Photo Adventure—Ragged Top in Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona


A number of years ago, while driving east on I-10 towards Tucson, Arizona, I noticed a very interesting mountain off to the south and had no idea what it was or how to get there, but I thought it would make a nice photography subject. After a little research, I discovered that it was called Ragged Top, and sits almost due south of Picacho Peak and west of the town of Marana. It lies within the Ironwood Forest National Monument, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). And while I had since visited the Ragged Top area a handful of times, I had never strayed far from the dirt road a few miles north of the mountain itself. But last month my adventurous friend, Erik Bettini, visited from Massachusetts and proposed that we tackle Ragged Top.

Tackle is not a bad term for it. If you look up how to hike Ragged Top, you will find that there is no trail, just a general route with a lot of scrambling (meaning you need to use your hands a bit) and bushwhacking. We were a bit lucky, because while we knew that there is a herd of bighorn sheep that live on Ragged Top, we did not know until we reached a sign at the base that the mountain is closed January–April for the lambing season. Fortunately we happened to be there in early December and could press on. With this calendar restriction, I really think the only viable time of year to climb the mountain is November–December, since the summer is suicide. Early May or late October might work, but snakes will be out and since the whole route is rocks and brush that seems like a really bad plan.

Desert Tortoise Remains on Slopes of Ragged Top, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona.

Keep in mind that this route gets very few visitors, so you might be waiting a week for someone else to happen by. Snakebites (or broken ankles) could be very bad. Needless to say, don’t hike this one alone unless you are a desert tortoise. And, well, maybe not even then.

There is zero water on the mountain. You will want some. Plan ahead.

Our route over Ragged Top, viewed from the north on Google Earth. December 2017.
Perspective view of our route over Ragged Top, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona, December 2017, viewed from southwest on Google Earth. We followed this track clockwise.

Summarizing our route, we parked a little over a mile to the north of Ragged Top and walked down a dirt road until it ended, at which point we set off cross-country. Eventually we picked our way over the saddle to the left (i.e., east), hooked around to the right, climbed up a steep narrow cleft from the back (i.e., south) side of the mountain and then descended down another steep gulley to the north back to the flats we had started on.

Saguaro Skeleton Leaning on Ironwood Tree, Approach to Ragged Top, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona, December 2017. Nikon D800 with Voigtlander 40mm f/2 Ultron SL II at f/9.5, 1/250 sec, ISO 200.

Once we reached the mountain proper, the going was often rough and involved a lot of route-finding:

Details of our route up and down Ragged Top: Scrambling Ascent. Hedgehog Cactus. Dry Gulley Descent. December 2017.

For most of the time that we were ascending, I had my Nikon D800 with a Voigtlander 40mm f/2 Ultron SL II lens strapped to the D-rings on my F-stop Gear Guru backpack (an older version of this). This lens makes the D800 as small as it is going to get, and I have always been very happy with its image quality. For the steep part of the descent, I put the camera in the backpack between photos. I also brought an old and compact Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 lens (notably used by Galen Rowell for Rainbow Over the Potala Palace) and an AF-S 20mm f/1.8G, both of which saw plenty of use. Finally, I brought my relatively light and compact AF-S 300mm f/4E PF VR for the bighorn sheep that we never saw; sadly, it ended up just being ballast, but I love that it is small enough to bring just in case.

A few clouds would have helped the photographs, I think, but the views were spectacular on the way up and the cliffs were quite impressive:

Ragged Top Towers, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona, December 2017. View to northeast. Nikon D800 with Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 lens at f/8.0, 1/1500 sec, ISO 400.

Note that the tiny saguaro at the bottom of the picture above is probably 30–40 feet tall.

Ragged Top Jumble, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona, December 2017. View to south. Nikon D800 with Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 lens at f/8.0, 1/750 sec, ISO 400.

The south gulley (which we ascended) and the north gulley (which we descended) meet at a narrow saddle a little below the actual summit. I didn’t feel comfortable scrambling up that particular route to very top, so I let Erik make the final ascent and documented his accomplishment from below:

Atop the Jagged Top of Ragged Top, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona, December 2017. Nikon D800 with Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 lens at f/4.0, 1/3000 sec, ISO 400.

I did make quite a number of hand-held panoramas with my 40mm lens, including the featured image—a three-frame stitch—at the top of this post. I don’t think that I have ever relied on this technique so heavily, but I am very pleased with the results. I find 40mm to be a very handy focal length and this technique definitely increases its versatility, allowing it cover a wider field of view. With that, I will close with my last panorama of the day that shows both sides of the cleft we were descending. Note that the rightmost peak in the distance is Picacho Peak, which is in itself a very notable and worthwhile hike, albeit infinitely more popular.

View out of Ragged Top North Gulley, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Arizona, December 2017. In the distance at the far right are Newman Peak (taller and lighter) and Picacho Peak (shorter and darker). Nikon D800 with Voigtlander 40mm f/2 Ultron SL II at f/8.0, 1/750 sec, ISO 200. Seven-image stitched panorama, hand-held.