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Friday, July 14, 2017


Observatory Tank along Forest Road 515
Wavyleaf thistle and guests
Allow me to introduce A-1 Mountain, ruler of magma, queen of ashes and Mother of the Mesa. This dramatic introduction—admittedly inspired by a certain fantasy franchise—is an accurate description of the 300,000-year-old cinder cone located on the urban-forest interface west of Flagstaff. A-1 Mountain is the source of volcanic materials that built Observatory Mesa and other nearby geological features. Rising to 8,300 feet, the pine-cloaked mound is just one of many visual goodies dished out to visitors of the Observatory Mesa Natural Area.
A-1 Mountain is a 300,000 -year-old cinder cone volcano
The 2,251-acre site was acquired by the City of Flagstaff in 2013 to preserve native ecosystems and an essential wildlife corridor while allowing for  recreation.  Rich in biodiversity, the landscape is a mix of pine-oak woodlands, grasslands, shrubby range, tiny drainage areas and seeps that foster wetland species like willows, frogs, wild roses and salamanders.
Observatory Mesa
Hikers can access the area on dirt forest roads or by way of the Flagstaff Urban Trails System (FUTS) trailhead at Thorpe Park near downtown. Either way, both options merge at a hub in the middle of the mesa where the Mars Hill, Tunnel Springs, Flagstaff Loop and Observatory Mesa trails spin off in different directions.  Although both access points are close to town, the trailhead along Forest Road 515 has more of a woodsy feel than its city-inflected counterpart. 
Slash piles 
Beginning at the FR 515 trailhead requires some route finding. The side road at the kiosk is Forest Road 515D which is one of several non-motorized dead-end roads that wander through meadows, wetlands and forests replete with antelope, porcupines, fox and squirrels. You can wander along these scenic roads for hours, but if you want the most direct route to the FUTS hub, hike 2.6 miles farther up FR 515 (the road you came in on) from the parking spot at the kiosk. At 1.1 miles, go right at a fork and then stay straight on the main road at a second fork. Continue to a cattle guard and gate at the 1.3-mile point where Forest Road 9113C crosses, pass the gate and continue hiking on FR 515 to a hub of trail signs. From here, you can pick up the FUTS or return the way you came. 
Logs ready for transport
While hiking on the mesa, you'll see fresh-cut tree stumps and slash piles (stacks of branches). These products of forest thinning efforts are part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Program that's designed to reduce the threat of devastating wildfires and post-fire flooding while improving forest health to promote diverse habitats for sensitive species like the Gunnison’s prairie dog, boreal chorus frog and Mexican spotted owl. Signs at the hub have information about the program. During logging operations, heavy equipment is in use on and around the dirt roads, so stay alert and be sure to park well out of the way.
Yellow Salsify
Forest Road 515 hike to hub: 2.6 miles one-way, 7400' - 7560'
Observatory Mesa Trail: 1.6 miles one-way, 7070’ – 7370’
Mars Hill Trail: 1.9 miles one-way, 6933’ – 7402’
Tunnel Springs Trail: 1.9 miles one-way, 7014’ – 7404’
RATING: moderate
Forest Road 515 Trailhead:
From the Interstate 17/40 interchange in Flagstaff, go 4.8 miles west (toward Williams) on I-40 to A-1 Mountain Road exit 190. Follow A-1 Road (Forest Road 506) 1.8 miles and continue straight on Forest Road 515. Pass a cattle guard and go 0.2 mile and park at the kiosk. No facilities. 
Thorpe Park Trailhead:
From downtown Flagstaff, go north on Humphreys Street to Cherry Avenue, turn left and continue to North Thorpe Park Road, turn right and drive a short distance to the parking area near the ball fields.  Pick up the Observatory Mesa Trail across the road near the disc golf course.

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