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Monday, July 27, 2020

Interstate Trail

Canyon view point on Frog Tank Loop

If there has been an upside to the global pandemic, it has been in discovering hiking destinations that are far from the hordes. After listening to a recent radio program in which a public health expert stated that coronavirus will probably be with us “forever”, I resolved to actively knock off the outlier trails on my ever-expanding “someday” list.
Lichen and cacti grown on boulders on Interstate Trail
While many unknowns swirl around when we might once again be able to safely que up for that Instagram moment atop Sedona’s notoriously crowded Devil's Bridge, what is known is that there are plenty of areas to hike that do not require jockeying for space. One good place to find room to roam freely is in the section of Coconino National Forest that surrounds Interstate 17 near Munds Park 20 miles south of Flagstaff.
Rose hips ripen in a drainage area
Within this who-knew plot, the short, easy paths of the Munds Park Trail System serve as a launch point into the meandering routes of the 100+-mile Kelly Motorized Trail System.
Frog Tank is an important wildlife water source
The divergent shared-use routes are made up of long airy roads, repurposed railroad beds and dirt single tracks that swoop through spaces far removed from the masses and the Interstate Trail makes for a good segue into the maze.
To reach this pleasant outlier, begin at the Janice Place trailhead. Follow the access path 0.2 mile to a “T” junction at Frog Tank Loop. Before heading left to continue the hike, look for an informal footpath behind the trail sign that leads a few yards to an overlook above a drainage gorge. A peek into the stony corridor that’s cluttered with willows and brambles, is a not-to-be-missed diversion. About 0.2 mile farther down Frog Tank Loop, the trail crosses a spillway at the mouth of the mini canyon for a close up look at the water-loving riparian vegetation.
Beyond the spillway crossing, continue hiking the road to the 1.3-mile point at Frog Tank where a connector trail that leads to Forest Road 78A veers off to the left.  Take a few minutes here to check out the tank which serves as an important water source for waterfowl, deer, elk, myriad little critters and a vociferous flock of mountain bluebirds.
From the tank, follow the signs 0.1 mile to Forest Road 78A, cross it and pick up the Interstate Trail which is marked with a Kelly Motorized Trail System sign.
Gambel oaks arch over Interstate Trail
The route is open to motorized use, but its narrow cut appears only wide enough to accommodate dirt bikes. This simple north-south route makes a twisted course that runs parallel to Interstate 17 for roughly 7 miles ending just south of the Kelly Canyon area.  Although the trail is located only a mile east of the freeway, the hilly terrain and thick tree cover muffles most of the noise. 
Hike begins at the Janice Place trailhead in Munds Park
It’s a mostly easy walk that ducks among ponderosa pine and exposed spreads of alligator juniper and high desert cacti with intermittent mountain vistas.  But the most underappreciated and fascinating sights along this trail can be found growing on outcroppings of volcanic rocks.  Lichens, crusty-looking composites of fungi and algae, form a sort of natural art gallery of colorful splatters, leafy medallions and web-like masses that cling to rock surfaces like layers of old paint.
Beginning of the Interstate Trail
Sometimes found growing alongside mosses, the microscopic organisms that exist through a symbiotic relationship of creating and sharing nutrients are also essential to forest and environmental health.
Redroot buckwheat is a common summer bloomer
The odd organisms contribute to soil building by helping break down rock and absorb pollutants from the atmosphere.  Although they may appear “dead”, lichens have remarkable survival skills and can spring back to life after rains. Growths of the blue-green, gold and rust-colored curiosities are abundant along the trail.  No two are alike.
Winged buckwheat blooms July - October
Interstate Trail is a twisting single track route
Willows, wild grapes and roses thrive in a drainage
Lichen clings to a boulder on Interstate Trail
Because an incoming thunderstorm was moving in from the north, I decided to turn around after just 3 miles on the Interstate trail. But, with several more miles left to explore, I will return after a few good storms wet the area enough to coax the lichen back to life. 
Interstate Trail is accessed via Frog Tank Loop
LENGTH: 8.6 miles roundtrip (as described here)
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION:  6,446 – 7,000 feet
Janice Place trailhead:
From Interstate 17 in Munds Park, take the Pinewood Blvd. exit 322. Turn right and follow Pinewood Blvd. 0.1 mile, turn left on Fairway Drive (which will turn into N. Lodge Dr.) continue 0.3 mile to Janice Place, turn right and go 0.2 mile to the trailhead on the left.

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