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Monday, June 11, 2012

The back way up Mount Elden

Heading out on the "catwalk"

Final approach to Mount Elden
There's more than one way to tackle Mount Elden.  The most popular route begins off US89 in east Flagstaff and climbs 2300 feet in a short, steep 3 miles.  This way is great for a thigh-burning workout, but also earns a pox upon its ambience due to its proximity to two major highways and views dominated by industrial complexes.  However, the west side of the mountain holds an alternative route that's less steep, better shaded and cloistered in woodland vistas stretching all the way to Williams. Except for the occasional car on adjacent FR557, there's nary a hint of civilization on the west route until it crests on the Sunset trail.  Here, the hike lands on a scenic saddle overlooking the railways and warehouses of east Flagstaff, then heads south up to Mount Elden.  This short path is a beautiful trek sandwiched between pine-fir forests on the right and steep drop offs on the left.  Soon after passing through a dense stand of young aspens, the trail leaves the woods to  teeter on a barren, knife-edge ridgeline scarred by the 1977 Radio Fire.  Depending on your point of view, this open-to-the-sky, catwalk-like segment is either profoundly gorgeous or viscerally depressing. Fire damage notwithstanding, the terrain is very interesting---massive lava boulders, juvenile aspens and blooming shrubs lend an air of resurgence to the otherwise bald tread.    Charred snags bleached grey by years of harsh weather coat the slopes like toppled matchsticks and a few remaining upright torched trunks stand sentry above a volcano-studded landscape.  Sunset Crater, Strawberry Crater, O'Leary Peak and the Bonito Lava flow are all visible from the exposed path that feels as if the patches of clumpy grasses and wild roses growing on its margins serve as the glue that keeps it from slumping into oblivion.  Also, the damage done by the June 2010 Schultz Fire is visible to the north.  After passing the wildfire vistas, the catwalk meets FR577 for the final slog to the microwave-and-cellular-tower-cluttered summit with a fire lookout and 360-degree views.
From the Lower Oldham-Rocky Ridge trailhead, hike 0.2 mile north to the turn off for the Brookbank trail.  Veer right here on an unsigned path and hike 0.5 mile to the Upper Oldham trail junction.  Follow Upper Oldham 1.5 miles, cross FR557, and pick up Sunset trail.  At the sign for Sunset-Schultz Tank-Elden, go right and hike 1 mile to the summit of Elden Mountain.
View from Upper Oldham Trail

LENGTH: 6.4 miles roundtrip
ELEVATION: 7,380'- 9,300'
RATING: moderate
BEST SEASON: April - October
DISTANCE FROM PHOENIX: 147 miles one way
West approach trailhead:
From Flagstaff, travel north on US180 to Shultz Pass Road (FR420) at milepost 218.6.
Turn right and go 0.5 mile, veer right onto Elden Lookout Road (FR557) and continue roughly 2.5 miles to the signed Lower Oldham-Rocky Ridge trailhead on the right. FR557 is maintained dirt, passable by sedan. NOTE: to shorten the hike, drive another mile up FR557 to the Upper Oldham trailhead where there's parking on the left across the road from the trail sign.
East approach trailhead:
From Flagstaff, travel east on US89 to just past the Flagstaff Mall at milepost 419.5. Turn at the Mt. Elden Trailhead sign.

INFO: Flagstaff Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, 928-526-0866

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