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Picacho Peak State Park in Arizona


The drive along Interstate 10 from Phoenix
to Tucson largely consists of a flat desert landscape with even cactus being scarce and
most mountains remaining in the distance. As you approach Casa Grande from the north,
however, a strangely shaped piece of land appears on the horizon at the southern end
of Pinal County. As one drives closer, Picacho Peak, located about 40 miles (64 kilometers)
northwest of Tucson, comes into full view. The name, Picacho Peak, is redundant as Picacho
means peak in Spanish, making the name Peak Peak. The Interstate 10 traverses through
Picacho Pass, which is a small portion of flat land between the Picacho Mountains to
the north and Picacho Peak to the south. The pass has been used for centuries by people
who are traveling east to west and west to east through the Sonoran Desert of southern
Arizona, Picacho Peak acting as a distinctive marker to guide their way. The tallest peak
of the Picacho Mountains is Newman Peak at 4,506 feet (1,373 meters) above sea level,
while Picacho Peak’s summit reaches about 3,374 feet (1,028 meters) in elevation. Picacho
Peak is about 22 million years old and was created when an ancient volcano left behind
lava that eroded into the shape we see today. The unique shape of Picacho Peak stands out
from the mountains beside it as it rises 1,574 feet (478 meters) above the Interstate 10
below. Prior to European exploration and settlement, Picacho Peak was part of the Hohokam Native
Americans’ home in the desert southwest. These people inhabited the area until about
the 15th century and left behind petroglyph drawings in the nearby Picacho Mountains.
Ruins of some of their larger settlements can still be seen, such as those at Casa Grande
Ruins National Monument just to the north. When Spanish explorers traveled the area in
the 18th and early 19th centuries, they often noted Picacho Peak as a landmark as they passed
by. Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition from southern Arizona to San Francisco Bay between
1775-1776, passed by Picacho Peak on their way to California. In 1846, during the Mexican-American
War, the Mormon Battalion traveled through Picacho Pass after leaving Tucson. In 1853,
Picacho Peak and the pass beside it were included in the Gadsden Purchase, which saw the transfer
of the land that is now southern Arizona, south of the Gila River, from Mexico to the
United States. In the years that followed, the Butterfield Overland Stage established
a route between Texas and California that ran through Tucson, up through Picacho Pass,
and west along the Gila River to California. The most noted historic event that took place
at Picacho Pass was in 1862 during the American Civil War when the largest civil war engagement
in what is now Arizona took place beside the peak. The Confederate States of America had
created the Confederate Territory of Arizona in 1861 out of what was then the New Mexico
Territory of the Union. The Confederacy claimed everything south of the 34th parallel across
what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico, as the Arizona Territory. This included Tucson,
and what would later become the Phoenix area. Phoenix did not yet exist at the time and
Tucson was still a small town of only about 1,000 people. The capital of the Arizona territory
was Mesilla, a town north of El Paso, Texas. During the Civil War, Union troops faced off
against Confederate troops, mostly from Texas, for control of the southwest. The Confederacy’s
interest in these lands partially stemmed from the mineral resources available there
that could potentially be utilized through the use of slave labor. Claiming land in the
southwest also expanded the Confederacy’s boundaries, so the Union would not be able
to maintain as successful a blockade of its borders. The largest battles in the southwest
during the war took place in what is now New Mexico and included the Battle of Valverde
and the Battle of Glorieta Pass, both of which involved thousands of soldiers. On February
28, 1862, 120 Confederate cavalrymen from Texas were welcomed in Tucson because they
provided protection against Apache Native American raids. The Confederate flag was raised
in the Old Pueblo, which caught the attention of the 1,800 volunteer Union troops across
the Colorado River in California at Fort Yuma. Detachments of Union soldiers began moving
east up the Gila River. A small skirmish occurred between Union forces and a group of 10 Confederates
who were burning hay at Stanwix Station, a stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage route.
This occurred in what is now Yuma County, Arizona and was the westernmost exchange of
fire between Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. One Union soldier was
wounded in the brief skirmish and the Confederates retreated to Tucson. The hay they burned along
the way delayed the approach of the Californians. In mid-April, Union troops left the Pima Villages
located near modern Sacaton and approached Picacho Pass, which they would have to go
through in order to reach Tucson. 10 Confederate cavalry soldiers, led by Sergeant Henry Holmes,
were waiting for them there. The Union troops were led by William Caloway and Lieutenant
James Barret. Caloway sent a small group of 13 cavalry under Barret to look for the Confederates
that were reported to be nearby. Barret was ordered not to engage the enemy, but simply
to report on their location. Acting against his orders, Barret and his men captured three
Confederate soldiers before taking cover in a mesquite thicket in Picacho Pass where the
remaining seven Confederates ambushed them. A 90 minute skirmish ensued. During the fighting,
Barret was struck in the neck by a bullet, which killed him instantly. Two other Union
troops were killed and three more wounded. The remaining Union cavalry retreated and
Barret’s body was buried in the pass. Barret’s grave remains beside the railroad tracks today,
unmarked, while the bodies of the other two Union soldiers killed were later removed to
the National Cemetery in San Francisco, California. The Confederates returned to Tucson where
they brought word of the approaching Californians, thus destroying any chance of a Union surprise
assault on the city. The Union soldiers returned to the Pima Villages and built Fort Barret,
named after the fallen lieutenant. On May 14th, Confederate Captain Sherod Hunter withdrew
his men from Tucson before the Union soldiers could arrive, only leaving behind a small
detachment of 10 men with orders to watch for the Union advance. On May 20, 1862, about
2,000 Union troops approached Tucson from the north through the Canada del Oro, in what
is now Oro Valley, instead of from the west as the Confederates expected, catching the
10 remaining militia off guard. Union forces reclaimed Tucson without firing a single shot
and ended the Confederate occupation that had only lasted 80 days. Less than a year
later, on February 24, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Arizona Organic Act, creating
the Arizona Territory by splitting the existing New Mexico Territory in half. After over a decade of planning, Picacho Peak
State Park was opened in 1968. The park currently encompasses 3,747 acres, including the peak
and surrounding Sonoran Desert lands. Every spring, Civil War reenactors gather at the
park to educate visitors and commemorate the Battle of Picacho Pass. Gold wildflowers bloom
on the peak in the spring after the winter rains. A trail offers hikers the opportunity
to climb the peak to a small flat area at the top where one can experience excellent
views of the surrounding desert. Portions of the trail near the top include metal cables
and catwalks, making the hike one of the few via ferrata in the United States, which is
Italian for iron road. Via ferrata routes are more commonly found in areas of Europe
such as the Alps. Sonoran Desert wildlife abounds in the park,
with several different cactus species, including the prominent Giant Saguaro. Desert reptiles
including chuckwallas, gila monsters, rattlesnakes, and several others can be found among the
desert environment, along with a variety of native birds and some mammals, such as coyote
and javelina. When hikers reach the top of the peak, white-throated swifts can be seen
and heard zooming around the cliffs. Twilight author, Stephanie Meyer, used Picacho
Peak as the setting for her science fiction novel, “The Host.” In the book, humans
hiding from an alien invasion use the location as a remote hideout in the desert. The park is easily accessible right off of
the Interstate 10 and is located about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Tucson.
A small community named Picacho of about 500 people sits just a few miles northwest of
the park. Park entrance fees are currently $7 per vehicle or $3 for an individual on
bike or foot. There is a visitor center, camping facilities, and a small memorial trail featuring
monuments related to the park’s history. If you do intend to make the hike to the top
of Picacho Peak, be sure to wear sun protection and take plenty of water in the dry desert
heat. If you enjoyed this video, be sure to hit
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