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Monday, June 22, 2020

Brandis Trail

Survivor pines near the Deer Hill Trail junction

Ten years ago this month, the Schultz Fire was ravaging the eastern slopes of Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks.
Trailhead gate on the Brandis Trail
The human-caused blaze, ignited from an abandoned camp fire on June 20, 2010, went on to burn more than 15,000 acres of Coconino National Forest before being contained 10 days later. The fire was followed by one of the wettest monsoon seasons on record which lead to devastating flooding. Without trees and other vegetation to stabilize and absorb runoff, heavy rains created rivers of debris that further eroded the landscape leaving behind a charred moonscape of sludge and an eerie wilderness of torched tree trunks and ashen gullies.

Evidence of the 2010 Shultz Fire come early in the hike
Extend the hike on the Deer Hill Trail
Mountain gromwell sprout tiny white flower heads
Sunset Crater (left horizon) seen from Brandis Trail
Pollinators swarm around Rocky Mountain beeplants
Pine sprouts grow among casualties of the Schultz Fire
O'Leary Peak (right horizon) viewed from Brandis Trail
Schultz Fire scar on eastern slopes of San Francisco Peaks
Frothy Apache plume shrubs color the trail.

Borne of volcanism that began shaping the area millions of years ago, this mountainous parcel in Northern Arizona is no stranger to fire. Whether brought on naturally by lighting or lava or by human carelessness, fire drives uneasy cycles of destruction and resurgence that’s aren’t going away anytime soon.
Brandis Trail access point 
Ten years removed from the blaze, the area is in recovery mode, transitioning from what had been a place of thick coniferous woodlands, alpine meadows and forested foothills into a much different, starkly beautiful destination. The blaze damaged several popular hiking trails including the Little Elden, Little Bear, Sunset, Heart and parts of the Arizona Trail. But two outlier routes that suffered the kind of odd, patchy damage to vegetation that melds islands of old growth survivors with resurgent sprouts provide enlightening walking tours of an emerging landscape.
Skunk bush--one of many blooming shrubs on the trail
Even before the fire, the Brandis and Deer Hill trails weren’t big-name attractions but instead offered less crowded, easy treks at the base of San Francisco Mountain with no difficult climbs or confusing junctions. The Brandis Trail, located at the edge of a residential area less than a mile from U.S. 89 north of Flagstaff, wanders through the fire scar and is a good path to follow to see how the forest is regenerating.
The 1.4-mile, straight-shot route heads due west toward the peaks beginning with a short hike among unscathed pines. Within a quarter mile, though, views of charred tree trunks that hover precariously over acres toppled logs deliver a gut-punch to those who recall the woodsy pre-fire environment.  The upside is that the near treeless terrain is now replete with unobstructed views of nearby O’Leary Peak, a 8,916-foot  lava dome volcano and Sunset Crater a young, 8,042-foot cinder cone and focal point of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Interestingly, the now dormant volcano turned tourist attraction was the source of a curtain of fire that disrupted life here about 1,000 years ago.
Brandis trail roughly traces a drainage gorge where resurgent shrubs, wildflowers and saplings are encouraging signs of life regaining its hold. Healthy swaths of silvery rabbitbrush, mountain gromwell, penstemons, Rocky Mountain beeplant and Apache plume add color and sink stabilizing roots into the fragile soils while intermittent stands of survivor pines, oaks and junipers stand in testimony to the sometimes bizarre movements of wildfires.  The trail gets a little sketchy where it crosses the winding drainage several times. To stay on track, know that at the crossings, the trail picks up directly on the other side, not down the wash as random footprints might suggest.
At the 1.3-mile point, a livestock gate stands near one of the few shady areas on the trail. Pass through (close it behind you) and continue on to the turnaround point at the Deer Hill trail junction. For an optional, longer hike, the left leg heads 4 miles south to connect with the Little Elden and Arizona Trail while the right leg goes 1.5 miles north to its terminus at Schultz Pass Road.
The trail traces a scoured drainage 
A Yellow salsify flower gone to seed
Yellow salsify is a common bloomer along the route
LENGTH:  3 miles roundtrip (Brandis Trail only)
RATING: easy
ELEVATION:  6,840 – 7,212 feet
From the Interstate 17/40 interchange in Flagstaff, go east on I-40 to exit 201 for U.S. 89 north.
Continue 8.2 miles north on U.S. 89, turn left on Brandis Way and go 0.8-mile to a parking apron at the corner of Brandis Way and Ostrich Lane.  The trailhead is located at the end of a fenced easement at the end of Brandis Way. Please respect private property in the area by not blocking driveways or attempting to drive on the easement.

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