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Monday, October 24, 2016


Little Bear Trail, October 2016

Before the 2010 Schultz Fire charred much of the forest around Flagstaff's Dry Lake Hills, a stand of Big-tooth maples on Little Bear Trail filled a gorge overlooking cinder cone dotted plains. The sound of their whispering leaves bounced off nearby cliffs where the trail wound around one of a dozen or so switchbacks that ease the hike's 1,100 foot haul to connect with the upper trail system that flows over the slopes of Mount Elden. The maples tickled the edges of a stony ledge with broad views of O'Leary Peak and Sunset Crater jutting from stark, volcanic highlands. On really clear days, the pastel tints of the Painted Desert glint in the distance. This had been one of my favorite contemplative spots in Flagstaff.
Little Bear Trail , July 2009
Little Bear Trail took the brunt of the blaze, which reduced the once deeply wooded trail to charcoal and ash. A heavy monsoon season that followed added to the damage, so the forest service decided to shut the trail down due to safety concerns. Since the fire, I've often wondered if the smattering of maples and aspens along the route had survived. I'd have to wait six years for the answer. After intensive rehabilitation, the trail re-opened on October 20, 2016. Thanks to the efforts of countless volunteers, organizations and local businesses, the trail's treacherous, rocky terrain has been restored to again provide safe passage for non-motorized recreation. Eager to visit my favorite lookout ledge and maples, I hit the trail the day after it re-opened. Starting from the Little Elden trailhead, moderate fire damage appears in fits and starts. Patches of blackened snags interspersed among intact pine-oak woodlands, teased that the fire might not have been that bad. Then, it got worse.
The 2010 Schultz Fire damaged Little Bear Trail
At the Little Bear junction, a panorama of destruction takes center stage. The sight of barren foothills, charcoal matchsticks that had been Douglas firs and sun washed meadows where Gambel oaks once grew in profusion beneath old growth Ponderosa pines felt like a kick in the gut. Although much of the 3.4-mile route was unrecognizable, short segments of surviving forest and the brilliant trail restoration work lifted my spirits. My stony ledge lookout was there, but the pines that had framed it were gone, but hints of maple resurgence and piles of spent aspen leaves inspired me to keep moving. Near the trail's high point, it appears the fire ran out of energy, thus sparing the forest and a patch a spindly aspens abutting the Sunset Trail junction. All was not lost.
On the way down, I ran into a couple of hikers who had not experienced the route before the fire. "Isn't this a beautiful trail?" one of them blurted out. "Yes, and a beautiful day, too." the other gushed. On both accounts, it was.
Pine seedlings are part of the restoration
LENGTH: 8.6 miles (up and back)
RATING: difficult
ELEVATION: 7320' - 8430'
In Flagstaff, go north on US 89 to Forest Road 556 (Elden Spring Road, just past mile post 429) turn left and continue 2.4 miles to the trailhead on the right. From the trailhead kiosk, follow the access trail 0.3 mile to the Little Elden (Arizona Trail) junction, go right and continue 0.6 mile to Little Bear Trail. Hike 3.4 miles uphill to the Sunset Trail. Turnaround here or consult maps to make a loop hike.
INFO & MAP: Coconino National Forest

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