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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Marginalized mountain gets some love


O'LEARY PEAK
Flagstaff
Destination: O'Leary Peak in background

Hiding in plain sight between Sunset Crater National Monument and Arizona's loftiest mountain is O'Leary Peak--- a dormant lava dome volcano with a character unlike its geological neighbors.  Normally, this trail sees only little-to-moderate hiking traffic, but this week was different.  First, the annual Arizona Highways Summer Hiking Guide hit newsstands and features O'Leary as one of its favorite destinations (nice pick, Robert!). And, I selected this trail for my contribution to the Grape-Nuts Summit Sampler event.  So, good  'ol O'Leary is suddenly getting the recognition it deserves. What turns hikers off about this route is that it's on a closed gravel road (no, you cannot drive to the summit unless you're with the forest service) all the way to the top.  However, it's a big mistake to discount this hike because of that.  In fact, because this no-route-finding-no-worries trail eliminates the need for maps and GPS, hikers are freed up for unrestricted gawking at the surrounding San Francisco Volcanic Field.  It’s helpful to dust off your Geology 101 textbook prior to hitting this trail.  That's because you'll be treated to a mélange of volcanic formations included lava flows, cinder cones, a strato volcano (San Francisco Mountain/Humphreys Peak) and of course O'Leary itself which is comprised of mostly an igneous rock called dacite. The climb is an unmitigated haul up the mountain's south face.  Switchbacks transition from wide and gradual to short and abrupt near the summit.  The effort pays off though with birds eye views of Sunset Crater National Monument that could otherwise only be seen by helicopter.  As the trail reaches its high point, there are terrific views of the Painted Desert, Grand Canyon and the more than 600 volcanoes that populate the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. On the summit, an official elevation sign beneath a fire tower makes for the perfect way to commemorate the climb with photos.  The tower is not ordinarily open to visitors, however on our visit, the forest service worker invited us up--and we, of course, handed her some Grape-Nuts Fit samples!
Taking a break on the summit


LENGTH: 10 miles roundtrip
RATING: difficult
ELEVATION: 6956' - 8916'
GETTING THERE:
From Phoenix, go north on I-17 to the junction with I-40 just south of Flagstaff.
Head east (right) on I-40 and continue to the junction for AZ89 NORTH at exit 201.
Follow AZ89 north to the entrance for Sunset Crater at milepost 430.3.
Turn right onto Sunset Crater Road (FR545) and go 1.7 miles to FR545A, which is signed for O’Leary Group Campground. Turn left on FR545A and go 0.25 mile to the parking area on the right near the gate for O’Leary Lookout.

View of San Francisco Peaks from the trail

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

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