Mae West Peak is the highpoint of the Little Dragoon Mountains in southeast Arizona, about 20 air-miles northeast of the city of Benson, about an hour east of Tucson. The summit is notable for a surrounding pallisade of limestone cliffs, which makes attaining the top a minor challenge of scrambling and route-finding. This is assuming you haven't got caught up in the thick cat-claw in the canyons below, or hopelessly snagged in the prickly-pear cactus fields on the hillsides.
The Little Dragoons are surrounded by state trust and private lands, with the main approach being a long, zig-zagging drive on deserted ranch tracks through the high desert. However, public access is not prohibited. Given the hassles of getting to the base of Mae West Peak, few people seek it out. It's of interest to those working on the 2,000-foot prominence list for Arizona; the peak has a prominence of 2,026 feet (clean).
Mae West as seen from the drive in.
The name of the highest point is up for some discussion. The benchmark as noted on the map is called "Lime", presumably for the limestone caprock that makes up the tippy-top. However, the maps call the summit(s) Mae West Peaks. To make things slightly more confusing, another peak about two miles east is called Lime Peak. Mae West was a buxom "actress" in the 1930s, the Anna Nicole Smith of her day. The name was apparently given to the highest point(s) by an admirer of hers, possibly due to the double-humped nature of the summit ridge (it's more obvious when viewed from the east). What the other summit bumps nearby refer to on Mae West's topography is not clear. No one has yet developed a strong bijective mathematical mapping between Mae West the actress and Mae West the summit(s).
This mountain is rarely climbed. We were the third set of people to sign in for 2010, the first since April. Summer is too hot. The long drive probably turns off a lot of people. The relentless cat-claw, ocotillo, thick grass and loose rock in the canyons, plus the cactus and loose rocks of the slopes, likely turn off other people as well. This is classic Arizona desert-peak no-trail hiking at its pointiest, prickliest, ankle-turning best. Oh yeah, watch out for snakes.
Exit Interstate-10 at Sybil Road (#312), about 60 miles east of Tucson and 10 miles east of Benson. Go north to the frontage road, follow it east for about two miles to a left turn at the entrance of the ZR Ranch (Marked as San Pedro Ranch on the map). Pavement ends here. Drive the main ranch road north and northeast another two miles to the main ranch headquarters. Come to a gate with a sign allowing for public passage through the private property. Sign into the register, and be sure to close the gate after you pass through. Two ranch dogs may come barking at you menacingly, but they like pets and ear-rubs.
Drive west along a rougher ranch road slightly less than a mile to a fork. Go right, now north. Follow this road north then east about a mile and a half to a Y-junction. Go left. The road makes a long swing back westward, descending off a broad flat bench of high desert scrub. You know you're on the right track if you see a windmill in a valley west of you. Come to this windmill and pass through a gate (closing it afterwards). The road goes southwest then bends north, coming to a T-junction. Go right and proceed east and northeast, staying left at a prominent Y-junction. Pass through a third gate, and keep going as the road drops into Hughes Canyon, with Mae West Peak directly ahead of you at the head of the canyon.
You probably should park outside the corral and windmill at the mouth of Hughes Canyon. The road into the canyon gets very rough very fast, and also, this is a working ranch and they may need to get their vehicles in there. You don't gain much by driving in past this corral. There is plenty of room to park.
The road from the first gate is rough, with sections of sand (mostly solid), gravelly sections and ruts, but nothing severe. High clearance is advised, 4wd not needed if it's dry. The roads are shown accurately on the various topographical maps. The approximate mileage in from Interstate-10 was about 12 miles; allow about an hour to make the drive in (and out afterwards).
Please do not leave gates open or harass livestock or cause damage! This is another good example of a private landowner allowing public easement across his property, but it can be revoked at any time if he feels too much damage has been caused. Most people who come to this range are hunters.
The walk up Hughes Canyon. Aim for the ridge to the right of the summit.
I am not 100% sure, but some or all of the approach hike and summit is on Arizona State Trust Land, in which case you'll need a one-day recreational-use permit:
Arizona State Land Department Permit Info
We did not have one (partly out of ignorance), but no one was there to check. Use your judgement.
The summit from the steep slopes, note the agave and cactus. Multiply this by a thousand.
There is strictly no camping permitted in Hughes Canyon nor the approach drive.
Benson has a few chain hotels for consideration.
City of Benson Webpage
External LinksTrip Report (www.surgent.net), Nov 6, 2010
Arizona's 2,000-foot prominence peaks map, by Aaron Maizlish
The summit ridge, with its much whiter limestone rock.