Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mount Elden Loop via Brookbank and Sunset Trails, Coconino NF, AZ

Distance: 8.45 miles or 10.65 with Summit Spur (13.6 km or 17.1 km)
Elevation: 7,700 - 8,935 feet
or 9,300 feet with Summit Spur (2,347 - 2,724 or 2,835 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: Anytime, but watch out for ice in winter and thunderstorms in summer

A view to the east from Sunset Park viewpoint

When visiting the Flagstaff area, the Dry Lakes Hills and Mount Elden will be obvious landmarks rising above the city to the north and east. These side vents of the larger San Francisco Peaks rise 1000-2000 feet above the surrounding Coconino Plateau. While many people will do the straight up-and-back climb to the radio towers on top of Mount Elden from the trailhead off US-89 near the Flagstaff Mall, there is a much more gradual, and scenic, loop route that will take you through dense mixed-conifer forests, montane meadows, old-growth ponderosa pine stands, and up to spectacular scenic viewpoints some 2000 feet above Flagstaff. Whether you are a Flagstaff native or visiting from out of town, this loop will give you a great overview of the area.

An old-growth mixed conifer forest

The way to access this loop is to drive north out of town on Hwy 180, as if you were headed to the Grand Canyon. Then, after passing the Museum of Northern Arizona, turn right at the next light, called Schultz Pass Road. Drive down the road until it makes a Y, where Schultz Pass road continues to the left and Mount Elden lookout road stays right. Keep right and follow the road as it passes mini-horse ranches and turns to dirt. Follow the road up, passing the Rocky Ridge Trailhead and then 0.2 miles further park at a small pull-out on the left for Brookbank Trail.

A red-tailed hawk takes flight

The Brookbank Trail ascends gradually through a mixed-conifer forest of white fir, Douglas fir, white pine, and Ponderosa pines. The trail will reach the edge of an open meadow, where you can access the Dry Lake Hills on left. After 1.0 miles the trail reaches the junction with Little Gnarly Trail that descends down to Schultz Pass. Turn right and continue on the Brookbank Trail as it heads around the northslope of the hill, offering spectacular views of the San Francisco Peaks.

Climbing up the slopes of Little Elden Mountain toward Sunset Park

After about 1.5 miles, the trail will cross a flat saddle and then straddle the southside of another hill offering views across the drainage toward the densely forested north-facing slope of Mount Elden. Then at 3.2 miles, the trail reaches the junction with the Sunset Trail. To the left, the trail heads to Schultz Tank. Stay right and the trail will descend down through a beautiful old-growth Ponderosa pine stand, with open grassy meadows filled with wildflowers.

Old-growth ponderosa pine meadows

At the bottom of the slope, you will come across the closed trail for Little Bear/Little Elden, which is blocked off due to damage associated with the catastrophic Schultz Fire of 2010. The forest here is maintained in its historic open canopy state by prescribed burns. The trail will then head up the north-face of Little Elden Mountain toward Sunset Park. After a steep rocky stretch, a spectacular view opens up at the top of the ridge to the east. Here, Sunset Crater, the cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, and the neighborhoods of Doney Park become visible. The landscape is mostly devoid of trees due to the 1977 fire that scorched Mount Elden and removed all of the top soil. Scientists estimate it may take 1000 years for the forests to be fully restored here.

Looking out at Little Elden Mountain and the return of aspens from the 1977 Radio Fire

Following the ridgetop, the trail will head toward Sunset Park, where there is a parking area from the Elden Lookout Road that continues up the mountain toward the radio towers. At this stage, you can either descend down the Lower Oldham Trail 2.0 miles through dense forests back to the trailhead, or you could continue straight toward Mount Elden Summit, should you desire to extend your hike.

A view across Flagstaff from Mount Elden Summit

The trails up the slope for about 3/4th of a mile through forest and then into open steep meadows until reaching the radio tower access road again on a flat plateau area. Here, the final stretch to the summit is obvious to the towers. Or, you can stay to the right and head up the short slope to a view out across Flagstaff, with the grassy Turkey Park below. In fact, you can wander around toward Devil's Head Summit with additional radio towers visible. The views extend out across the entire Mogollon Rim region, with Oak Creek Canyon and Mingus Mountain visible in the far distance.

The San Francisco Peaks rise above Turkey Park

Once you've explored the Mount Elden summit area, just get on the access road and follow it down back to Sunset Park. Then, follow the Upper Oldham Trail back down the steep slopes through dense forest back to the Brookbank Trailhead and your car to have completed the loop.

Get an early start in summer to avoid afternoon monsoon thunderstorms

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