Arizonensis --> Sonoran Desert Naturalist --> Sonoran Desert Places --> Vulture Peak

Vulture Peak, Wickenburg, Arizona


Despite over a 100 years of sometimes intense human impact such as mining and ranching, this Upland Sonoran Desert area remains beautiful and alive with many wondrous desert plants and animals. The volcanic rocks are colorful and offer many wondrous hills and peaks.

Head west out of Wickenburg, AZ, on US-60 heading to Los Angeles. Take Vulture Mine Road southbound at the Safeway store. The road maintained by Maricopa County is smooth and freshly paved. Some 8 miles south there is a BLM parking area and trailhead on the east side of the highway. (Notice: Do not turn on Vulture Peak road - the trailhead is about a mile further down the road.) A four wheel drive road will get you a mile closer to the peak ... but you will be missing some nice desert habitat to walk through. Be sure to sign either the upper and lower trail registers. I think it helps to let the BLM know the area is important to hikers and tourists. The view from the peak is well worth the effort.

From the trailhead, the trail heads east and soon crosses a desert wash with an unusual name: "Syndicate Wash". Be sure to catch the trail on the opposite bank marked by cairnes. After the first kilometer the incline steepens and there is an abundance of loose stones and gravel. A good walking stick could help. For most people the pass is a good destination. The final few hundred meters to the summit is not maintained and requires agile climbing.

© Mike Plagens taken Oct. 5, 2002

With dusk the setting sun casts an orange-red glow on an already reddish mountain. A composition of 25-million-year-old volcanic tuff, brecca and rhyolite, that is soft and easily eroded, has helped sculpt the steep cliffs and rugged cuts. The rock is fairly water-permeable allowing a wide variety of plants to make good use of often scarce rainfall.

© Mike Plagens taken Oct. 5, 2002

There are interpretive signs and a covered seating area. Rough camping areas abound along the many jeep roads nearby.

Google Map of Surrounding Areas

View Larger Map. The road to Vulture Peak turns off US 60 to the south. A Safeway supermarket is at the intersection.

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Oct. 6, 2002

Rains across the Sonoran Desert in late August and early September were very spotty ... and this area was lucky as evidenced by leafy ocotillos and an abundance of wildflowers! Over 30 species were found, most typically fall species, but a few that are typically spring flowers were found in bloom. See list at bottom of the page.

Thousands of 3 cm long silken tents were in every foothill palo verde. These were made by caterpillars of a gelechiid moth (Bryotropha ineaqualis). The caterpillars feast on the tiny palo verde leaves before the plant would shed them anyway in a few weeks. Because the trees will shed these leaves soon, the tree does not protect them with phytochemicals, that is, the leaves are easy for the caterpillars to digest. No harm is done to the trees.

At the trailhead gazebo and along the fences there are a number of widow spider webs (Latrodectus sp). The glistening silk webs extend obout 1/2 meter above the ground to some very secure hiding spot created by a crevice or opening. These man-made hideouts are necessary for the spiders to escape their own predators and parasites and thus the spiders are most numerous near these structures. Naturally, such secure cavities are rare and limit the spiders' abundance. The webs are especially designed to catch insects that crawl along the ground; a gentle pull on one of these strands will demonstrate the strong, tough silk characteristic of widow spiders.

© Mike Plagens

The moth responsible for the silken tents in the palo verde trees.


This bird list, with the more common species listed first, is very typical of the Sonoran Desert:

  1. Rock Wren -- Salpinctes obsoletus -- S,F,W,Sp
  2. Verdin -- Auriparus flaviceps -- S,F,W,Sp Tiny birds, barely larger than a hummingbird. Gray/brown with a majestic yellow head.
  3. House Finch -- Carpodacus mexicanus -- S,F,W,Sp Males have conspicuous red on head and upper chest
  4. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher -- Polioptila melanura -- S,F,W,Spso tiny and so animated!
  5. Cactus Wren -- Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus -- S,F,W,Sp
  6. White-winged Dove -- Sp,S
  7. Common Poorwill -- S,F,Sp
  8. Great-horned Owl -- Bubo virginianus -- S,F,W,Sp
  9. Turkey Vulture -- Cathartes aura -- S,F,Sp
  10. Gila Woodpecker -- Melanerpes uropygialis -- S,F,W,Sp
  11. Phainopepla -- Phainopepla nitens -- S,F,W,Sp
  12. Black-throated Sparrow -- Amphispiza bilineata -- S,F,W,Sp
  13. Gambel's Quail -- Callipepla gambelii -- S,F,W,Sp
  14. White-crowned Sparrow -- Zonotrichia leucophrys -- W,Sp
  15. Curve-billed Thrasher -- Toxostoma curvirostre -- S,F,W,Sp
  16. Ladder-backed Woodpecker -- S,F,W,Sp
  17. Scrub Jay -- F,W,Sp
  18. Canyon Towhee -- Pipilo fuscus -- S,F,W,Sp
  19. Common Raven -- Corvus corax -- S,F,W,Sp
© Michael Plagens.

This photograph of a Curve-billed Thrasher, Toxostoma curvirostre, was taken by Michael Plagens at Gilbert Water Ranch, Gilbert, Arizona, Feb. 2009.

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  1. Harris' Antelope Squirrel --
  2. Rock Squirrel --


  1. Side-blotched Lizard -- Uta stansburiana --
  2. Lesser Earless Lizard -- Holbrookia maculata --
  3. Zebra-tailed Lizard -- Callisaurus draconoides --
Rock Squirrel photo © Mike Plagens

The rock squirrel is the largest of the Sonoran Desert squirrels. It nest in the ground and rarely climbs trees.


In general order of Abundance:

  1. Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) --
  2. Buckhorn Cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa) --
  3. Pancake Prickly Pear -- Opuntia chlorotica --
  4. Saguaro Cactus -- Carnegiea gigantea --
  5. Engelmann Hedgehog Cactus -- Echinocereus engelmannii --
  6. Desert Christmas Cactus -- Cylindropuntia leptocaulis --
  7. Compass Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes) -- Spines tinged with red and yellow.
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Photo © Mike Plagens

Teddybear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii), Photographed April 6, 1979.

Partial Plant List

Upper Sonoran Desert Scrub interspersed with Mojavean and Desert Grassland elements:

Sonoran Desert Naturalist Home Page

Desert Places

Field Guide


Copyright Michael J. Plagens, page created 7 November 2007
updated 21 May 2013