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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Autumn Comes Early on Flagstaff's Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop

Aspens line Waterline Road on Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop.
With fall foliage season right around the corner, I’m already feeling the tug of the Abineau-Bear Jaw Trail.  Its location high on the north flanks of Flagstaff’s San Francisco Mountain means it’s one of the first places to show Autumn color.  Anxious hikers who can manage the rugged, 1,870-foot, thin-air climb in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness can get a jump start on aspen overload.
San Francisco Peaks seen from Abineau Canyon.
Aspens abound on the Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop
A short access path leads to a junction where the loop begins. You can go either way, but using the Abineau Canyon leg for the uphill climb affords the best views of the peaks without having to stop and turn around all the time.
Aspen color peaks early in Abineau Canyon
Abineau Canyon's deep woods.
View from the top of Abineau Canyon.
Damp and chilly, the moss-laced mixed conifer woodlands of Abineau Canyon is reminiscent of the alpine forests of Colorado—dense and claustrophobic in its immensity. Canyon winds rattle leaves from the aspens that sway among the dominant Ponderosa and limber pines, corkbark fir, spruce and Douglas firs creating golden cascades and crunchy drifts of spent foliage.
Aspen leaves collect on conifers.

Colorful Bear Jaw Canyon.
The 2-mile Abineau segment tops out on an exposed ridge beneath 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak, which is often snow-capped by early October.  Below, the cinder-cone dotted flatlands of the San Francisco Volcanic Field and the pastel wilds of the Painted Desert stretch out to the horizon. Next, you’ll catch a breather on the 2.1-mile walk along Waterline Road.  Wrapped in towering aspens, the wide dirt route and its easy tread is a real treat to hike. Without having to huff-an-puff, it’s easier to enjoy the surreal beauty of the white-barked forest, lemony canopies and mountain vistas. This is also prime habitat for blue grouse and the vociferous Clark's nutcracker. If you’re lucky, you might spot them swooping among the trees. Keep an eye out for a wooden sign for Bear Jaw Canyon on the left. This easy-to-miss turn off marks the start of the loop’s 2.3-mile descent.  A bit more open and less steep than Abineau, this twisting downhill passage is an enchanting trip through a ravine-riddled gorge. Near the bottom of the trail, sweet meadows harbor acres of fading ferns and the frazzled remains of summer wildflowers.  This is a hike I do almost every year and it never gets old.

Meadow near the trailhead. 
LENGTH: 7.2-mile loop
RATING: difficult
ELEVATION: 8,530-10,400 feet
BEST TIME FOR FAL COLOR: Late September-Early October
From Flagstaff, go north on US180 (Fort Valley Rd.) to milepost 235.2 and turn right onto Forest Road 151 (Hart Prairie Road, north access). Continue 1.6 miles on FR 151 and connect to Forest Road 418. Drive 3.1 miles on FR418 to Forest Road 9123J (signed for Abineau-Bear Jaw), turn right and go 0.6 mile to the trailhead. Dirt/cinder roads are rutted but passable by carefully driven sedans. 

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