Silver Bell Peak is the highest point of the Silver Bell Mountains in northern Pima County, about 30 miles northwest of Tucson. Most of the range lies within the Ironwood Forest National Monument, and Silver Bell Peak is the monument’s highest point. South and west of the range, the sprawling Silver Bell Mine covers about five square miles of desert plain, with four open pits where copper is extracted, along with some gold, silver and other useful metals. Mines first appeared in the area in the late 1800s. The town of Silverbell (one word) grew around the first mines, but then slowly disappeared as a ghost town by the 1920s. A second town, Silver Bell (two words), grew around the mines during the mid 20th
Century before also disappearing into history. The townsites are either swallowed up by the current-day mining operations, or picked clean of any old structures. The current mine operations began again in the 1990s and are expected to last through the 2030s. However, there is no mining town these days surrounding the mine. The nearest city is Marana, whose city limits come close to the mine.
The range is mostly undeveloped, with primitive roads and no trails. Despite the mines, a hike or a camp in the deserts north and east of the range can be pleasant. Only a few people hike the summit yearly. The guidebook went back 30 years and listed ascents by the usual two-dozen Arizona peakbaggers who have climbed everything, plus regular ascents by the Southern Arizona Hiking Club.
The summit is a pyramid of rock atop a ridge, which itself is quite rocky, but fortunately, not full of cliffs. The slopes feature forests of saguaro, ocotillo, cholla and talus fields, while lower down, the brush can be think with all of the above-named cacti as well as creosote, bursage and ironwood trees.
Silver Bell Peak as seen from the east at dawn, 12-30-16.
The hike down low is through saguaro, cholla, creosote, ocotillo...
The driving directions to the trailhead are courtesy Paul McClellan, who posted these at the Peakbagger website:
Take Exit 242 off I-10 north of Tucson onto the Avra Valley Road. Zero your odometer.
00.0 Drive west on Avra Valley Road.
05.4 Pass the Marana Airport on your right.
15.5 Pass "Pump Station Road" on your left.
16.2 Turn Right onto an unmarked dirt road. A power line post here is labeled 392. There is a sign "Caution High Pressure Gas Line".
16.9 Pass over a cattle guard.
17.8 Pass over a cattle guard.
18.4 Continue straight, passing a road on your left.
19.7 Turn Left onto unsigned N Waterman Mountain Road.
19.9 Turn Right.
21.2 Cross a wash.
21.6 Turn Left.
22.3 Bear Right.
22.5 Pass through a gate.
22.8 "Game Water". Parked here. No camping allowed within 1/4 mile of game water.
The last 2.9 miles can be rocky and rutted in spots. I recommend a high-clearance 4WD vehicle with good tires. The annotated map below shows the main roads and destinations.
Silver Bell --- map of the roads
The unpaved roads were good, but high clearance is advised as the roads cross through a number of small arroyos with sandy bottoms and uneven sides. The final road toward the guzzler/trailhead is a little rougher, rocks about 5 inches high embedded in the road. A carefully-driven high clearance vehicle should get all or most of the way on this final road. In dry conditions, 4-wheel drive is not necessary.
In wet conditions, the roads can get muddy and sticky, possibly trapping a vehicle.
From the guzzler, continue west on the gentle ridge aiming for a low ridge that comes off the mountain mass about a mile ahead. The terrain here is rocky and brushy, but usually open enough to create lanes for travel. You may need to cross into and out of some drainages to get on “better” ridges, although all get you to the main low ridge ahead. There is a fence line or two along the way.
Once on the low ridge that comes off the main mountain, look up and observe the steep slopes and rocky ridgeline way up there, still 800-1,000 feet above you. The summit is invisible for the time being. You may need to hike up more and traverse a little to the west to situate yourself on the “optimum” slopes or to get better views.
A somewhat-obvious ramp of saguaro and talus comes off the high ridgeline, below the only non-rocky saddle you can see. This is close to the southeast tip of the high ridgeline. You’ll see saguaro all the way up, and talus slopes from about halfway to the top.
Walk up the steep slope for the saddle to the left of the "high" bump.
On the slope, it is steep and the talus is not always solid.
Walk steeply up this slope. Be careful, as the talus is not always solid. Every fifth rock wants to move, slide or groan. The smaller talus-scree is loose too, but if you are careful, this section should present no difficulties.
Now on the ridge, start walking up and over the rocky humps, gaining and losing 20, 30, 40 feet at a time. Sidehilling does not seem wise here. The ridge-top is rocky but not cliffy, all of it straight-forward Class 2.
At the end of the rocky section, descend about 100 feet to the saddle below the top, still about 300 feet higher. The route up becomes clear about ten feet at a time. Stay high and generally angle right slightly for the best lines. Hands may be needed in one or two spots, but if you pick your route carefully, the worst would be very low Class-3.
From the guzzler to here is slightly over two miles, with about 1,900 feet of gain. You will have more gain on the descent as you retrace your route.
Red TapeRed tape is the usual restrictions one faces on National Monument land. You don’t need a permit.
When to Climb
Best times are Winter, December through February. During a cool spell, climbs in November and April are possible. It gets warm fast here, and extremely hot during the summer. This is a strenuous climb, moreso than the stats might indicate, so cooler weather is much preferred.
Silver Bell Peak is visible once on the high ridge.
Walking the rocky ridge to the summit.
There are pullouts and fire rings along the desert tracks that can be used for a bush-camp. Leave no trace of your presence and try to re-use an old site and fire ring. Closest developed camping is about 30 miles away and not practical for this peak.
External LinksTrip report (www.surgent.net) 12-30-16
Silver Bell Mine
Ironwood Forest National Monument
The Water Hole Bar & Restaurant, Avra Valley
View to the northeast --- Ragged Top, Picacho Peak and Newman Peak