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Monday, July 13, 2020

White Horse Hills

White Horse Hills
The mouth of the north pass at White Horse Hills
Within the pass that cuts through the pyramid-shaped pinnacles of the White Horse Hills, voices carry. But, voices are rare in the barren cluster of vertical mounds located below the north face of the San Francisco Peaks 20 miles north of Flagstaff in Coconino National Forest.
This is not the kind of place hikers drool over visiting, it’s allure draws more curiosity seekers than hard-core trekkers, especially since it competes with nearby Passage 34 of the Arizona Trail.   Inquiring minds might well find amusement on the obscure dirt road that shows up on topographic maps as a oversimplified line connecting Forest Roads 514 and 418.
A storm brews above Saddle Mountain (left)
Kendrick Mountain seen from FR 9219M
Painted Desert views stand out on the route
But the reality of hiking the deceptively straight forward course of Forest Road 9219M, which runs down the center of the lumpy conglomerate, is a bit more complicated.
The section of FR 9219M that ascends the mountain pass is now closed to motorized traffic and its point-to-point length is only 2.8 miles, yet for those without a good sense of direction, picking out the overgrown path can be a challenge. Still, with two options to explore the area, expert and novice hikers alike can experience this unusual landform.
Ponderosa pines shade segments of both routes
The North Route
View from the high pass of White Horse Hills
The easiest route begins at Forest Road 514. From a trailhead that’s shared with the Arizona Trail, follow Forest Road 9006R for a half-mile to Forest Road 9219M. Veer right and hike the dirt two-track as it makes an mild 400-foot climb through patches of pines and shadeless meadows. Views along this nondescript backroad are astonishing. Dozens of volcanic landforms including 8,880-foot Saddle Mountain and 10,418-foot Kendrick Mountain fill the horizons while hazy glimpses of the Painted Desert and the rim of the Grand Canyon roll out to the northeast.
The route shares a trailhead with the Arizona Trail
Straight ahead, Arizona’s highest peaks that top out at 12,643 feet, cast shadows on the destination: the White Horse Hills. Also known as Marble Mountain, the geological curiosity is a dome laccolith, a volcanic feature that forms when subterranean magma pushes up layers of older rocks from below, sort of like a blister that never breaks the surface.  Described by geologist John V. Bezy in A Guide to the Geology of the Flagstaff Area, the multi-peaked massif formed around 850,000 years ago. 
There's lots of solitude in the White Horse Hills
A faint trail ascends to the top of the pass
Thousands of years of erosion and recent wildfires have shaped the terrain into a desolate yet oddly appealing pocket of stark rhyolite hills and exposed layers of ancient sediments, previous volcanic flows and ragged outcroppings of Redwall limestone that were changed into marble by the heat of rising magma. At the 1.5-mile point, the road hike ends in a patch of Ponderosa pines at the mouth of the mountain pass where a barbed wire fence and a toppled sign bar motorized travel into the hills. There’s no gate and no easy way to get through the fence. As it’s important to never cut or alter fences on forest lands, I called this scenic spot the turnaround point and set out to explore the hills from the south.
Thistle are plentiful along the routes
White Horse Hills is a dome laccolith volcanic feature
The South Route
Although hiking the hills from the Forest Road 418 access point is more difficult, it gets you into the guts of the laccolith. A short but steep and slippery climb on a disintegrating road leads to a landing where the road seems to disappear entirely. To find the fading track, look ahead to spot a barely discernable road cut between two conical peaks, the highest of which reaches 9,065 feet. Follow this path 300 feet uphill to the highpoint saddle—a dizzying perch surrounded by sheer bluffs, broken clefts and boulder-filled ravines. Through the V-shaped gap in the pass situated at 8,738 feet, flatlands dotted with cinder cone volcanoes and the contrasting green pastures of Kendrick Park are visible 1,000 feet below. From this point, the path becomes clearer, but still tricky in places, and can be spotted snaking across the eastern (to the right) slopes below. Carefully work your way down the incline and walk toward the barbed wire fence (8,062 feet) at the 1.3-mile point. Again, unless you can squeeze under the wire without causing damage, return the way you came.
Common mullien thrive in meadows below the hills
White Horse Hills sit at the base of San Francisco Mountain
Wildfires and erosion have shaped the White Horse Hills
Southern access point to White Horse Hills
The eroded innards of White Horse Hills
From the North to the fence:  3 miles round trip
From the South to the fence: 2.6 miles  round trip
RATING: easy or difficult depending on route
North access: 7,647 – 8,062 feet
South access: 8,062 – 8,738 feet
North Access FR 514:
From Flagstaff, go 21 miles north on U.S. 180 to Forest Road 514 (Kendrick Park Road). Turn right and continue to just past the 3-mile marker at Kelly Tank and park in the dirt lot on the right at the beginning of Forest Road 9006R. This is directly across from an Arizona Trail gate.
South Access FR 418:
From Flagstaff,  go 19.5 miles north on U.S. 180 to the north access for Forest Road 151 (Hart Prairie Road) located past milepost 235. Turn right and continue 1.6 miles to Forest Road 418, veer left and go 2 miles to a small dirt turnout just past a 2-mile post where there’s a “closed to motorized use” sign on the left. Parking is limited to turnouts along the road. Do not block private driveways.
Access roads to both trailheads are rough dirt suitable for all carefully driven vehicles.

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