March 11, 2017: The Mustang Mountains are a small grouping of peaks in northwest Santa Cruz County, east of the tiny settlement of Elgin. The range spans just a few miles from north to south, but features a handful of minorly-prominent summits (ranging between 800 to 1,500 feet of prominence), many with interesting cliffs surrounding them.
Visitation to the range is low, likely because there are many bigger ranges surrounding it (such as the Whetstones, Huachucas and Santa Ritas). Also, it’s not clear if the public is allowed into the Mustangs. Fenced rangeland surrounds the range, but some of it is now managed by the BLM as part of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The gates off the main roads are not locked and visitation is not prohibited. Most people coming here are probably hunters.
Scott Peavy brought this peak up a month or so ago, but then the weather got busy with snow and rain, postponing a trip there for a few weeks. This weekend, Scott, Matthias and I dove down to the area, the weather now a little warm in the deserts. This mid-elevation peak would probably be lovely this time of year. I’ve driven by the range in the past, including just a couple months ago when Beth and I were visiting Bisbee. It’s an attractive range, but I didn’t really expect much from it.
We met at Matthias’ place before dawn, Matthias driving. We left Interstate-10 at Exit 281 (State Route AZ-83), drove about 25 miles to Sonoita and the intersection of AZ-82, then east for 8.5 miles to Upper Elgin Road, which parallels the Mustang Mountains to the west. We went south on Upper Elgin Road for 2.5 miles to a gate, drove in, and parked in a small clearing that looked convenient.
We arrived about 8:30 a.m., the day sunny and mostly clear, with a few high cloulds, but mostly with bright blue skies. We were walking at 8:45 a.m., following the road east past two more gates, then southeast and east again into a canyon that separates Mustang Peak to the north from the Highpoint to the south. The hiking was enjoyable and went fast, the road being free of annoying rocks. However, it was warm, a little too warm for the morning hours at nearly 5,000 feet elevation. I was glad I packed more liquid than usual.
The road we followed was a good road, drivable with standard high clearance in dry conditions. As it entered into the canyon, it got a little rockier and steep in spots, dropping into and out of drainages. About a mile from where we parked, the good road ended at a turnaround, a final gate spanning what remains of the track with a “This is not a road” sign.
We continued on the track, which was still evident for another half-mile. It then petered out in the grass, now at the base of a prominent north-trending ridge. We had hiked in about a mile and a half, gaining about 500 feet. Looking up, the top of the peak was covered in low forest for the final three hundred feet. Below the trees was open grass slopes dotted with trees here and there. It was quite pretty.
Once rested, we marched up the steeper grass slopes to get onto the north ridge, then aimed more south and marched up more moderately-steep slopes, bypassing a small rock outcrop and taking refuge in the shade of a copse of trees. We had gained another 500 feet. Now higher in elevation, the temperatures had cooled slightly and there was a soft breeze, so it was not as uncomfortably warm as it had been down low.
We then resumed the upward march, gaining another couple hundred feet up the grass slopes to the base of the forest. The trees here were not very tall, consisting of juniper, pine and oaks. The grass stayed thick, and there was cactus and thornbrush to worry about, too. The trees also hid piles of rocks and small cliffs. Thus, the final few hundred feet would be a battle through branches, brush and weaving our way through the rocks.
Fortunately, this section was not too long. We barged through the brush, used hands a couple times to hoist ourselves over the rocks, noting how torn up some of the slopes were, with lots of loose rock and exposed dirt. Animals? Usually, they don’t “tear up” the terrain. We would discover the answer very soon.
Soon, we were on the top ridge. The highest point is at the south end of the ridge. We weaved through more open terrain here, observing discarded food wrappers, backpacks and clothing items. Evidently, the peak is used by the border crossers. My minorly-educated guess is that this would be the people smugglers, not the drug ones. We saw clothing that looked like it would belong to children, for example. We did not see the usual things that sentries have atop the summits, like car batteries or blackened water jugs. We did not see any people today, nor evidence that anyone had been here recently, like in the past week.
The summit itself is open with tremendous views. To the south rise the Huachuca Mountains. Cerro San Jose in Mexico could be seen. Sweeping from south to east to north, we could see the Mule Mountains, the Chiricahuas way off in the distance, the Dragoons and the Dos Cabezas, the Little Dragoons, then the Whetstone Range which was very close by, and behind it, Rincon Mountain. Looking west, we could see the Santa Rita Range (with Mount Wrightson), the Canelo Hills, and the Patagonia Mountains with Red Mountain’s bump, then the double summit of Mount Washington, then Cerro San Antonio inside Mexico. We stayed up top for 45 minutes. The log went back 30 years and is falling apart. It seems one or two teams hike to the summit in a given year, many years seeing no signatures.
For the hike out, we retraced our route almost exactly, working carefully down the rocks and brush at first onto the open slopes. We took a break in the same glen of trees again, then moved quickly down the slopes back to the old track, and then back onto the better road. The day was beautiful and perfect for photographs. We were surprised to see a plume of smoke rising behind a ridge! Evidently, there was a grass or brush fire going on. We did not see this fire when we were on the summit.
Once out of the canyon, I absent-mindedly followed a spur of the road more north than west, but it was an easy error to fix. We walked across the rangeland back to the road and then back to Matthias’ vehicle. We had been gone almost exactly five hours, covering just under 6 miles. By now, it was warm, but not too bad, probably about 85 degrees. We took time to change and get our stuff packed.
Driving out, we followed AZ-82 east to AZ-90, studying the peaks from a different angle. Mustang Peak was fronted by cliffs to the south, with steep slopes from the north and east. Mount Bruce is a big dome-shaped summit on the north end, then an unnamed higher summit, them Mustang Peak and its cliffs, then the range highpoint. We agreed: this was a prettier hike than anyone was expecting.
We were back in Phoenix by 5 p.m., where we shook hands and went our separate ways. Thanks as always to Scott and Matthias for being good teammates on the climb. I celebrated with my new favorite habit, a chicken combo plate from a local Hawaiian takeout near our home.
I checked later on the web but could not find any news about this fire. It was probably a field fire, maybe deliberately set.