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.