Rising over the palms and the Pueblo Revival and “desert school” building designs of the city of Phoenix, Arizona, are the desert peaks that form the Phoenix Mountains. This winter I got to explore the second highest peak of the Phoenix Mountains, Piestewa, during my Christmas/New Year holiday. Winter is a lovely time for exploring Phoenix, as it is cool enough to be active, but not too cold. During the time we stayed, the colors of the skies shifted between pinks and lavenders and gorgeous cornflower blues, making the mountain backdrop spectacular.
Located in the Piestewa Peak Recreation Area of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, there are numerous rest areas for people to enjoy scenic views and get started on a trail. We took the most popular trail, the long staircase to Piestewa Peak that is Piestewa Peak Summit Trail. It’s not technically difficult but it is a steep climb and will definitely give you a good uphill workout! There was a lot of heavy breathing and stopping for rest breaks on Piestewa Peak!
The Piestewa Peak Summit Trail is popular among locals and tourists, and the parking lot is often full, but no worries, there are other spots available at other trailheads just down the road if you’re up for a little bit of extra walking. The views from the parking lot and the trails are incredible, both of the city and the mountains!
We didn’t make it all the way up to the peak, but we had a good run of it and had an amazing time breathing in the mountain air and taking in the views. We stopped just above this point to rest and take in the majesty of Piestawa and Phoenix before we made our way back down.
The trail’s staircase seems to be a combination of concrete and mountain rocks, and we found some beautiful rock formations in the staircase itself. We also enjoyed seeing the beautiful little cactus plants, as well as the occasional cactus bloom, growing along the trail.
Cactus varieties found on and near Piestawa Peak include saguaro, prickly pear, barrel, pincushion, buckhorn cholla, and jumping cholla. Trees and shrubs in the region include ocotillo, creosote, palo verde, mesquite, ironwood trees, brittlebush, desert lavender, and sage shrubs. In early spring, visitors can enjoy some blooming cactus plants and see a host of wildflowers in bloom, including the yellow hues of Mexican gold poppies and brittlebush, the oranges of desert globemallow, and the purples of lupine and scorpionweed.
Wildlife on Piestawa includes a host of desert reptiles, mammals, and birds. Reptiles including the gila monster, the horned lizard, the chuckwalla, and the western diamondback rattlesnake can be found in the region. Mammals of Piestawa include coyotes, bobcats, kit foxes, jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, and ground squirrels. Birdwatchers can enjoy views of turkey vultures, mockingbirds, owls, hawks, Gambel’s quail, and cactus wrens.
Next to Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak is the second highest peak in the Phoenix Mountains, rising to an elevation of 2,610 feet (796 meters). Piestewa Peak was renamed from Squaw Peak in 2003 after years of debate over the derogatory term “squaw.” The new name is in honor of the first female soldier killed in action in the 2003 Iraq War and the first Native American woman to die in combat in the U.S. military, Lori Ann Piestewa.