Summer Nights: Hiking A Phoenix Landmark

August 09, 2013

This time of year the desert heat can be deadly, so hikers wait until dark before turning on their LED headlamps at the foot of Phoenix’s Piestewa Peak.

Cook family Blair Cook and his sons, Dalton and Keegan, set out to hike Piestewa Peak in Central Phoenix. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd-KJZZ)

KJZZ's Peter O'Dowd joined the Cook family on a night hike. The mountain rises sharply more than 1,200 feet above the city.

“I don't like the gym, so this is my gym,” said Blair Cook who is about to start the climb with his two boys. “With the kids we're probably looking at an hour to 45 minutes to get to the top.”

It is just more than a mile up, but it is almost straight-up. Blair tries to hike three times a week, and he brings his kids here as often as they will tolerate it. Dalton is a lanky 13-year-old who describes the night climb like this.

"I just like the challenge and the endorphins and just the accomplishment, because I mean it's a mountain!" he said.

Keegan, 10, said he has been climbing this mountain since he was four years old.

“It took a really long time,” his dad explained.

As for me, I have lived within walking distance of this place for most of my life, but I have never climbed at night. By the time we started, the sun is almost a memory as it sinks below the horizon. The day's heat still clings to the mountain as we get started.

Piestewa Peak The sun sets at the trail head of Piestewa Peak in Central Phoenix. Hikers wait until dark in the summer to make the 1.2-mile hike to the summit. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd-KJZZ)

“It turns into a giant oven really, because the rocks are way hotter than the air temperature,” Blair said. “I've gone up in the afternoon in the summer, 113 degrees, and I was in really good shape, but I was almost heaving at the end. You can't sit down. The rocks are so hot you can't sit down at the top.”

As we climb, a chorus of cicadas followed us. The insects are in the mesquite trees and creosote bushes. A summer night in Phoenix is alive with this sound. If we are lucky, we will see the silhouette of a coyote scrambling along a ridge line.

But who cares about the animals now, because with every step toward the sky we are sucking air. The chambers of our heart swell so fast we can hear the beat inside our ears.

“That's one thing with this mountain,” Blair said. “It doesn't get easier as you go. I think it actually gets steeper.”

On my right side, the mountain is rising up. To my left, the city is starting to unfold before us. We are getting higher and higher. There is no breeze at this point, so we are really starting to feel the heat.

At some point, Keegan cannot help himself any longer. He calls himself "Monkey Boy," because up here there are boulders to climb, and the ones he likes the best are off the trail hidden in the shadows.

His dad said Keegan only does this at night, but this time when he scampered up an outcropping he cannot get down. It is completely dark.

His brother Dalton, reached up to help. He tells Keegan where it is safe to step. 

top of the mountain From this vantage point, about halfway up Piestewa Peak, Blair Cook watches the sun set over Phoenix. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd-KJZZ)

When Keegan is safely down, Blair unzipped a bag and gave his son a headlamp. It seems best if Monkey Boy has a light to guide him the rest of the way.

“A little bit farther,” Blair said. “We have to get to the top of these stairs and that's it.”

This high up, it is easy to see why a father would take his boys up a mountain on a summer night. It has given them time to talk about the next school year, about the physical challenge of the trail.

Blair drew 10-year-old Keegan’s attention to the city below. He crouched down and gets quiet.

“I'm just seeing the reflection. Dad said there is a reflection that comes from the city lights,” said Keegan.

Then I ask him what he is thinking about when he takes in the view.

“I just think I'm in some big city,” he said as if discovering something for the first time.

A moment later we will crawl over one final boulder, and the wind will rip into us. Recording sound at the top is useless. Besides, it is the way up that matters.

The KJZZ series "Summer Nights" asks people across the city how they have fun at the hottest time of year. Send your Summer Nights stories to news@rioradio.org.