|Exploring a geological hiccup|
Monday, October 12, 2015
OLD CAVES CRATER
Talk about a room with a view! Imagine waking up in a cave atop an extinct volcano and seeing a 12,000 foot massif to the west and endless prairies to the east. That's what the Sinagua people enjoyed from a summit abode on a half moon-shaped cinder cone east of Flagstaff. Now known as Old Caves Crater, the pueblo originally had as many as 80 rooms. Exactly how the encampment was used and why it was abandoned in the early 14th century remains a mystery, but an intriguing collection of crumbling foundations and shallow rock shelters provide fodder for the imagination. This cinder cone is unusual, because unlike typical volcanoes of this type, its lava flow happened on the summit instead of at the base. After upside down eruptions splattered thick heaps of molten rock over the mountain top, “geological hiccups” of steaming gasses escaping from the gooey blobs created the maze of grottos and tunnels that are now the highlight of a popular hiking destination.
A 7-mile system of trails explores the archeological site and the Fort Valley Experimental Forest that surrounds the mountain. From either of the two trailheads, follow the wide black cinder road to connect with the 1.4-mile summit ridge trail. The moderate, pine-shaded single track climbs 510 feet to the caves. On the way up, vegetation morphs from pine-juniper forests into sparse, windswept patches of cliff rose and thigh high shrubs. You'll want to stay alert while exploring to avoid trampling on fragile artifacts or falling into one of the caverns. As with all heritage sites, leave only foot prints and take only photos. Do not attempt to reconstruct walls or "fix" anything. The trails are laid out in a double loop format bisected by the summit route. Map signs at the trailheads clearly show the layout making it easy to customize the length of your trek.
LENGTH: up to 7 miles
ELEVATION: 6,660' - 7,170'
Dump Road (north) Trailhead:
From Flagstaff, go east on Interstate 40 to exit 201 for U.S. Route 89 north. Continue 5.6 miles north to Cinder Lake Landfill Road (FR6010) marked only by a "landfill" sign north of mile marker 423. Turn right and go 0.7 mile to the trailhead.
Silver Saddle (south) Trailhead:
From Flagstaff Mall on U.S. Route 89, go 3.5 miles north to Silver Saddle Road, turn right and continue 0.5 miles to the trailhead on the left past milepost 422.
INFO: Coconino National Forest