Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sandy's Canyon - Walnut Canyon, Coconino NF, Arizona

Distance: 6 - 8+ miles 
Elevation: 6834 - 6590 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: Anytime (watch for ice and snow in winter)

Located just a stone's throw from Flagstaff, Arizona is a hidden gem to explore. While many people who travel through the area may be aware of the amazing cliff dwellings within Walnut Canyon National Monument about 5 miles east of Flagstaff, most people probably do not realize that they can hike into the spectacular canyon just a few miles upstream.

The trail can be accessed by driving down Lake Mary Road abput 5 miles south of Downtown Flagstaff (near the intersection of I-40 and I-17) toward Mormon Lake. Before reaching Lake Mary, look for the Canyon View Campground on your left. Park just outside of the campground and a trail will leave toward the canyon rim. To the right, an access trail heads down to the cliffs where rock climbers hone their skill. Stay left and the trail will take you down into the upper reaches of Walnut Canyon in a side-canyon called "Sandy's Canyon"

Hilina pounding out the resprouting grasses after a prescribed burn

Prior to the building of the dam on Lake Mary to contain the waters that make up 50% of Flagstaff's water supply, Walnut Canyon actually contained a free-flowing creek that sustained the ancient Sinagua people's of the area. As you hike into the canyon, you can see evidence of this once flowing creek in rounded river rocks that have mostly since overgrown with grasses and shrubs today.

Slash piles along the first 1.4 mile stretch of the trail

The first 1.4 miles takes you along a grassy meadow with encroaching pines. But, Coconino National Forest has been working vigorously in recent years to clear out the brush and do prescribed burns to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires from burning up this treasure. There will be large slash piles along the trail, as well as, freshly burned grasses in places.

The trail will merge with the Arizona Trail as it heads on its 800 mile trek from Utah to Mexico. Then it comes to an intersection. To the left, the Arizona Trail heads up slope toward Fisher Point Vista, which sits high above you. That trip is about 1.1 miles one-way. There is another route heading right that goes into the heart of Walnut Canyon. The layered rocks ahead of you are Coconino Sandstone, which represent the tilted layers of ancient sand dunes when the region was one of the world's largest deserts some 260 million years ago.

Fascinating cross-bedding of the Eolian strata of the Coconino Sandstone
A sign will warn you that you are entering a special vegetative area and that the trail ends in about 1 mile. It does contain a variety of riparian trees, small stands of aspen, and large Douglas firs. But, it probably had much larger and more diverse flora when water still ran in the canyon, such as the namesake Arizona walnut trees.

As for the trail, it doesn't really end. Instead, it becomes narrower, more brushy, and less maintained the further into the canyon you go.Eventually, the trail turns into nothing more than a game trail. But, the narrowing canyon walls, fascinating vegetation, and the spirits of the Sinagua people's draw you deeper down the canyon.

Theoretically, you could continue for another 4+ miles until reaching the boundary fence for Walnut Canyon National Monument. But, there is no further access beyond that. Even on warm fall and spring days, be prepared for very icy conditions in the narrower sections of the canyon. We went on a day when it was 60 degrees and had been for nearly 2 weeks. But, because the canyon floor never sees sunlight in fall and winter, ice continued to cover the trail, making it difficult to walk on in places.

Eventually, you just decide the point where you want to turn back and retrace your steps back to the car. But, if you wish to also see what the canyon looks like from above, you can head up on a side trip to Fisher Point to see up and down the canyon.

Looking down Walnut Canyon from above

Friday, December 7, 2012

Square Tower Loop, Hovenweep National Monument, UT

Distance: 2.0 miles
Elevation: 5220 - 5120
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: Anytime (avoid mid-day heat in summer)

Sleeping Ute Mountain rises above the "Twin Towers"

Hovenweep National Monument is located in a remote corner of southeastern Utah, just a couple of miles from the Colorado border. It is so remote, that you have to drive 28 miles off of the main highway (US-191) between Blanding and Mexican Hat, UT on rough county roads to reach it. But, even the main highway is in pretty remote territory. But, if you are on your way to Moab from Arizona or on your way south, it is well worth the detour, as it protects the some of the greatest examples of free-standing stone masonry of the Anasazi/Puebloan cultures in the entire Desert Southwest.

From US-191, there is a sign indicating the turn onto UT-262. Then, there are a series of turns onto various county roads to reach Hovenweep. But, there are always signs to let you know where to turn. But, just in case, it might be a good idea to have your GPS ready. Hovenweep is actually a conglomeration of six individual sites along the desolate Cajon Mesa that at one time supported a population approaching 2,500 people. The largest site is the Square Tower Group. That is where the main visitor center is, as well as, this particular loop trail. One additionally nice thing about this hike is that it is dog friendly, which is rare for a national park.

The trail starts out from the visitor center as paved until it reaches the ledge of Little Ruin Canyon and the first of many masonry structures called Stronghold House. From here, the trail makes a loop around the canyon edge to see many structures. You can choose to go either direction, but we went counterclockwise (right) to see most of the structures straight away.

Many of the structures are visible on both sides of the canyon in the distance

The trail passes a number of structures and others are clearly visible on the otherside of the canyon. What is amazing about this site is that it supported a population estimated to be almost 1,000 people. Yet, the canyon bottom is dry and there are almost no trees on the landscape. It was inhabited between 500 and 1200 AD. But, that was a time when the region was cooler and wetter and there is a vast forest of pinyon pines and a riparian forest in the canyon floor. As the climate dried and the trees had been cleared for building materials and firewood, springs became more inconsistent and times more desperate. 

The villagers build retention walls along ditches draining into the canyon to back water up and allow it to soak into the soil and rock to replenish the springs. But, the mega-droughts of the 1200-1300's that did in so many other Puebloan cultures in the region also caused the citizens of Hovenweep to abandon the area.

There are a couple of cottonwoods and some willows in the canyon bottom today. But, for the most part, the trees are gone and the climate is very different. The trail passes some really unusual structures that are hard to determine their uses. Some sit isolated on large boulders, one sits within an eroded boulder itself, and others seem to neither fit the bill as religious structures, defensive towers, homes based on the location of their entrances or window. But, one theory is that several of them were store houses for corn and other crops.

Eventually the trail descends into the canyon bottom itself, allowing you to look up at the structures from below. The trail then climbs up the steep south face of the cliff approximately 100 feet on a trail carved directly into the rock and then shortly thereafter you return to the Stronghold House. Be aware of temperatures approaching 100 degrees in mid-summer and possible icy conditions in winter. But, most of the time the sun should be out and temperatures tolerable.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Corona Arch Trail, Moab, UT

Distance: 3.0 miles roundtrip (4.8 km)
Elevation: 3995 - 4390 feet (1218 - 1338 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Anytime

View of the Colorado River Gorge from the trailhead

Corona Arch is an enormous arch spanning 140 feet across and 105 feet tall. It is located on beautiful slick rock high above Bootlegger Canyon. It can be accessed by a relatively short trail and best of all, being on BLM land, it is open for dogs, unlike Arches National Park. It can be accessed by taking U.S. Highway 191 north from Moab until you cross the Colorado River and shortly thereafter turn left onto UT-279, also known as the Potash Ash. Follow this road 10.1 miles through the Colorado River Gorge until you reach the trailhead parking lot on the right. Watch out for rock climbers and people standing on the road looking at the hundreds of petroglyphs on the rock faces along this route.

The trail starts out by climbing up the slope and shortly thereafter crosses the railroad tracks that takes potash from the evaporation ponds at the end of the road to processing plants where it is turned into fertilizer. The trail then skirts the edge of the cliffs and emerges onto an open rocky flat with cliffs all around.

As you go around a bend, suddenly the Corona Arch comes into view in the distance. Even from far away, its size is incredibly impressive. The route then skirts the edge of the steep slopes and you will come across the trickiest portion of this hike. There is a rope and some steps carved into a steep 20 feet ascent. Some older dogs may struggle to get up this section. Soon after there is a ladder to climb up a 10 feet ledge. But, dogs and people can by-pass the ladder by following the smooth slickrock slope up and around the ledge.

After that, you just follow the contours of the slope along the cliff walls and you will suddenly see a large hole in the rocks above. This is Bowtie Arch, which is actually the remains of a former sinkhole that collapsed into a cavern. Today, it sits high above a large seep where a young cottonwood has taken root.

Then you arrive at Corona Arch itself. Just sitting under this enormous arch is an amazing site. The shade it provides is nice as well on a hot day. You can head a hundred meters or so further on the otherside to admire the view out across the landscape. Once you are done enjoying this spectacular site, just head back the way you came.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Long Canyon, Secret Mountain Wilderness, AZ

Distance: 7.4 miles roundtrip (11.8 km)
Elevation: 4,523 - 5,395 feet (1380 - 1645 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Year Round (avoid heat of midday in summer and watch for ice in winter)

In the month of October, thousands of tourists flock to West Fork Oak Creek Canyon to admire the spectacular beauty of the best fall colors in Arizona tucked amongst towering orange and yellow cliffs. I have written about it grandeur here. But, honestly, we just can not take the crowds anymore. The parking lot is full by 10am, it costs $9 to park, and if you can't get it the cars line the highway for a half-mile. But, there is an alternative location that not only offers spectacular fall colors, but more ecological variety, and far fewer crowds. It is Long Canyon.

Early on the trail is through typical pinyon-juniper

You can reach Long Canyon by driving on Hwy 89A through West Sedona and then turning north onto Dry Creek Blvd. Continue on this paved road until it ends near Boynton Canyon Road. At the T-junction, turn right and follow the road for about 1 mile. The junction is signed for Long Canyon, but not the trailhead. Be looking for a dirt parking area on the left. There is a sign at the trailhead indicating it is the correct trail.

As the trail enters a canopy of live oaks and occasional Ponderosa pines

The trail begins by following an old dirt road parallel to the paved road. At 0.9 miles you come to a trail junction with Deadman's Pass Trail. Stay right. The trail will skirt the edge of a golf course as it enters the Secret Mountain Wilderness. The first 1.5 miles of the trail is through open pinyon-juniper habitat with abundant manzanita and Arizona cypress. There is not much evidence of a canyon. But, as you continue further, the red rock cliffs begin to close in and the forest canopy thickens.

Eventually you enter a forest of Gambel oaks and Douglas firs

Eventually the forest composition begins to change. First you will notice a few small ash and live oaks. Then you will start to notice some Ponderosa pines along the dry creek bed. Before you know it, you will enter stands of majestic Gambel oaks and Douglas firs inexplicably make their appearance. If you are there in October, what was somewhat monotonous blue-green hues will start to become dominated by yellows and orange-browns.

Some interesting creatures to see along the trail

Eventually the trail will reach a junction of two drainages that feed the main creek bed. The trail follows the drainage to the left, which is where the really spectacular beauty comes in. Canyon maples become common in this steep narrow canyon and in October that means spectacular red and orange hues highlight against the dark green Douglas fir needles and reddish bark of old Ponderosa pines.

Canyon maple (also known as Big-toothed maple) in full fall foliage

The trail will continue following the creek bed, with views up through the canopy to the cliff walls above. The trail will steepen, but the grade is not too bad. I'd only be concerned if the creek were flowing, which seems unlikely outside of monsoon season or during a snow melt off. 

Beautiful fall colors in Long Canyon

Once you reach the end of the trail near the back of the canyon, you will return the way you came back to the parking area. A great hike offering a variety of views and ecosystems without the massive crowds that can inundate many of the other Sedona area trails.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kendrick Mountain Wilderness, Kaibab NF, AZ

Distance: 9.2 miles roundtrip (14.8 km)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 7,700 - 10,418 feet (2,350 - 3,175 m)
Time of Year: Late April to Early November (start early during monsoon season)

The fire lookout at the summit

At 10,418 feet in elevation, Kendrick Mountain stands as the 8th highest mountain in Arizona behind the San Francisco Peaks, several peaks in the White Mountains, and Mount Graham in southern Arizona. But, what makes Kendrick Mountain really stand out is its geographic prominence. As an extinct volcanic dome, it stands all alone on the Coconino Plateau with a view that spans the entirety of Northern Arizona. In fact, from it's summit you can see all the way north into Utah, west to the edge of California, south to Phoenix, and east nearly to New Mexico. While it is a haul to get up there, requiring a 2,500 foot climb, it is well worth the effort to sit at the edge of the sky and view out across such an expansive landscape.

A view of the summit from near the trailhead

To get to Kendrick Peak from Downtown Flagstaff, drive north on Hwy 180 (the route to the Grand Canyon) for 14 miles until you reach FR 245 (well signed). Turn left and drive on this well-maintained dirt road for 3 miles until intersecting with FR 171 (also well signed). Turn right and follow it until reaching the sign for the trailhead, where you swing right and then there is a large parking area.

On the way up

The trail immediately starts climbing, gradually at first, but it gets steeper and steeper as you go. Initially you are in a dense Ponderosa pine forest, but the Pumpkin Fire of 2000 cleared out a number of areas that give you good views throughout the hike. The trail starts by going around the edge of a small hill following an old road grade. This old road covers the first 1/3 of the hike until reaching a saddle between a smaller sub-peak and the main peak still rising 2000 feet above you.

Ever expanding views as you climb higher

The trail begins to steepen and switchback up the side of the mountain as a it heads tangentially along a steep drainage and toward a higher saddle between the main summit peak and a ridge extending east. The trail will slowly transition from Ponderosa pines to Douglas firs, occasional aspen, and eventually will be joined by white pines and subalpine firs further up.

The meadow and cabin on the summit flats

Eventually you will reach the saddle at 4.1 miles from the trailhead where things flatten out, Englemann spruce become evident and a nice grassy meadow of bunchgrasses predominate. There you will find a cabin built in 1912 to house the fire lookout workers. Catch a breathe, because you still have 1/2 mile left of trail and some 300 feet of climbing to get to the fire lookout. Due to the thick spruces on the north-facing slopes, you still can not look off to the north yet, only the same southerly direction you saw coming up. To see the Grand Canyon and beyond, keep climbing. While I have never really noticed the effects of elevation while hiking before, I do believe I felt it on this final stretch. That, or I am just getting out of shape. But, I was exhausted upon reaching the summit.

At the fire lookout, there is a helicopter pad that makes an excellent resting and eating place to admire a 180 degree view. Looking north-northeast you can see 10,000 foot Navajo Mountain in southern Utah rising beyond the Painted Desert of the Navajo Reservation.

A view across the Painted Desert with Navajo Mountain in Utah visible in the far distance

Due north the Grand Canyon clearly visible. The North Rim rises 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim. You can see the gentle curving dome shape of the Kaibab Plateau and imagine how it formed a smooth surface to the South Rim before the Colorado River ate into it some 5,000 feet down. In addition, with binoculars, which I had, you could easily see several of the major geologic layers on the North Rim.

The North Rim rises 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
A prescribed burn is visible on the North Rim

Looking east, you can see the Hualapai Mountains near Kingman in the far distance. That is almost to California and southern Nevada. With a keen eye and clear skies, you can also make out the forest slopes of Mount Trumbell and Mount Logan on the Arizona Strip of far northwestern Arizona.

Sitgreaves Mountain to the right and Bill Williams Mountain in the distance

As you scan toward the southwest, you will see the two prominent ancient volcanoes of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The one in the back is 9,300 foot Bill Williams Mountain rising up near Williams, while the closer one is 9,400 foot Sitgreaves Mountain. Further south, you will see the edge of the Mogollon Rim near Sedona, Mingus Mountain rising above the Verde Valley, the tan-colored Prescott Valley, and the Bradshaw Mountains rising high above it.

Looking south toward Prescott Valley
Mingus Mountain is on the left the Bradshaw Mountains in the middle, and Granite Peak on far right

Continuing around to the south-southeast, you can even see the pollution of Phoenix rising up to the edge of the Superstition Mountains in the far distance. Further east the Sierra Ancha rise up. Finally, due east are the highest mountains in the state of Arizona, which are the San Francisco Peaks. I did this hike on the last weekend of October. It was not chilly at the top, but it could have been. Snow from a storm that hit mid-month still lingered on the north-facing slopes above 11,000 feet.

All in all, to give you a scale of the views from Kendrick Mountain, think of it this way. East-to-west, Arizona is about as wide as Washington state is from the Puget Sound to Idaho. But, it is nearly twice as tall north-to-south. Thus, it is the nearly the equivalent of two Washington states stacked on each other. So, to be able to see from nearly California to Utah to nearly New Mexico to down to Phoenix would be like standing on Mount Rainier and seeing the entire state of Washington. Pretty amazing indeed.

After admiring the views and resting your wobbly legs, you will simply return the way you came.

One last note, to get these amazing views, you should come in the fall after the monsoon rains end. Otherwise you risk being in a major lightning storm, getting wet, warmer temperatures, and higher humidity. Plus, higher humidity and cloud cover impair the scale of the views.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Kachina Trail, San Francisco Peaks, AZ

Distance: 4.9 miles one way
Elevation: 9340 - 8630 feet
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: May to November (best in early October)

The Kachina Trail is one of the most famous hikes on the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff. From Downtown Flagstaff, a series of open meadows and lime green aspen stands are clearly visible in a band about halfway up the slopes of the extinct volcano. In October, that band turns a brilliant yellow to golden orange and those open meadows beckon visitors and residents alike as the aspens turn color. From the slopes, you can look out all across Central Arizona from Flagstaff below to the edge of the Mogollon Rim to mountain ranges that spread off into the distance beyond.

Entering Kachina Peaks Wilderness near the eastern trailhead

The Kachina Trail is a one-way trail with trailheads on either side. The main access is from the Snow Bowl ski area at the 9,400 foot level on the western slopes of the San Francisco peaks. Since it is a paved road all the way up to the trailhead, it is the more popular route. If you park at that trailhead, you will encounter significant crowds during the first 1-2 miles of the trail. The other trailhead can be accessed from Forest Road 522, also called Friedlein Prairie Road, that branches off the Snow Bowl Road to the right about 2 miles from the intersection with Hwy 180. Just follow FR 522 for about 5 miles until it ends at the parking area of the trailhead. This dirt road is rocky, and having a moderately sized SUV or passenger vehicle with all-wheel drive would be nice, but any car can make it if they take their time. I will describe this hike from the eastern trailhead because the crowds are fewer and the view more expansive from the beginning.

Views down onto the Mogollon Rim

The trail begins following an old road up the slope through a mixed conifer forest of Ponderosa and white pines and Douglas firs for 0.4 miles until reaching the trail intersection with the Weatherford Trail. Turn left, it is signed, and enter the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. The trail will leisurely climb up through aspen stands, Ponderosa and mixed conifer, and open meadows offering spectacular views of Fremont, Doyle, and Agassiz Peaks above and increasingly panoramic views down the slopes to the south and west. Agassiz the highest of these and is obvious as it is the furthest to the west and has a large alpine area above the treeline.

Agassiz Peak to the left, Fremont Peak to the right

About halfway between the trailheads, the most expansive views open up across the landscape. You can see  Oak Creek Canyon cutting deep into the Mogollon Rim with Mingus Mountain and the Verde Rim visible beyond. To the west of that is Granite Mountain near Prescott visible on the horizon. Further west is Bill Williams Mountain rising up 2000 feet above the surrounding landscape. The Sky Dome on the campus of Northern Arizona University is clearly visible, as are the white domed telescopes of Lowell Observatory. To the southeast, the yellow tinges of young aspens are clear visible on Mount Elden.

Oak Creek Canyon is visible to the right, Sky Dome to the left

Approximately 3/4ths of the way from the eastern trailhead to Snow Bowl, you will enter a deeply incised canyon coming down from the slopes of Mount Agassiz. The terrain becomes more rocky, with large boulders and small rocky cliffs. A variety of conifers dominate within these shady drainages. This is probably the most difficult portion of the hike, but nothing too challenging.

Once you arrive at the Snow Bowl parking lot, you will either need to head back the way you came for a 9.8 mile roundtrip, or would have made arrangements for a car shuttle and/or key exchange to make it a one way trip. If you are going to go back the way you came, my recommendation is to start at the eastern trailhead and turn back once you arrive at the large canyon. The last mile or so to Snow Bowl is not any better than the spectacular views you have already seen. If you do it this way, it'll end up being about a 7.5 mile round trip.

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