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Sunday, March 1, 2020

Balancing Rock-Surprise Spring Loop


Granite Basin Recreation Area, Prescott.
Balancing Rock teeters on its host boulder along trail 349
Situated in a pocket of pine-oak woodlands at the south edge of Granite Mountain Wilderness seven miles northwest of Downtown Prescott, Granite Mountain Recreation Area offers
over 40 miles of interconnected trails, camping, picnicking and boating.
Drainage area near Surprise Spring on Balancing Rock trail
Area trails feature incredible views of the craggy escarpments of 7,295-foot Granite Mountain and varied terrain that runs through boulder-strewn back country.
Manzanita bloom in sunny spots along the route
For a taste of why this easy-access recreation hub is so popular, take a hike on the Balancing Rock and Surprise Spring trails. The circuit uses 3 trails to make a 3.8-mile loop.
An oak thicket on Balancing Rock trail
Begin at the trail 350 sign behind the pay station, hike 0.1-mile and turn left at the West Lake Trail 351 junction. Hike 0.7 mile on trail 351 passing several pretty stands of cottonwoods growing near moist drainages and turn left at the Balancing Rock Trail 349 junction. This 1.7-mile leg of the loop passes among thick stands of Ponderosa pines, oaks, alderleaf mountain mahogany and junipers with occasional fringes of agave and cacti that cling to life where sun leaks through the forest canopy. The eponymous rock formation appears on the left roughly 0.2-mile from the junction.
San Francisco peaks seen from Balancing Rock trail
The lopsided stone perched precariously atop a massive granite boulder is secure for now, but even a minor tectonic hiccup could bump it off its host. While this stone oddity is the centerpiece of the trail’s geological sites, it  isn’t the only one. Look for a “turkey gobbler” rock, xenoliths (chunks of material like quartz crystals embedded in boulders) and knife-edge slabs that have flaked off walls of granite.
Cottonwoods thrive along the West Lake trail
 About halfway through trail 349, the drainage area surrounding Surprise Spring appears as scoured channels, trickling runoff and sand bars.
Agaves and cacti sprout in sunny spots on the trail
Some of the land around spring is private property, so be sure to stay on the trail. Beyond the spring, the trail swings north, making a mild ascent on the ledges above the spring drainage. Soon, views of the Williamson Valley, Verde Valley and mountain peaks of Flagstaff appear above acres of scrub.
Granite Mountain seen from Surprise Spring trail
Alderleaf mountain mahogany
The route is well-signed and maintained
One of many stone oddities on Balancing Rock trail
Granite Mountain stands out above West Lake trail
The forest thins out where the trail meets the Surprise Spring trail 350 junction.  The final leg of the hike on trail 350 was damaged by the September 2019 lightning-caused Surprise Fire. Ash, burnt trees and patches of scorched earth are just minor distractions on the still-beautiful path.
The easy-moderate hike has many ups-and-downs
The 2019 Surprise Fire scorched parts of the trails
The trail has been trimmed and swept and thickets of blooming manzanita shrubs soften the harsh plots of charred debris. More gorgeous vistas of Granite Mountain and sprawling valleys vie for attention before the route spirals off its sunny high ridge descending among mixed conifer woodlands on its way back to the trailhead.
LENGTH: 3.8-mile loop
RATING: easy-moderate
ELEVATION: 5,640 – 6,070 feet
From downtown Prescott, go north on Montezuma Street (which turns into Whipple Street and then Iron Springs Road) and continue 4.5 miles to N. Granite Basin Road at milepost 3.
Turn right and continue 3.1 miles to the Wekuvde trailhead on the right.
 Roads are paved and there are restrooms, picnic tables and grills at the trailhead.
FEE: There’s a $5 daily fee per vehicle. Bring exact change for the self-serve pay station/ Free with a Golden Age/Access of Interagency Senior/Access Pass. Wednesdays are free to everyone.
HOURS: March-April hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Hours vary by season.

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