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Monday, March 9, 2020

Yellow Jacket Trail 524


Prescott National Forest.
Mesquite and juniper trees ring Cottonwood Tank
The most striking characteristic of the Yellow Jacket Trail 524 is the silence. Located a mere 4 miles from Interstate 17 near the Yavapai County town of Dugas in a hilly corner of Prescott National Forest, the shared-use path cuts through sprawling open spaces where the sounds of civilization are muffled by a landscape of mesas, buttes, creeks and ragged drainages.
Estler Peak is a prominent feature along Yellow Jacket trail
At first glance, the largely treeless terrain flanked by volcanic bluffs and bald, isolated peaks appears intimidating and harsh. Within a few yards of hiking, though, the trail reveals bucolic rangeland, epic vistas and hidden pockets of greenery.

The out-and-back trek begins at a tiny trailhead near the leafy confluence of Little Ash Creek and Yellow Jacket Creek where sycamores and cottonwoods create a conspicuous ribbon of color against the muted tones of desert chaparral.
Sycamores & cottonwood trees in Yellow Jacket Creek

A cow grazes along Reimer Spring Road
Trail 524 is described by the forest service as a 1.4-mile route, but a 0.8-mile hike is required to get to the trailhead proper. The access path is a fading two-track that parallels the boulder-strewn course of Yellow Jacket Creek. The path makes many mild dips and climbs on breezy plains dotted with junipers, cacti and wildflowers. 
Cattle graze at the base of Yellow Jacket Mesa
A rustic corral at Gyetta Tank
To the west, great views of 4,263-foot Estler Peak, a prominent pinnacle along the drive in on Dugas Road, dominate the horizon.
Extend the hike on the Cottonwood Trail 9709

Cottonwood Tank attracts resident cattle and wildlife
At the signed junction for trail 524, the route begins its journey into stunning back country with the first of several creek crossings. The rocky, but usually dry crossings are fringed with scrappy stands of scrub oak, willows and catclaw. 
Part of the route follows the Great Western Trail
Soon, the dual landmarks of Yellow Jacket Mesa (4,751 feet)  and Cottonwood Mesa (4,577 feet) appear as intersecting plateaus on the eastern skyline standing out above the rustic corrals of Gyetta Tank.  Rusty barbed wire and sun-bleached posts circle the watering hole where herds of cattle can usually be seen grazing the surrounding grasslands.

At the end of the corrals, hop a bright green rollover gate to follow the trail to its terminus at Reiner Spring Road (Forest Road 68D) which is also part of the Great Western Trail, a 3,000+-mile shared-use historic route from Mexico to Canada that runs through five Western states, 800 miles of which are in Arizona.
Roll over gate at Gyetta Tank
The unsigned junction is the official end of the Yellow Jacket Trail and makes for a satisfying 4-mile round trip hike. But the adventure doesn’t have to end there. For a sweet taste of the Great Western Trail, head left at the junction and hike up the road watching as beautiful views of the Bradshaw Mountains open up to the west.

The road crosses the gorge of Cottonwood Canyon before emerging on an expansive rangeland at the mouth of a pass that flows between the two mesas.
At the 2.7-mile point, a sign for Reiner Spring and Cottonwood Tank marks yet another scenic transition.  Take the first right beyond the sign and follow the degraded road that plows though a draw where the mesas gradually pinch the path. 
Yellow Jacket (L) and Cottonwood Mesas 

The half-mile hike leads to Cottonwood Tank. Tucked into a gully at the convergence of the mesas, the glassy, mesquite-cluttered pond reflects vertical cliffs that top out 300 above the water.
Wandering cattle, flocks of doves and swarms of pollinators frequent the remote water source. Judging from footprints along the tank’s muddy rim, bobcats, deer, javelina and raccoons are regular guests as well.
Just a few yards east of the tank, a cattle guard and sign post for the Cottonwood Trail 9709 signals the beginning of an optional continuation of the hike.
Trail 9709 goes up and over Cottonwood Mesa and is 3.5 miles long, but it’s just a mile to the high point which serves as a nice turnaround point for an even 9-miler.
It's a 0.8-mile hike to the trailhead proper

Yellow Jacket Trail: 4.4 miles round trip
Yellow Jacket Trail + Cottonwood Tank: 7 miles round trip
Yellow Jacket Trail + Cottonwood Trail to the top of the mesa: 9 miles round trip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 3,883 – 4,235 feet to Cottonwood Tank
(4,524 feet to the top of the mesa)
From the Cordes Junction interchange on Interstate 17, continue  5.5 miles north to the Orme Road/ Dugas Road exit 268. Go east (right) at the bottom of the off ramp and follow County Road 171 (Dugas Road) 4 miles to the trailhead on the left. The trailhead is an unsigned gravel lot across from Forest Road 9650N and a “narrow bridge” sign. Roads are paved up to the last 2 miles which are on sedan-friendly dirt. The hike begins at the 524 sign.
INFO: Prescott National Forest

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