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Monday, May 18, 2020

The Pocket

THE POCKET. Coconino National Forest
Not long before the mantra of social distancing surfaced to dominate the way we interact with our surroundings; another experiential movement had been catching fire. Forest bathing, the belief that immersing in nature can boost well-being, was la mode de jour that first gained traction with the masses around 2017. 
Hike follows a forest road to the lip of two tributary canyons
Promoted not so much for its physical exercise benefits but as a spiritual renewal technique, the hype dovetailed nicely with concurrent self-help therapies like mindfulness, wellness and meditation.
Regarding the idea that forests and natural environments have special powers, we hikers say, “Duh!”
Sego lilies bloom May - July
Of course, being outside in nature makes you feel good. Yet, like anything else, what constitutes a feel-good outdoor experience varies by individual tastes.
Certainly, one might forest bathe on a popular trail where there are yoga classes in the parking lot, chatty gaggles and meditation circles at trail’s end, but if that doesn’t ring “power cleansing” to you, then take a detour.  Look for an outwardly boring place without crowd-drawing summits, water features or comfort facilities to ditch the distractions and turn your attention inward.
Silver puff gone to seed.
This stock tanks sits at the crest of Calf Pen Canyon
Near trail's end, high desert vegetation takes over
Tree cover obscures views of Calf Pen Canyon
Wild onions bloom through late summer
Run (into the) Forest! Run!
Fossils weather out of limestone pediments
Domestic cattle congregate around a water hole
Western wallflower bloom March - September
Gambel oaks and ponderosa pines shade the route 
A walk along the backroads of The Pocket offers a near-perfect forest bathing experience.  Located roughly 10 miles north of the town of Strawberry in Coconino National Forest, the stony peninsula juts out over the eastern edge of Fossil Springs Wilderness. The hike begins at a dirt pullout near Twentynine Mile Lake, an ephemeral wetland just off State Route 260 and follows the rough course of forest road 9366R where there are several dispersed campsites within the first mile.
For hikers, finding serenity in the forest is nothing new.
Wrapped in tall pines, the road is wide and simple to follow making it easy to focus on immersing in the experience rather than route-finding.
Sego lilies can be white, pink or purple
At first, the hike feels about as sweetly monotonous as a 1980s prom ballad. Trees block all views and each bend in the road is like another stanza in a familiar tune. Here is where the “bathing” part comes in. First, although it’s not immediately obvious, you are walking on a promontory 1000 feet above two remote tributary canyons in the wilderness area. About a third of the way through the hike, glimpses of Calf Pen Canyon to the south begin to tease the imagination. Several primitive roads veer off the main route heading to the edge if you want a queasy look into the feral end of the popular water-centric destination.
Wildflowers color the forest understory
The route dissolves into sandstone slabs near The Pocket
Second, this is an opportunity to tune in to beautiful details hiding in plain sight. Underfoot, fossils weather out of ancient limestone while lizards, squirrels and wild turkeys dart among an understory of blooming shrubs and wildflowers. Stop and breath in the fresh mountain air and the sweet fragrance of pine.
Savor the delicate beauty of a Larkspur flower
Contemplate the intricate structure of a meadow larkspur flower and listen for the calls of ravens and the mournful bellows of domestic cattle that congregate near water holes situated along the road.
Manzanita is a common blooming shrub on the route
Toward the end of the route, the forest changes from dense stands of Ponderosa pine and Gamble oaks to a more arid zone dominated by alligator juniper, pinion and cacti growing among slabs of red sandstone. The road fades into the nose of The Pocket where the jagged walls of Sandrock Canyon merge with Calf Pen Canyon before disappearing completely among yucca and high desert scrub.
In this rarified air at a canyon convergence, solitude and wonderment punch through the veneer of whatever glossy catchphrase might attempt to label, style or brand feelings that are so intrinsically human.
LENGTH: 8 miles roundtrip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 6,000 - 6,990 feet
From Interstate 17 in Camp Verde, take the State Route 260 exit 287
heading east toward Payson.
Continue 32.5 miles on SR 260 (Zane Grey Hwy) to Forest Road 9366R a dirt road on the right about a quarter-mile past milepost 250 at Twentynine Mile Lake. This is 1.2 miles north of the State Route 87 junction for those coming north from the Payson area. Park in pullouts. There are several dispersed campsites along the road.  No facilities.

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