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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Equinox excursion with fall color


As the annual autumn equinox (Sept 22) brings the promise of cooler temperatures in the Valley, it also heralds in a brief season of hybrid summer-fall hiking in Arizona's higher elevations.
During the final week of September, high country trees break with whispers of a warm autumnal palette above meadows awash in a slurry of hanger-on summer blooms and past-prime grasses. This glorious dichotomy of balmy sun and biting breezes serves up perfect trekking with a side of camera-ready photo opportunities.  An interesting area to explore this subdivision of hiking nirvana is Priest and Howard Draws.  Although it's pretty much an off-the-radar kind of place for hiking, the wildly contoured limestone walls of these side-by-side  shallow canyons are major "draws" for the sport of bouldering.  Complementing the surrounding vegetation, a bank of caves, roofs, tunnels and pocked-and-cracked walls result in unmitigated visual overdose.  Add to that the hordes of mat-packing climbers hanging upside down and scaling the rock superfly style, and you've got a hike of extraordinary interest.  The draws delve through woods and fields for roughly 1.5 miles to a point where the cliffs disappear.  Here, footpaths continue on sans the manic mix of geology, athleticism and natural elements on a seasonal cusp.

Late September color in Howard Draw

LENGTH: 3 miles roundtrip
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 6,900' - 6650'
From Phoenix, travel north on I17 to Lake Mary Road exit 339, which is south of the I40 interchange just before entering Flagstaff.  Turn right, and at the bottom of the off ramp, turn right again.  Continue 5.4 miles south on Lake Mary Road (FR3) to Crimson Road---this is on the right hand side of the road just past the Canyon Vista Campground turnoff.  Turn right on Crimson and  then make an immediate left onto CR 132.
Continue 3 miles on CR132 (which is good gravel) to a dirt road on the right signed "Priest Draw parking area".  This is FR238, a deeply rutted (watch that entry drop), unmaintained road where a high-clearance is required.  Follow FR238  0.3-mile to the parking corral.   AREA IS DAY USE ONLY.


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