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Monday, July 9, 2018


VISHNU TRAIL: A Tiny Trek on the Edge of the Grand Canyon.
A hiker on the Vishnu Trail approaches G.C. views.
Whether hiked as an inspirational appetizer, warm up walk or add-on trek while exploring around the South Rim of the Grand Canyon near the town of Tusayan, the Vishnu Trail is a quick and easy diversion with tantalizing views and opportunities to engage with the Arizona Trail.  
Vishnu Trail connects with the Arizona Trail
The hike begins directly under the Grandview Lookout Tower, where the well-marked path heads north through wildlife-rich pine-oak woodlands and shrubby enclaves.  After roughly a quarter-mile, glimpses of the hazy, russet chasm begin to appear through the trees.
Grandview Lookout under stormy skies. Yes, we got soaked!
An oak-shaded passage on the Vishnu Trail.
As the trail progresses to its overlook spur, scenic vistas unwrap like unexpected gifts that surprise and thrill. 
Vishnu Temple (right) seen from the trail overlook.
A metal gate marks the threshold to the best sights of the hike. Beyond the gate, canyon vistas take center stage, culminating at a boulder ledge above a sea of pinion and ponderosa pines that creeps up to the colorfully-layered walls of the canyon.  Views of dramatic rock formations, fog-veiled depths and the distant highlands of the Kaibab Plateau tease the imagination and seed ambitions for more canyon hiking.   Seasoned Grand Canyon hikers might find these peek-a-boo vistas underwhelming, but for first-timers or those who appreciate alternate points-of-view, they are stunning.  
The lookout residence cabin was built in 1936.

Coconino Rim in distance.
The prominent cone-shaped formation in the mid-ground is 7829-foot Vishnu Temple. Named for the Hindu god who protects the universe, the majestic landmark is one of the highest points in the gorge’s east end.
Grandview Lookout survey marker.
But the ooh-ahh photo opps don’t end here.  To the southeast, an imposing, elongated landform marks the convergence of the Coconino Plateau, the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers and the pastel flatlands of the Painted Desert. 
To complete the loop, backtrack to the spur junction and follow the return leg to where it connects with Passage 36 of the Arizona Trail and the Dwarf Mistletoe Interpretive Area.  Head left here for a short walk outfitted with educational signs that provide information on the invasive parasite, forest health, plants and wildlife. 
Sign in the Dwarf Mistletoe Interpretive Area
This worthwhile diversion adds just under a mile to the trek.  For a longer option, continue hiking south on the Arizona Trail through thick woodlands of the Kaibab National Forest that hover above expansive desert plains. This 4.7-mile section is also referred to as the Coconino Rim Trail. Replete with scenic viewpoints, the shaded, easy stretch gives a tiny taste of the 800-mile route that runs north-south through the state from Mexico to Utah.  
Vishnu Trail links to the Arizona Trail.
Back at the trailhead, gird your acrophobia and check out the Grandview Lookout.
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936, the 80-foot-tall tower capped with a seven-foot-square metal cab soars above the trees at the lip of the canyon.  When a forest service worker is on duty and not engaged with a fire incident, visitors are welcome to climb the narrow, creaky stairs for predictably grand views.  Nearby, a cozy two-room cabin, also built in 1936, serves as home base for the lookout workers and adjacent camping spots allow hikers to pitch a tent and hang out for a few days of adventure.
Beautiful woodlands at the edge of the Grand Canyon.
Vishnu Trail: 1.1-mile loop (2 miles with the interpretive trail)
Coconino Rim: 9.7 miles out-and-back
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 7400 - 7529 feet
From U.S. 64 in Tusayan, turn right on Forest Road 302, which is located just past the traffic circle when entering town from the south.  Go 14.1 miles east on FR 302 to Forest Road 310, turn left and continue 1.3 miles to the trailhead at the tower. Forest roads are good dirt/gravel suitable for passenger vehicles. There's a vault toilet at the trailhead.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018


Cultural Heritage Hikes at Walnut Canyon National Monument
View from a "shady side" dwelling
Walnut Canyon is one of Northern Arizona’s most fascinating natural wonders.  Over its 20-mile course, the 400-foot-deep gorge cuts through pine-studded plateaus and eons of Earth’s history.  
Sinagua cliff dwellings
Located just a few miles southeast of Flagstaff, the chasm’s wavy course was created over millions of years by a complicated series of geological events. The canyon’s tilted layer-cake appearance is partly made up of eroded limestone deposits and the lithified remains of ancient coastal sand dunes. 
Edible mahonia (barberry) also has medicinal qualities.
Although you’d need a Ph.D. to thoroughly understand its geological anatomy, the canyon’s more relatable human element is the focus of a hike along the trails of Walnut Canyon National Monument. 
240 stairs descend to the Island Trail
The park was established in 1915 to protect and preserve the cultural artifacts of the Sinagua people who built and occupied cliff dwellings in the canyon’s ledges and shallow caves between 1100-1250.  Two educational hikes offer lessons in biodiversity, geology, traditional farming methods and human history.  The Island Trail begins with a steep, 185-foot descent on a stone staircase with dizzying views. The trail swings around a rock jetty where dozens of stone-and-mortar rooms are built into crags and overhangs. Interpretive signs provide information about the structures as well as native plants and animals. 
View of Walnut Canyon from the Rim Trail
Dwellings on the Island Trail
The west or “shady side” of the jetty is smothered in towering Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, mahonia and Arizona walnut trees that thrive in the cooler, wetter microclimate.  Around the bend, the path emerges onto the “sunny side” -- an exposed ledge where the plant life reflects dryer, warmer conditions. Cacti, yucca and pinion pine cling to chiseled escarpments.  From here, views of the visitor center high above, reminds that there’s a strenuous 240-step climb out to get to the next trail.  
Pueblo on the Rim Trail
Back up on the brow of the gorge, the Rim Trail makes an easy half-mile loop to scenic overlooks, a pit house, pueblo and demonstration garden. Once done with the hikes, stop by the visitor center to augment your experience by viewing displays of archeological finds and a beautiful video about the area’s natural history.
Stairs descend 185 feet to the Island Trail
Island Trail: 1-mile roundtrip
Rim Trail:  0.7-mile roundtrip

Island Trail: difficult
Rim Trail: easy, partially paved.
ELEVATION: 6690 – 6505 feet
From the Interstate 17/40 intersection in Flagstaff, go 7.5 miles east on I-40 to exit 204, turn right and continue 3 miles to the site.  There is an entrance fee.
NOTE:  Temporary closures of the Island Trail may be implemented during fire season when red flag warnings are issued by the National Weather Service.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Rogers Lake Natural Area
Southwest of Flagstaff, two recreation areas with divergent personalities are now linked.  The recently completed 5.4-mile Rogers Trail tethers the event-centric, party atmosphere of Fort Tuthill County Park with the subdued wilds of Rogers Lake Natural Area.
Switchbacks on Rogers Trail
The non-motorized, flowy trail that straddles the open space between the two Coconino County properties has several access points and many opportunities to create short day hikes, long loops or car shuttle excursions. 
A bee harvests nectar from Butter and Eggs
One convenient out-and-back circuit begins at a trailhead on Forest Road 532.  From the roomy dirt parking lot, pick up the Flagstaff Loop Trail heading west and follow it 0.9-mile to the beginning of Rogers Trail.  Roughly paralleling Woody Mountain Road, the meandering, single track holds steady at around 7100 feet, sweeping easily through wildflower meadows, and shady glens. 
The San Francisco Peaks seen from Rogers Trail
Watch for swarms of butterflies and bees drawing nectar from Butter and Eggs, New Mexican vervain and field bindweed blooms.  After passing by the Arboretum at Flagstaff, where there’s a short access path, the trail turns southwest heading toward the pine-smothered mound of 8045-foot Woody Mountain.  Near the four-mile point, a set of syrupy switchbacks take on the southeast flanks of the mountain. The smartly constructed trail eliminates much of the huff-and-puff of the 600-foot ascent. (I ran into several volunteer forest service workers who were improving drainages on this section.  It’s important that trail users don’t cut switchbacks because doing so will cause the path to degrade and create dangerous conditions.) 
Gambel oaks are common along the trail
The uphill segment winds through thick stands of Gambel oak, New Mexican Locust and Ponderosa pines.  Even with the dense tree cover, glimpses of the San Francisco Peaks can be seen through breaks in the foliage. Trailside basalt boulders, an understory of pine cones and clumpy grasses plus the rustlings of ravens, hawks and mountain blue birds in the canopies complement the trail’s pleasant, away-from-it-all feel.  The route levels out as it approaches its high point at the natural area border. 
New Mexican Vervain attracts pollinators
Continue hiking past the boundary to enjoy vistas of Rogers Lake rolling out 400 feet below.  The sprawling, high-elevation wetland is an important refuge for wildlife and native plant species and it’s common to sight pronghorn and elk skulking around the fringes and domestic cattle converging around puddles.
Acres of pinecones 
At the 6.1-mile point, a metal post marks the spot where Rogers Trail connects with the natural area system. Two Spot Trail heads off to the left while Gold Digger Trail takes the right fork.  For a satisfying 12-mile roundtrip day hike, turn around here.
View of Rogers Lake from the trail's high point
Otherwise, go either way at the junction for a two-mile downhill trek to viewing decks at the edge of the lake.
LENGTH: 5.4 miles one-way (6.1 miles one-way as described here)
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION:  7030 – 7680 feet
EAST ACCESS (as described here):
From Flagstaff, go west on Historic Route 66 to Woody Mountain Road (Forest Road 231) on the left.  Go 1.8 miles south to Forest Road 532, turn left and go a few yards to the parking area on the right.  Follow the Loop Trail 0.9 mile to connect with Rogers Trail.
Woody Mountain Road is washboard-rough but passable by sedan.
Rogers Trail links Ft. Tuthill Park with the Natural Area
There’s a 0.3-mile spur path directly across from the entrance to Flagstaff Arboretum (3.7 miles south of Route 66 on Woody Mountain Road) and parking aprons where the trail crosses FR 390A and FR 9026 south of Woody Mountain Road.
Go 7.8 miles south on Woody Mountain Road to the Gold Digger trailhead.
The Two Spot trailhead is located another mile down the road.

Monday, June 25, 2018


Iconic Pivot Rock is the hike's keystone.
Lodged between the epic wilderness areas of West Clear Creek and Fossil Creek, the woodlands around Pivot Rock Canyon provide a quiet transition between the two recreational juggernauts.  Although it lacks the deep gorges, waterfalls and hiking challenge of its surrounding destinations, the unassuming little space on the Mogollon Rim holds fascinations of its own.  
Limestone slabs in Pivot Rock Canyon
Easily accessible off State Route 87 just south of the community of Clints Well, the area can be explored using a 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps campsite as a base.
From the no-frills dirt clearing, two short treks with distinct flavors head out in opposite directions. 
Butterflies congregate near the springs.
The woodsy, informal routes located just outside of the wilderness boundaries use abandoned roads and footpaths to explore an array of human artifacts and bizarre geology.
Often eclipsed by the epic, vertigo-inducing trails that scale the raw and remote cliffs of WCC (Tramway, Maxwell, Calloway) that are accessible only via tire-eating dirt roads, the Pivot Rock Canyon and Wildcat Spring trails emanates a softer character than their untamed, wilderness cousins.
Remains of a backwoods cabin.
Payson Packers maneuver through a fern gully.
The double-header circuit begins across the road from the campground at a “road closed” barrier with a walk to Wildcat Spring. Pass through the gate and follow the faint two-track, veering right (downhill) where the road splits. The road soon narrows to a footpath as it enters a shallow canyon meandering along the edge of an ephemeral stream.  The sketchy trail weaves among brambles, hip-high ferns damp forests and sunlit meadows. Several spur paths and game trails spin off the main route, but the best plan is to follow the paths-of-use on the canyon floor.  At 1.4 miles, the canyon converges to a point with evidence of runoff funneling down into the stream channel. Wildcat Spring is located up on the east wall of the canyon. A short scramble up to the defunct concrete trough reveals rusty pipes and a crudely-poured square tub holding more pine needles than water.
Wildcat Spring is usually bone dry.
On the flip side, the Pivot Rock Canyon hike is a little more convoluted. Begin hiking on the road at the end of the campground. At the 0.6-mile point, pick up an unsigned footpath on the right heading downhill to a creek channel. (For reference, there’s a small dirt clearing with a fire ring.)
Members of the Payson Packers hike group trek the roads.
Hop down the limestone slab staircase, head right and follow the obvious paths that crisscross the drainage smothered in pine-oak woodlands and aspen-shaded clearings.  The paths move through a narrow corridor bolstered by outcroppings of layered fossiliferous limestone that harbor water pockets, impressive overhangs and shallow caves. Roughly a half-mile into the canyon, keep an eye out for the eponymous rock formation on the upper left embankment. The easy-to-miss, natural limestone sculpture known as Pivot Rock hides in plain sight above the ravine.  Its massive foundation supports a balancing capstone posed like an abandoned project on a potter’s wheel.  A frenzy of wild grasses and tree sprouts have taken root in its porous, flaky surfaces. Nearby, a toppled pine tree lies shattered at its base, a near-miss that could have crushed or sent the monolith over the edge.
Once done visiting the rock, continue hiking the faint path that winds among gooseberry bushes, brambles and gigantic ferns to a point where tiny pools lush with White Watercress, Yellow Monkey flowers and swarms of butterflies and moths herald the approach to Pivot Rock Spring. 
An Orange Gooseberry thicket.
Even in our current extreme drought conditions, a trickle of water still flows from the spring’s location high on the canyon wall. Icy air and a glaze of sweet water oozes from the spring's cave-like source.
Pivot Rock Spring spews cool air and a trickle of moisture.
From the spring, backtrack to the access road and continue hiking the two-track north. Along the way, off to the left, a decaying pile of rough-hewn logs is all that remains of a backwoods cabin. 
White Watercress thrives near Pivot Rock Spring.
This is a favorite turnaround point for an easy day hike, however, it’s possible create your own circuit using the area’s maze of dirt roads and the Coconino National Forest road map for guidance.
Pivot Rock: 3 miles roundtrip or up to 6 miles using linking forest roads.
Wildcat Spring: 2. 8 miles roundtrip
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 6780 – 7100 feet
From the State Route 260/87 junction in Payson, go 32 miles north on SR 87 to Forest Road 616, which is located past milepost 284 on the left. Follow FR 616 for 3.3 miles to an unsigned campground downhill on the right.
The Pivot Rock trail begins on the road at the end of the campground.  The Wildcat Spring hike begins across from the campground at a closed gate.
Limestone escarpments in Pivot Rock Canyon

Monday, June 11, 2018


Willows hug the So. Fork of the Little Colorado River

At the point on the South Fork Trail #97 where the route crosses a creek and begins its grueling climb, I was jolted to a stop by screams that sounded like an injured dog.  In a flash, a herd of elk bolted across the trail just yards ahead of me.  Five females in tandem, then a lone male. 
Eden meets Hell.
They scrambled up a knoll following the cries of a distressed calf.  The adults circled the young one who continued to wail from its high perch. Two more elk burst from the creek, stopping briefly to stare me down before they charged up to meet the herd, round up the calf and bolt into the back county.  They gave me a thrill and I reciprocated with exactly what they needed--their space. 
Encounters like this one are common on the White Mountains trails of northeastern Arizona.
Wild roses bloom through August.
Before venturing out into the forests, hikers should be aware of common-sense rules for respecting wildlife.  The basic concept is to keep wildlife wild by not approaching, harassing, “helping” or feeding them.  
A beaver dam on the river.
The Arizona Game & Fish website is a good resource for learning about responsible wildlife viewing. Simple habits like observing from a distance, sticking to trails, keeping food secured, avoiding nest and den areas and knowing what to do (and not do) should you encounter a wild animal can protect both you and the animals. 
The South Fork Trail #97 near Eagar, with its proximity to water and varied habitats is a wildlife magnet.  The challenging route can be done as an out-and-back or car shuttle hike.  Most people begin at the South Fork day use area.  Shaded by tall pines, firs and spruce trees, the first mile of the trail escaped the wrath of the 2011 Wallow Fire that burned more than a half million acres of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  This Eden-like stretch follows the South Fork of the Little Colorado River.  The waterway is cluttered with willows, alders, Red-osier dogwood, skunk bush, poison ivy (leaves of three; let it be) and wild roses.  Where the water comes closest to the trail, be on the lookout for stealthy Great blue herons and ingeniously-constructed beaver dams. As the trail moves southeast, gradually gaining elevation, it creeps up on the scar of the fire. 
An elk bolts across the trail.
A charred tree trunk here and a pile of burnt logs there precede the kick-in-the-gut moment.  Just over a mile in, Eden meets Hell.  
Greens Peak (left) and the Springerville Volcanic Field
Oddly prefaced by a gateway of willows, the next 5 miles of flame-plundered terrain are physically taxing and difficult to process emotionally.  Those who remember what the trail looked like before the fire will find this segment heartbreaking. 
So. Fork of the Little Colorado on the way to the trailhead
Running through the middle of the canyon-bound wasteland, a slender trickle of water clunks and chugs beneath a resurgent fringe of aspen saplings and spotty stands of survivor pines.  From this point on, you’ll need to hop over dead fall and stay alert for other hazards.  Three miles in, the trail crosses the river and begins a 1500-foot ascent to the top of a bench where views of the surrounding Springerville Volcanic Field roll out to the New Mexico border. 
Boggy Mexican Hay Lake attracts pronghorn.
The high mounds of Greens Peak and Mount Baldy tower over dozens of eroded cinder cones and acres of golden grasslands.  The route then winds down toward Mexican Hay Lake, which is rarely more than a weedy bog.  The open space surrounding the lake is prime habitat for pronghorn.  One of the fastest land mammals, the elegant, horned beasts can run as fast as 60 miles-per-hour.
Red-osier dogwood grows along the river.
It’s worth sitting quietly at the edge of the lake to catch a glimpse of them sprinting over open prairies leaving clouds of rattled birds in their wake.  The trail ends at the northwest edge of the lake; however, a rough, mile-long dirt road continues to State Route 261 and the Point of the Mountain Vista rest area.  If you parked a shuttle vehicle there, just keep walking, otherwise, return the way you came. 
The first mile of the trail escaped the Wallow Fire.
On a recent visit, I was startled by a family of Bighorn Sheep lounging on a picnic ramada at the rest area.  They seemed unconcerned about my presence as they lazed in the shade at the edge of a scenic overlook area. 
The 2011 Wallow Fire damaged much of the trail.
Whether the shaggy band wandered there by chance or because they had learned to associate picnic tables with food handouts, I gave them what they needed most--- telephoto lens distance, a clear escape route and not a smidge of food.
Bighorn Sheep at Point of the Mountain vista area.
LENGTH: 14 miles round trip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 7540 – 9060 feet
Greenery along So.Fork of the Little Colorado River.
South Fork Trailhead
From the Hon-Dah Casino in Pinetop-Lakeside, go 32.8 miles east on State Route 260 to County Road 4124 located near milepost 390 on the right.  Go 2.6 miles south on CR 4124, cross a bridge and turn right into the trailhead parking area. Roads are paved and sedan-friendly gravel.
Point of the Mountain
From the County Road 4124 turnoff, continue 2.3 miles east on State Route 260 to State Route 261, past mile post 393. Turn right and go 7.1 miles to the vista point on the left just past milepost 405. Hike 200 feet back up SR 261 and follow Forest Road 70B/FR8070B (unmarked at this writing) around the lake to the trail.  NOTE: SR 261 is paved but the forest roads are rough, unmaintained dirt.  You could drive the mile to the trail but four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.