|The Pinaleno Mountains are the most dominant mountain feature in southeastern Arizona, the towering range rising over 7,000 feet over the Gila River Valley and the cities of Safford, Thatcher and Pima in Graham County. Mount Graham is the highest of the peaks that breach the 10,000-foot barrier, while nearby Hawk Peak is home to the Mount Graham Observatory, its buildings visible from below and even from vantage points on distant peaks. The whole range is often informally referred to as "Mount Graham".
The mountain is named for Lt. Col. James Duncan Graham of the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, the name being given to the mountain in 1846 by his friend, Lt. William Emory. At the time, the mountain was part of Mexico. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War, but the treaty gave the United States jurisdiction to lands north of the Gila River, not south. In 1854, the Gadsden Purchase extended the United States jurisdiction to its current-day boundary. Graham County is named after its most notable feature, the county being formed in 1881. Not surprisingly, Mount Graham is the highest point in Graham County, and somewhat surprisingly, it is also the most prominent mountain in Arizona, its 6,320 feet of prominence beating out Mount Humphreys near Flagstaff. Most people don't need the math to underscore the visual impressiveness of the mountain, as viewed from points around Safford. It is a huge, magnificent mountain.
The Gila River Valley had been farmed and sporadically settled by Native Americans for centuries, and Coronado's men passed through during their explorations in the 1540s. Mormon settlers were the first to establish permanent communities along the Gila River in the 1870s. The cities of Safford, Thatcher, Solomon and Pima sprung up along the river, prompting the formation of Graham County a few years later. The need for lumber (and a respite from the summer heat) prompted the settlers to hack a rough trail/path into the Pinaleno Mountains. This path would eventually be widened into a road, and later, enhanced to highway standards by the state. The road is numbered State Route 366, but is commonly called the Swift Trail Parkway. The road runs 37 miles from US-191, gaining nearly 7,500 feet, ending near a small pond at Riggs Flat. It is paved for the first 20 miles, and well-graded hard-pack dirt the remainder. Passenger vehicles are welcome, but very large motorhomes may struggle with the grades and tight turns. The Swift Trail Parkway is closed during winter, as the Pinalenos get a lot of snow.
If you are curious what happens if you get caught up here when the snows come in, read this, and then this.
By the way, the summit of Mount Graham is officially off-limits to the general public. The lands are managed by the Coronado National Forest, Safford District. The development of the observatories in the 1980s and environmental concerns about an endangered red squirrel, plus Native American concerns about the sanctity of the peak, prompted the forest service to declare all lands above 9,800 feet surrounding Mount Graham as a "refugium", meaning that no one is officially allowed. However, people do hike to the summit. Most people who hike it want it for its prominence and highpoint status. The views from the top are limited to the surrounding (and burned) trees. Better views and better hiking are found elsewhere in the Pinalenos. This is a good place for a relaxed weekend in the cooler high country during the summer heat, with a few hikes included. If you do decide to hike to Mount Graham's summit, be aware of its status. You are on your own.
From Safford, drive 7.5 miles south on US-191. Turn right onto the paved AZ-366, the Swift Trail Parkway, and start driving up the mountain. The road is straight at first, but becomes winding after a few miles. After 11.5 miles, you’ll reach the Arcadia Campground at 6,700' (see below). The road is gated here between November 15 and April 15.
The road passes through a small village of summer cabins near Turkey Flat, then crests the main range crest near Ladybug Peak (1 mile r/t, 300 feet of gain, lots of ladybugs). Now on the west-facing slopes, the views down into the Klondyke-Aravaipa Valley below are amazing. The pavement ends roughly 20 miles from US-191 at a big turnaround south of Mount Graham. The hard-pack continuation resumes, with Hospital Flat Campground coming up in about a mile. The trailhead to nearby Heliograph Peak is also nearby.
Contact the Coronado National Forest, Safford Ranger District, at 928-428-4150 for the latest information.
Forest Service Map: Coronado National Forest (Safford and Santa Catalina Ranger Districts).
Topo Map: Mount Graham.
In 2005, the summit region was burned by the massive Nuttall-Gibson Fire. Below are some images of the summit (before and after).
Because the summit is officially off-limits, I will be careful in how I reveal the secret ways to the top.
You can park at the large paved turnaround where the pavement ends and just walk up the closed forest road to the top, a round trip of about 6 miles and 1,500-1,700 feet of gain. The roads shown on the topographical map are accurate. However, this road is well-posted against travel, so you leave yourself in the open on the off chance they are patrolling it.
You can also access this road via Hospital Flat Campground. It involves a little cross country and walking along old jeep tracks.
You can also come from below via the Arcadia Trail and access this final road cutting through the forest.
Do not start from anywhere near the observatories. These are patrolled.
I have hiked the peak twice, and both times had no trouble. It is not heavily patrolled. My opinion is that the forest service keeps the refugium concept in reserve on the off-chance they need to justify an arrest, which is extremely unlikely. Bear in mind that back in the 1980s, there was a lot of acrimony from the various people and organizations about the observatory being built. Nowadays, it's very quiet. Just don't attract attention to yourself, be courteous and leave no trace.
Truthfully, the summit is a dud. If you are looking for great views, go to Heliograph Peak or Ladybug Peak. The only reason to climb Mount Graham is for bragging rights.
Arcadia Campground comes first, elevation 6,700 feet. Set amid tall, shady ponderosa pine, it is open nearly all year, weather permitting. Perennial creeks run near the campground, and the Arcadia Trail starts here, connecting to range-crest trails near Heliograph Peak. The Swift Trail Parkway is gated shut immediately beyond the Arcadia Campground, usually November 15 to April 15, dependent on the weather.
Assuming the gate is open and the roads plowed, the next developed campground is the Shannon Campground, near the base of Heliograph Peak. Beyond that, in order, are the Hospital Flat, Cunningham, Soldier Creek and Riggs Flat Campgrounds. Some are more developed than others. Hospital Flat is fairly basic and secluded. Soldier Creek is popular with families with kids, while Riggs Flat fronts a small reservoir at the far end of the Swift Trail Parkway (37 miles since leaving US-191). Riggs Flat is popular with fishers. All these campgrounds require a fee
There are also a handful of free spots, first-come, first-serve, mostly at the end of rough roads that may require 4-wheel drive.
Hospital Flat Campground would be the closest for an ascent of Mount Graham.