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Monday, August 10, 2020

Corner Lake


Gate at the north end of Corner Lake points to Mormon Mtn.
The lone coyote skulked among clumpy grasses and stunted trees barely 30 yards from the degraded two track where I was hiking.  Creeping, crouching, sniffing the air and casting wry glances in my direction, it was clear the stealth beast was on the hunt. Coyotes are Arizona’s most common predator, but they will eat just about anything. Their subsistence staples include juniper berries, mesquite beans, eggs, insects and even garbage and small pets where their territories intersect human populations.  But this day on Anderson Mesa, the coveted item on the menu was pronghorn.
Hike is in the Anderson Mesa Wildlife Protection Area
A tank near Corner Lake sustains wildlife

Located southeast of Flagstaff along Lake Mary Road, the mesa is home to several popular fishing lakes including Ashurst and Kinnikinick in Coconino National Forest.  While the elongated land mass has a few densely-wooded areas, most of the 25-mile-long tableland is a mix of sparse pinyon-juniper woodlands, ephemeral wetlands and expansive grasslands—prime habitat for pronghorn.

Pronghorn (center right) graze on the mesa

The Arizona Trail passage 30, part of which wanders through the northern end of the mesa near Marshall Lake and popular recreation sites northeast of Upper and Lower Lake Mary, provides an excellent introduction to the breezy environs.

But if your objective is wildlife viewing, seek out the maze of back roads that lead to isolated watering holes.  One productive location is Corner Lake. To get there, begin hiking on Forest Road 9483G where a sign indicates entry into Anderson Mesa Wildlife Protection Area.  Within a short walk, the pine-shaded, sometimes dry depression of Corral Tank sits off to the left.  It’s a great place to spot pinyon jays and squirrels that feed on the berry-producing shrubs that grow around the water hole’s perimeter.

At just under a mile, pass through a rustic gate (as with all gates on this hike, close it behind you) and continue a few yards to the Forest Road 9116S junction where the route veers right. Here, what scant shade had been present on the first leg of the hike dissolves into treeless prairies punctuated with isolated junipers with mountain peaks bookending the horizons. About a half-mile ahead, a group of pronghorns grazed lazily on rabbit brush on the wide-open mesa. With nowhere to hide, Wile E. Coyote—who had apparently been following me at a distance—shot me a parting look of contempt before bolting off, abandoning his intended prey. Somewhere, an anvil dropped.

Corner Lake is often dry

Even from a distance, pronghorns are easy to identify by their white rumps and distinctive spiked horns. Outfitted with enormous, wide-set eyes a la Baby Yoda, their vision has

scoping power roughly equivalent to eight-power binoculars. It’s not easy to sneak up on them. As I slowly walked the road hoping for a perfect photo opp, the group of four had me on their super-vision and soon made a charge for a ridgeline. Watching the elegant creatures run was worth the trip. Light-boned and built for agility, pronghorns can reach sustained speeds of 40 miles per hour. Their sprints are more like 60 miles per hour.

The hike around the lake follows a fence line
Pine Mountain (center horizon) over Corner Lake

Following the route to and around Corner Lake is simple, as long as you pay attention to the ground. Deep fissures and chunks of volcanic rock make for mildly challenging footing. 

Approaching Corner Lake
The road meets the lake at the 1.75-mile point.  Like most of the “lakes” on Anderson Mesa, this one’s capacity depends on snow melt and rainfall, two things that are so far lacking in 2020.
Signs at the south end of Corner Lake
The site is augmented with two created wildlife water tanks that, judging from footprints in the muddy fringes, serve dozens of species besides pronghorns. The lake/wetland is enclosed by a post-and-wire fence to protect the sensitive environment. 
The stark beauty of Anderson Mesa
FR 9116S leads to Corner Lake
Although it’s advisable to stay out of the protected area, it is possible to hike around the perimeter fence without disturbing the marshy interior. There are two options for making the 2.2-mile circumference hike. The first is to hike along the outside of the fence where you’ll need to duck under the wire at the two north corners. I am 5’3” tall and small so after removing my pack I was able to crab walk through without harming the fence.
Rabbit brush is a favorite pronghorn food.
Those who prefer to stay upright will want to use the gates located on the west, north and east sides and hike the fence line from the inside. Either way, minimize your impact by sticking close to the enclosure border and never cutting or altering the fence or gates.  Initially, the stark, sun-washed terrain surrounding the lake feels harsh to hikers accustomed to Northern Arizona’s green aspen-and-pine mountain climes. Yet, the utter exposure and what a friend described as “nothingness” embodies what many hikers say they seek—solitude in the middle of nowhere.
Look for birds and squirrels at Corral Tank
Wildlife depend on stock tanks in dry years

Rocky, weedy and windy, the walk around the lake unpacks a panorama of views. Mormon Mountain, O’Leary Peak, Pine Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks stand out over acres of golden grasses while the shallow gorge of Anderson Draw makes an abrupt riffle at the lake’s north end. With its who-knew character and unexpected appeal, Corner Lake is an odd, yet intriguing trip. Not quite desert, not quite forest and not quite a lake, it’s perhaps Arizona’s most beautiful adaptation of nothingness.

San Francisco Peaks seen from FR 9483G

LENGTH: 5.7 miles roundtrip

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION:  7,113 – 7,248 feet


From Flagstaff, go 24.2 miles south on Lake Mary Road to Forest Road 125 signed for Kinnikinick Lake past milepost 320. Turn left and continue 4.7 miles to a junction where the road to Kinnikinick Lake veers right. Park in the turnout on the left where there’s a sign for  Forest Road 9483G and the Anderson Mesa Wildlife Protection Area. Forest roads are maintained dirt that are slightly bumpy but suitable for most vehicles. 





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