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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Trail of cinders

Painted Desert view

Nothing says; “summer hiking in Arizona” quite like scrambling up the slopes of a dormant volcano. Among the eroding remains of the more than 600 volcanoes that dot the highlands north of Flagstaff, sits a particularly beautiful cinder cone called Strawberry Crater. Just a pup in geological time, this volcano began erupting around the year 1066. Since those explosive medieval times, the series of lava flows that built Strawberry Crater have cooled into a sea of gray-and-crimson-colored cinders framed by a crescent of jagged volcanic walls. Frozen in time, the contorted layers of solidified molten rock look so fresh it’s difficult to imagine that the final blobs of magma sputtered from this natural wonder nearly a thousand years ago. Because of the wild and raw nature of the route, it’s smart to wear sturdy boots with good traction when hiking the Strawberry Crater trail. The path, which is just a shoveled-out ledge on the slopes of the volcano, is sketchy (look for strategically-placed pinion pine branches as your guide) and tantamount to walking on marbles. In order to get the hardest part of the hike done first, head right at the loop junction sign located a few yards from the trailhead. From there, it’s a slow uphill slog on pesky, pea-sized cinders. However, the struggle ends at a saddle within the crater where views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the Little Colorado River gorge are visible in the distance. From the saddle, it’s possible to augment the hike by picking your way along unmarked paths (go left and uphill) to the volcano’s rim where a series of low-profile ruins of mysterious origin tease the imagination. Yet, because of the steep ascent and bushwhacking involved, most hikers prefer to skip visiting the ruins and stay on the main trail which heads down into the crater and around a collapsed ridge. Along the last leg of the trail, panoramic views of a barren landscape, dotted with wind-worn junipers stretch to the horizon. 

LENGTH: 1.5-mile loop
RATING : moderate 
ELEVATION: 6100' -6500'  
GETTING THERE:From Flagstaff, connect to I40 east and then connect to US89 north. Continue north on US 89 to just past milepost 434 and turn right onto an unmarked dirt road (Forest Road 546). Continue east on FR546 for roughly 3.6 miles to FR 779 (continue straight at the fork). Follow FR779 for another 2 miles to the signed trailhead. There’s an interpretive sign but no facilities. The roads are dirt and passable by sedan but may be impassable when wet.
INFO: Flagstaff Ranger District, Coconino National Forest


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Leg stretch on Snowbowl Road


Not on the map, but well-known for its shaded ease, this compact "no name" footpath is just the ticket for a stroll with the kiddies or a quick way to air  out a scenic drive on Snowbowl Road.  Aspen Corner has long been  a popular, bend-in-the-road stop off for daytrippers with cameras and picnic baskets in tow. And although one need not venture far from the location's roadside fence to enjoy majestic mountain views and a dewy meadow replete with places to throw down a blanket, a hike along this short path which punches through a perfumed tangle of tall trees fringed with ankle-tickling wildflowers adds a dose of lung clearing high country O2 to the detour.
To find this refeshing route,begin at the fence opening at the north end of the parking area heading out on the trail that goes right and continue to a fork.  Here, continue straight ahead through a pair of boulders (the left fork connects with the Arizona Trail)  and follow the trail to where it meets Snowbowl Road.  Return the way you came.

LENGTH: 0.6 mile round trip
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 8940' - 9000'

From Phoenx, travel north on I17 to Flagstaff.  Connect with US180 and drive 7 miles north to Snowbowl Road.  Head 5.2 miles uphill on Snowbowl Road to Aspen Corner.  There's a parking apron on the left near a splitrail fence.   

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Easy trek to a volcanic lake

Coconino National Forest

In a ring of aspens and knurled lava, the water-filled vent of an ancient volcano serves as a hub of wildlife activity. A crumbling path of cinders leads to this hidden geological gem where the condition of the “lake” vacillates between a hip–deep pond and a swale of waterlogged grasses. Charred stumps and crumbling snags along the trail that climbs up the flanks of the crater are reminders of the 2000 Pumpkin Fire, which was caused by a lightning strike and burned 15,000 acres of the surrounding woodlands. Although devastating, the fire spared just enough forest round the lake to preserve an important wildlife sanctuary. A favorite watering hole for resident critters, a slew of muddy prints along the edge of this lava-borne tank will test your track identification skills.

LENGTH: 3 miles roundtrip (from FR760)
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 8,100 – 9,100 feet

From Flagstaff, go 18.5 miles north on US180  to Forest Road 760 (just past milepost 234). Turn left and continue 2.2 miles on the good dirt road bearing left at all junctions to Forest Road 9009D. The sign for FR 9009D is located roughly 100 feet in from the road and is easy to miss. Those without 4-wheel-drive should park here and hike up the road. Adventurous drivers may opt to continue on FR 9009D for one mile, bearing right at the Forest Road 9111J junction to the starting point located near a sign that reads “motor travel restricted area notice ahead.”

From the “restricted” sign, veer right and hike uphill on the old log road. Hang another right at the “official notice” sign and follow the trail to a wire gate. Go though the gate and hike down into the crater.
INFORMATION: (928) 526-0866, or refer to the Coconino National Forest map