (south) onto this good dirt road. Be aware that most maps do not show these roads accurately as there has been a lot of new grading and subdividing of lands here in the past few years.
Follow Hayhook Ranch Road south, then west, then south again, following the bends in the road. We followed signs to "Cow Town/Keeylocko" but also followed a GPS waypoint for the starting point. You are aiming for N 32.01038, W 111.4782 (NAD27 CONUS) near a 2,999-foot spot elevation. Beware the maps do not show the roads (the actual road comes right in on the red section-line border itself). You may have to use the GPS to make the right turn on the correct latitude reading. Keep driving west past some homes. The wilderness and trailhead start at a fence line where the power poles end. There is room to park off to the side. The total one-way dirt-road driving is about 8.5 miles, and the roads are pretty good but sometimes sandy and washboarded, although passenger vehicles should be okay in dry weather, if carefully driven. High clearance is always preferred.
Red TapeThis is Wilderness, so foot traffic is allowed but no motorized travel. The surrounding areas are mostly private homes so be considerate of them while visiting. The Tohono O'odham Nation lands lie to the north and are fenced closed.
CampingCamping at the Wilderness boundary is not recommended since you’ll be just a few feet from some residences. There are no good camping options close to the peak. The best campgrounds are about 30 miles away at the Gilbert Ray Campgrounds located in the Tucson Mountains Park, abutting the West Unit of Saguaro National Park. From Ajo Way follow Kinney Road (and the signs) to the parks and the campground.
The (Steep Brushy Cactusy Overgrown Bouldery) RouteThe route to the summit is just under five miles one way, and over 3,700 feet of net elevation gain one way. Counting regains on the descent, expect to push nearly 4,500 feet of uphill hiking for the day.
The first 1.5-2 miles from the Wilderness Boundary follow an old 4wd road/track west across the desert flats. You'll see the road cut diagonally up a ridge ahead of you. Behind it, the road turns tightly into a small canyon, crosses an old earthen tank and ends not too much farther. At the end of the road a very good trail continues and works its way up the hillsides to the range crest at elevation 4,850 feet (approx.), approximately at N 32.00412, W 111.50861 (NAD27 CONUS). (The map shows other trails but apparently not the one we were on.)
At the range crest there is a fence line and a gate, and the total one-way statistics to here are about 1,900 feet of gain in about 2.5 miles. To this point the hike is quite enjoyable and the scenery is fantastic, including large stands of saguaro on the lower northern slopes, and outstanding views in all directions across the deserts.
From here to the summit is about another 2.5 miles mainly along the ridge. Stay to the north side of the fence and spy the trail continuing up slope toward some giant rock pillars. Just stay on this trail as it gains steeply and generally traverses the range crest on its south faces, occasionally popping up to the ridge itself. You'll gain about 1,000 more feet and cross south of Peak 5796 then descend into a saddle at elevation 5670 feet. The trail to here is sloppy and overgrown in spots, but generally easy to follow. The last little bit crosses some fields of cat-claw and lechuguilla. You'll be about 0.75 air-mile and 800 feet below the peak, but the going now gets more demanding.
From the low-point on the saddle, angle left and descend about 150 vertcal feet, trying your darnedest to find cairns or trail in the grasses and lechuguilla. The trail gets slightly more easy to spy as you travel southwest, generally at 5600 feet, aiming for a ridgepoint north of spot elevation 5574. (Actually, you'll likely cross just north of the tiny 5620-foot contour. Descend down about 40 feet then angle right, now aiming north up a rocky gully.
Here, the going is straightforward. Go up the gully about 400 feet, following sections of trail, some cairns and your nose. Enjoy the oak shade trees. You'll come to a saddle at 6050 feet. Then stay on route and go west up past a small bouldery hill to yet another saddle at 6190 feet.
Here, the trail swings far south and you may be tempted to go up the sloping rock, which we did. It's your choice. You'll come to the trail again, then curl left onto some north-facing brushy slopes to surmount a rock pile at about 6420 feet, the summit now visible about 0.2 miles west across more brushy, rocky terrain. However, keep up the spirit!
Find a steep gully, and drop about 30 feet and enter onto a lovely wide trail that runs about 200 feet, then enters into more growth. Keep an eye out for cairns, and the final few dozen feet is relatively tame. The top is yours.
Kitt Peak is right there across the valley, and Baboquivari's top is south. On a clear day you can see mountains as far as Glenn, Apache and Pinal looking east and northeast, Four Peaks looking north, and lots of wide-open desert in all directions.
Return the way you came and again, stay close to the cairns.