Picacho Peak Shut Down for "Seasonal Closure" for Second Year; State Park Denied Funds

Sure, it's hot as hell out there in the afternoons, but last week we thought we'd drive down Interstate 10 to Picacho Peak for a morning jaunt to one of the state's best summits.

Turns out, the whole park is now closed for four friggin' months of the year!

Starting last year, the cash-strapped state of Arizona thought it would be a good idea to shut down operations at this awesome hiking location from May 25 to September 14.

Only law-enforcement rangers are working the park during the closure. And if they catch you trying to hike the spectacular 2.1-mile trail to the pointy summit, says state parks spokeswoman Ellen Bilbey, you'll get a ticket.

The Hunter Trail to the summit is one of the most kickass short hikes in the state, too. It's just over four miles round-trip with about 1,400 feet of elevation gain. Steel cables are installed on the steepest parts to help people scramble up, giving the mountain a mini-Half Dome feel. It's an adventurous "hell hike" to some, but we consider Hunter Trail two-plus hours of pure mountain bliss.

And we can't go until October. Are we the only ones who think this long closure is bullcrap?

Of course, don't even think of parking your a/c-equipped RV there, either -- the campground's closed, too.

The big problem is that this "seasonal closure" isn't temporary. State officials plan on blocking access to the peak every year at this time.

A June 20 parks board meeting agenda says nothing about the possibility of a reopening, even though next year will be the first in six years in which the State Legislature doesn't grab all of the gate fees for use elsewhere.

Visitation numbers show that thousands of people are being affected by the closure, despite the summer heat.

The cool winter months are when most people venture to Picacho Peak State park, which is an easy, one-hour-long drive from the Valley. Even if you don't own hiking boots or a tent, you've certainly noticed the dramatic summit rising halfway between Phoenix and Tucson just west of I-10. The place gets tens of thousands of visitors in its most popular month, February, when wildflowers turn the hills surrounding the peak into a painter's palette.

The state's stats show that roughly 1,200 to 2,000 people visit Picacho each month from May to August. In September, that jumps up to about 4,000 or more.

Yet those numbers aren't robust enough to justify staffing the park during those months, state bean counters figure.

"It's very expensive to run," Bilbey says. "We're looking for every way to save money."

The 4,000-acre Oracle State Park near Tucson's Catalina Mountains is also closed for the "summer."

In recent years, lawmakers have dried up the money wells for state parks in the rocky economy. And unlike more popular parks such as the Lost Dutchman State Park at the Superstition Mountains, Picacho and Oracle don't have charitable benefactors to help them stay open. Last year, the Hopi tribe paid the state $175,000 to keep open the Homolovi State Park near Winslow. The Arizona State Parks Foundation takes donations to help offset the state raiding of gate fees and other funds, but apparently that's not enough to keep Picacho open year-round.

It could be worse, obviously. California's also taken major bites out of its parks budgets, and some parks there will be run by private concessionaires while dozens of others are slated for closure starting July 1.

The landmark Picacho Peak seems destined to spend each summer as our little slice of closed California.

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