Sunday, November 6, 2011

Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks, Coconino NF, Arizona

It has been a long time since I've written up one of these. We have been so busy since moving to Flagstaff with our new jobs that we simply have not had the time to write up much. But, with the first snowstorm having hit Flagstaff, it reminded me that I ought to publish something regarding the hikes in the area.


Distance: 5.2 miles roundtrip
Elevation: 8,000-10,000 feet
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: May-October (snowshoeing of cross-country skiing in winter)


The San Francisco Peaks are actually the remains of a large stratovolcano that had a catastrophic eruption approximately 6 million years ago that very much resembled Mount St. Helens. Originally more than 15,000 feet high, today "The Peaks" stand at 12,700 feet in elevation, marking the highest point in Arizona. It was a lateral blast toward the east that blew out a huge crater and approximately 3,000 feet off the top of the volcano. The Inner Basin today represents the remains of that huge crater that formed. The Inner Basin Trail takes you into the heart of an ancient volcano, as it also climbs through spruce/fir forests, aspen stands, and into beautiful grassy meadows in its heart with panoramic views of the peaks and out across to the Painted Desert to the east.


To access the Inner Basin Trail, drive just a few miles north of Flagstaff on US-89. At the turnoff to Sunset Crater National Monument to the right, turn left instead and follow the forest service road. This dirt road will take you to Lockett Meadow, an old campground that was closed following the catastrophic Schultz Fire of 2010, but is the trailhead for the Inner Basin Trail.

Mixed conifer/aspen forest in the Inner Basin

There are two ways up into the Inner Basin, which allows you to make this trail a loop. To the right is a gated old road that is the driving access for the City of Flagstaff to access the pumping stations, as the Inner Basin is a collection site for the municipal water supply of the city. Start off by following this old road (since most of the people take the trail). All along this dirt track are beautiful stands of aspen, intermixed with subalpine firs, Engelmann spruce, Southwestern white pine, and Ponderosa pines. In late September and early October, the forest is alive with brilliant yellows and oranges.


Avalanche Chutes on Fremont Peak

About 2 miles up the road, you arrive at the first of the pumping stations and rejoin the "official" Inner Basin trail. From here, it is only an additional 0.3 miles to the meadows of the Inner Basin. Once you arrive in the meadows, the views open up to the walls of the caldera. The highest of the San Francisco Peaks is Humphrey's Peak to the right. It is 12,637 feet high. Straight ahead to the due west is 12,356 foot Agassiz Peak with its avalanche chutes and the Weatherford Trail cutting across its side. To the left of that is Fremont Peak and then further left is Doyle Peak.


Inner Basin Meadow with views of Humphrey's Peak (right) and Agassiz Peak (left)

Once in the Inner Basin Meadows, you will find your first Bristlecone Pines. These pines do not grow below 9,500 feet in elevation and can be quite ancient. Some of the ones higher up on the sides of the peaks may be well over 1,000 years old.

12, 637 foot Humphrey's Peak - The highest point in Arizona

This is the turn around spot for most people. But, if you continue to the back of the basin, the trail will start to ascend up toward Fremont Peak where it will meet up with the Weatherford Trail at Doyle Saddle. Here, you can either cut across Agassiz Peak to Humphrey's Saddle and then an ascent to the summit; or you can descend down the otherside and out of the basin.

View out of the Inner Basin toward the Painted Desert

But, as you turn back to return to Lockett Meadow, you get a great view off to the east into the Painted Desert beyond. Once you return to the pumping station, turn right and follow the "official" trail back through never-ending stands of large aspens that grew up about 130 years ago after a major fire went up the basin.



What a great trip in fall to see the colors. But, it really can be done any time of year if you are prepared (snowshoes or cross-country gear) in winter. In July and August, just get an early start and be prepared to get wet in afternoon monsoon thunderstorms. But, in June or September/October, the skies should be sunny!

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