Monday, September 5, 2016

Walnut Canyon

On our final day in Flagstaff, we headed south of town to hike the portion of the Arizona Trail that passes through Walnut Canyon.  This is a pretty easy section of trail that still manages to get the heart rate up as you climb out of the canyon and up onto the rim.  We parked at the trailhead adjacent to the Canyon Vista Campground and followed Sandys Canyon Trail into Walnut Canyon.  The day was growing warm, and as clouds formed over the San Francisco Peaks, we would see no relief, as the sun shone brightly for the duration of our hike.

Clouds form in the direction of the San Francisco Peaks

At the canyon bottom, we picked up the Arizona Trail and followed it north.  This is a very relaxing section of trail; it is lightly traveled with exceptional scenery and no elevation change - a truly enjoyable stroll, indeed.  We originally planned to turn around at the base of Fisher Point, but decided at the last minute to follow the Arizona Trail out of the canyon and up to the top of Fisher Point.  I am so glad we did, as we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the canyon and surrounding landscape from this vista.

Looking north from Walnut Canyon

Fisher Point rises high and out of sight on the left

Peering into the canyon from Fisher Point

We didn't spend a great deal of time atop Fisher Point after hearing a rumble of thunder in the distance.  Now several miles from our car and high on the rim to boot, we moved quickly, pausing only for a picture here and there.  As it turned out, the weather never advanced on us, and we had a pleasantly uneventful hike back.  We were wet - with sweat - by the time we finished, as the relentless sun and our two descents and ascents in and out of canyon conspired to turn what was to be a mild-mannered Sunday outing into a fairly decent workout.

Well worth the effort, this Walnut Canyon hike was the exclamation mark on our weekend stay in Flagstaff.  If you haven't done this hike yet, consider adding it to your list of things to do during your next visit to the area.

Near the Arizona Trail and Sandys Canyon Trail junction

Approaching the trailhead, the San Francisco Peaks come into view





 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Humphreys Peak

My primary goal during our July visit to Flagstaff was to view Arizona from 12,633 feet.  This is the height at which Humphreys Peak tops out, representing the highest point in all of Arizona.  The peak soars high above the tree line, the point at which the only patch of alpine tundra in the entire state takes hold.  I had never hiked at this elevation - never above a tree line - and was super stoked when the morning of the hike finally arrived.

At the Arizona Snowbowl Trailhead

We were up in the 4 o'clock hour in order to be at the trailhead by 6:00 a.m.  Under clear skies, I said goodbye to my wife and set off for the 9.6-mile round-trip hike at 6:15.  Getting an early start on this hike is not only desirable, it is mandatory as far as I'm concerned.  July in Arizona can bring monsoons and mountains of such magnitude as the San Francisco Peaks, of which Humphreys belongs, can create their own weather any time of the year.  Only four days prior to my visit a tragedy occurred at the summit when a teenager was killed by a lightning strike.  He was hiking with two friends when a thunderstorm developed over the peaks in the early afternoon.  As there is nowhere to hide on the treeless tundra, I decided I should be on my way down the mountain before 10:00 a.m.

Trail cuts under a ski lift before entering a thick forest

Forested section of trail is a relatively gradual climb

The hike really isn't as intimidating as some texts may indicate.  The majority of the hike carries you through the forest, which generally offers pretty decent footing. Only for the last mile or so, where the trail traverses the tundra, does the footing become a bit more treacherous.  For much of the hike - roughly the first three miles - the grade is gradual.  It helps, too, that the trailhead is located at 9,320 feet, requiring one to climb "only" 3,313 feet of elevation on foot. 

Magnificent views can be glimpsed through the forest

I was making good time.  At the pace I was maintaining, I would summit and be back down below the tree line before 10:00 a.m.  When it comes to exercising, sometimes it's hard to stay motivated.  There's almost a limitless number of excuses available to justify skipping a workout.  It can and oftentimes does become a slippery slope into a sedentary lifestyle.  But when I'm up on a mountain where the only way down is by foot or helicopter, I'm reminded of the importance of consistently pushing through what I openly admit can become stale and boring exercise routines.  I felt strong on the trail and had a sense of confirmation knowing that all of my training was paying dividends.

Approaching the tree line

There is a sign at 11,400 feet informing hikers there is no camping beyond this point.  As the trees give way to barren, rocky tundra, I am not sure why anyone would want to camp up here anyway.  With no trees obstructing the view, you can begin to see just how high you are by this point.  Humphreys Peak is still not visible as you cross the tundra.  Having read about the three false peaks as part of my due diligence, I was not even looking for it; instead, I was busy looking for trail markers, as the trail can at times be somewhat difficult to follow.  Fortunately, Humphreys Peak is a popular place, and you can usually see others up ahead if you don't readily see a trail marker.

Posts guide the way. In the background: 1 of 3 false peaks.

There was a fairly sizeable group of people at the summit by the time I arrived.  I made sure to look for the north face of the Grand Canyon, as I had been told it was visible from here.  Though I was able to easily identify it with my eyes, it didn't show up well in any of my pictures.  I plopped down on a rock to eat my peanut butter sandwich and enjoy a few moments on top of Arizona.  The weather was nice and not very windy at all.  There were a lot of bees buzzing around, but thankfully they weren't interested in what I was eating.  After maybe twenty minutes of R&R, it was time to start making my way back down.

The real Humphreys Peak

It doesn't get any higher than this in AZ

View from the summit

As I made my way down, passing others on their way up, I was surprised at the number of people who hadn't done their homework.  Many were hopeful they were viewing Humphreys over my shoulder.  When I explained to some the three false peaks, it was plainly obvious they were hearing this for the first time.  I was also surprised at how many people were heading up so late in the morning.  By the ten o'clock hour, the sky was darkening over Humphreys.  We were only four days removed from the fatality triggered by a rogue electrical storm.  Were these people even aware of this?

Expansive views along the trail to Humphreys Peak

I was off the trail at 11:35 a.m. with food and water to spare.  Naturally, it's a good idea to carry more supplies than you think you will need without, of course, completely overloading yourself.  As I waited on my wife, I only wished I had had the foresight to pack some flip-flops, as my feet were in need of some immediate relief.

Sitting there, I reflected on the hike.  Truly incredible, I remember thinking, the extremes Arizona offers.  Two hours ago I was 12,600 feet in the sky, atop a desolate alpine tundra region, and I'm only a two-hour drive from a scorching desert valley filled with cactus, yet also nearly void of trees.  In between are some of the prettiest forests and landscapes I've seen.  How truly lucky I am to call this place home.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Red Mountain

Way back in July we spent a long weekend exploring the area in and around Flagstaff.  To kick off our weekend adventures, we made the short drive north to Red Mountain.  This is an impressive volcanic cone, now long dormant, which was breached when an explosion blew out one side, leaving about half the cone standing.  The trail, which is pretty much flat, takes you to what was once the cone's interior so that you are looking straight up the side of what used to be the inside wall of the volcano.

A look inside the dormant volcano

This hiking is easy with nothing strenuous about it whatsoever.  Because there is no official trail leading to the top of the cone, you simply hike the level trail to the base of the mountain and back.  I don't remember the exact mileage, but I believe the round-trip total is less than five miles.  Though this isn't really a "fitness" hike, the trek is totally worth it just to experience the uniqueness and sheer beauty of the place.

Hoodoos along the trail at Red Mountain

As with most Arizona hikes, there isn't an abundance of shade on the trail so bring sunscreen and a couple of water bottles with you.  This is a great hike for the kids - ours enjoyed scaling the walls of the cliff until it became too difficult to continue.  And even though it's a short hike, give yourself plenty of time to comfortably experience the impressive scenery that awaits you at Red Mountain.



Inside the old volcano.  Happy hiking!


  
  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hiking C. C. Cragin Reservoir from Rock Creek Campground

I joined a large group of Arizona Trailblazers for a hike along the Mogollon Rim on Saturday.  Shortly after 9:00 a.m., twenty-four of us started down Rock Creek's campground trail to a junction with the Arizona Trail.  Staying left, the AZ trail continues onward in much the same fashion as the campground trail, with a very gradual descent along the top of the rim.  Before too long the trail takes a sharp left, dropping into the thick pine forest covering the canyon walls.  This is the beginning of a much steeper descent all the way to the bottom of the canyon and the frequently dry East Clear Creek.

Opposite rim is seen in the distance; East Clear Creek is between

The hike down to the creek bed was no problem whatsoever. Switchbacks and shade aid in the 600-foot descent to the bottom.  Here, the Arizona Trail crosses the creek (which was dry) and heads back up the other side.  For this hike, we turned off the trail and followed the creek bed until we reached the point where reservoir water was backing up into the dry creek.  Because this was as far as we could go without getting wet, we stopped here for lunch and waited on some of the slower members to catch up.

Stepping out of the forest and onto the creek bed

Along the dry East Clear Creek

Barely visible, a group of kayakers following the water to its end

We saw a group of kayakers round the bend.  They asked how much further it was to the water's edge.  We said, "You're there!"  After twenty minutes or so of R&R, several of us were ready to head back.  We retraced our steps along the creek bed to where it intersects the Arizona Trail.  There is an official marker in place where the Arizona Trail begins its climb out of East Clear Creek, but it is much easier to look for the "unofficial" marker: a rock pyramid constructed a few feet in front of the trail post.

Rock pyramid signals the way back to the rim

The ascent is a pretty decent work out, but it's not brutal, provided you're in fairly decent shape.  Again, switchbacks and shade make this 600-foot climb far more tolerable than climbs similar in elevation gain which may not offer these features.  This particular hike turned out to be 8 miles long, but length will fluctuate, depending on the amount of water in the reservoir.  At the time of this hike, the reservoir was about 50% full.  Another option for this hike, which would allow you to precisely predetermine the length of your hike, would be to continue along the Arizona Trail across East Clear Creek, up the other side of the rim and back down to the second finger of the reservoir (and even beyond, depending on your conditioning).

After the hike we drove to the dam.  Even at half-full, this is a really pretty view and a scene quite uncommon in Arizona.  This was a nice finishing touch to a fine day of hiking with the Arizona Trailblazers.

Blue Ridge Dam (now called C. C. Cragin Dam)

  




Monday, July 4, 2016

Mount Elden

I was a guest of the Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club for this 15.9-mile tour of Mount Elden and the surrounding area.  Advertised as a 13.4-mile trip, the listed mileage, pulled from some random Internet map, was, surprise, surprise, inaccurate.  Not that this mattered much.  My daughter's cross country coach in Tennessee would say if you can run three miles, you can run five; and if you can run five miles, you can run eight (I tested his theory once, by the way, and found it to be mostly true, though I am in no hurry to put this claim to the test again).  In the same vein, if we're capable of hiking 13.4 miles, then clearly we can manage 15.9.  Still, from a psychological standpoint, it was probably best that we were blissfully unaware of this mileage gap as we started down the Sunset Trail full of vigor at 9:02 a.m.


Pretty views from the Sunset Trail

The Sunset Trail offers a mostly shaded and gradual climb of somewhere in the neighborhood of 1300 feet.  I was told this was the easiest way to the summit, and, after descending the Elden Lookout Trail on the other side of the peak, I was glad we took the route we did.  Pausing only once along Sunset, we kept a decent pace and reached the summit around 11:20 a.m.  The gate at the foot of the staircase leading up to the watch tower viewing deck was open, meaning visitors were welcome, so our climb continued a little further, now easily surpassing 9,300 feet in elevation.  Because the wind was really howling at this high altitude, it was nice having the opportunity to step into the warmth of the watchman's office. This small room in the sky turned out to be a popular place over the next 25 minutes or so, as our group of six was accompanied by several other curious hikers who came and went during this same timeframe.



At the top of Mount Elden

After the group bid farewell to the fire watchman, we began a sharp descent via the popular Elden Lookout Trail.  This may be a well-constructed trail, but there is no getting around its steep grade. With a drop of something like 1800 feet in 1.6 miles along frequently rocky terrain, I was feeling the pain in my left knee, but through it all I remained very much thankful to be going downhill and not up.


Spectacular scenery is found all along the Elden Lookout Trail

We stopped for lunch in a shady portion of the trail shortly after turning north on Fatman's Loop.  This is where I discovered how much I really like PayDay candy bars.  We chowed down quickly and were back on our feet at 1:15 p.m.  I wouldn't have minded resting another five minutes, but because I'm not sure we were even halfway through by this point, it was the right decision to keep moving.

Fatman's Loop runs through this opening in the boulders

Fatman's Loop delivered us to the Christmas Tree Trail, which carried us to a junction with the Little Elden Trail.  At some point along the Christmas Tree Trail, I noticed the sky darkening.  Later, I heard some faint rumbles of thunder which was followed by a few sprinkles and, briefly, a very light shower.  When I caught up with the point man of our group, he was putting on his rain jacket.  There was no precipitation at the moment, but the sky wasn't getting brighter either.  I followed his lead and slipped on my jacket.  Once we resumed hiking, I remember hoping I wouldn't get too hot in my jacket and start sweating profusely.  Well, I certainly didn't overheat because just a couple of minutes later, Mother Nature let loose a lightning bolt that had to have struck within a mile of us. This triggered the skies to promptly release buckets after buckets of rain and hail upon us.  There would be more lightning - some strikes just as close as that first one - along with enough rain and hail to momentarily turn the trail into a river.

Moments before the thunderstorm unleashed its fury upon us

I was praying for the storm to pass, as we hurriedly travelled parallel to the flooded trail.  Thankfully, with perhaps slightly more than 2.5 miles to go, the storm let up.  The two of us in front stopped at a trail junction 2.4 miles from the trailhead to wait on the other four members of the group. About ten minutes later, two members found their way to the junction.  Soaking wet and now getting cold, as soon as our two remaining members came into view several minutes later, we all jumped back on the trail for the final push.

Muddy and sometimes flooded trails in the wake of the storm

I dried off some during the final portion of the hike, though I was wishing I had brought a change of clothes with me.  I did take some solace in the fact that I had a dry pair of shoes waiting in the car, as my boots were of course completely waterlogged.  We were off the trail shortly after 5 p.m.  That, my friends, is what I consider a full day of hiking.  Tired and hungry, we cleaned up as best we could in the trailhead parking lot near Schultz Tank before heading into Flagstaff for a sandwich and beer at The Museum Club on Route 66.  This was a nice, warm and dry finish to what was a long, tough, but, most importantly, fun and well-organized outing with the Arizona Trailblazers.

If would like to see more pictures from this hike, please click or copy and paste the link below into your browser:


      
  


     

        


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Old Caves Crater

With the Phoenix summer in full swing and an open Saturday on the calendar, we headed north on I-17 to the high country of Flagstaff.  The forecast called for a high temperature of 85 degrees, nearly 25 degrees cooler than what was expected down in Phoenix.  This being our first trip ever to Flagstaff, we had the kids in tow so that they, too, could experience Flagtown.  And though I was tempted by those tall San Francisco peaks, I knew we had to play it safe and hike the comparatively mild Old Caves Crater.

Old Caves Crater rises in the distance

From the south trailhead off of Silver Saddle Road, it's 1.2 miles and a 430-foot climb to the summit.  Switchbacks made for a pretty easy stroll up the side of the crater.  This gentle grade did indeed assist with minimizing the exertion factor, but so did all of the pausing along the trail.  After six months in the desert, I couldn't stop taking pictures of trees. I would hike a little and stop for a picture.  Hike a little, take another picture.  And the higher we went, the prettier the scenery became, as more and more trees came into full view.

San Francisco Peaks

The summit trail splits at the top of the crater.  To the right are the small caves (ancestral puebloan cavates, according to the pamphlets available at the trailhead) for which the crater is named.  To the left is the summit, where we took a few minutes to watch the butterflies dance and flutter about.  Like the pine trees completely surrounding us, butterflies were something I wouldn't have given a second glance a year ago.  But now, coming out of the desert, everything old is new again.

Heading down the NW side of the crater

We made our way down from the summit and connected with the Crater Loop Trail on the north side of the cone.  We followed the loop trail, which circles the base of the crater, around on the east side and back south to the Old Caves Crater Trail.  From there, it is a short walk to the trailhead.  Total mileage for our hike, according to the pamphlet, was 3.6 miles.

This is a great family hike.  The trails are fairly wide and largely absent of any pesky rocks or roots.  Quiet, too - at least on this day.  We were here on a beautiful Saturday in June and saw only four other people on the trail, all in the same group.  When you do come, please be aware there are no facilities and no water at the trailhead.  Just bring yourself a bottled water or two and you will be all set to enjoy a peaceful - almost relaxing - hike in the northern Arizona woods.


Apache Plume on the summit of Old Caves Crater

     

   
         

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Camelback Mountain - Echo Canyon Summit Trail

In Tennessee, the Fiery Gizzard is the trail against which all others are measured.  It was years before I made the drive to Tracy City to experience first-hand the legendary trail featuring waterfalls, boulder hopping, a steep gorge-to-rim climb, and even rumors of black bears.  In Phoenix, the crown jewel is Camelback.  Whether it's a still shot or a live feed from the local traffic helicopter, I see its image on television daily.  It's peak, centrally located, stretches 2,704 feet into the air and, much like the Hollywood sign, is never out of sight for long.  The undisputed champion of all things hiking - at least as far as the local convention and visitors bureau is concerned - is surrounded by million-dollar homes and swamped by hoardes of visitors (hundreds of thousands annually) who are drawn to Camelback for its ruggedness, convenience, and iconic status.

Hiking this mountain had been a priority for me, although I figured it was highly unlikely it could live up to all the hype.  John Stanley with the Arizona Republic calls Camelback the Mount Everest of the Valley.  Maybe it was because we had just watched Everest two nights prior, but suddenly I had the urge to get up close and personal with the reigning king of the Seven Summits of Phoenix.  And so there I was early one recent morning, full of gusto and raring to go, standing at the foot of Camelback's Echo Canyon Summit Trail.  It hadn't taken several years as it had in Tennessee for me to finally make time for the Fiery Gizzard Trail, but it did take almost six months to get here.

View from the Echo Canyon Trailhead
 
The city's parks and recreation website says a fit hiker can reach the peak in 45 minutes and descend in the same amount of time.  I found that to be right on the money.  Echo Canyon is a short trail, merely 1.325 miles long, but it also climbs about 1,200 feet during that brief span and requires that hikers traverse slippery stone and long sections of boulders tilting toward the sky.

Be prepared to scramble in places

Scrambling is good idea, if not outright necessary, in some instances.  Other areas offer handrails to help safely navigate over beds of slick rock found on particularly steep grades.  Landscape timbers anchored into the ground serve as stairs to assist the hiker up and down the mountain along what would otherwise be another treacherous stretch.

Wooden steps make it easy for hikers

Reaching the top was somewhat anti-climatic.  Maybe it's because I've seen similar views of the city from other area peaks or maybe it was the large group of hikers assembled there who appeared in no hurry to move.  Either way, even though it was a new summit, it felt as if I was watching a movie I'd seen before.  I took of couple of requisite pictures and, after about five or six minutes of rest, headed back down the mountain.


Two views from Camelback's peak

I found the trail to be pretty easy to follow.  It seemed adequately marked and if any question as to trail location had arose, there was always a fellow hiker either up ahead or behind who could provide guidance.  Compared with other area trails, I would consider the signage along the Echo Canyon Trail most acceptable.

Sign shows the way

Hiking Camelback makes for a terrific workout.  Some folks go up and down the mountain every day.  Some run the trail (where running is possible).  And the mountain is for all ages.  There were small children as well as retirees on the trail.  I encountered a 68 year-old and a 71 year-old, both of whom were moving up and down the trail with relative ease.  All, it seems, are drawn to Camelback.  Come see it for yourself.  It's the Camelback Experience, and you won't soon forget it.

Tip: Echo Canyon Trail is shaded in the early mornings