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Monday, June 11, 2018


Willows hug the So. Fork of the Little Colorado River

At the point on the South Fork Trail #97 where the route crosses a creek and begins its grueling climb, I was jolted to a stop by screams that sounded like an injured dog.  In a flash, a herd of elk bolted across the trail just yards ahead of me.  Five females in tandem, then a lone male. 
Eden meets Hell.
They scrambled up a knoll following the cries of a distressed calf.  The adults circled the young one who continued to wail from its high perch. Two more elk burst from the creek, stopping briefly to stare me down before they charged up to meet the herd, round up the calf and bolt into the back county.  They gave me a thrill and I reciprocated with exactly what they needed--their space. 
Encounters like this one are common on the White Mountains trails of northeastern Arizona.
Wild roses bloom through August.
Before venturing out into the forests, hikers should be aware of common-sense rules for respecting wildlife.  The basic concept is to keep wildlife wild by not approaching, harassing, “helping” or feeding them.  
A beaver dam on the river.
The Arizona Game & Fish website is a good resource for learning about responsible wildlife viewing. Simple habits like observing from a distance, sticking to trails, keeping food secured, avoiding nest and den areas and knowing what to do (and not do) should you encounter a wild animal can protect both you and the animals. 
The South Fork Trail #97 near Eagar, with its proximity to water and varied habitats is a wildlife magnet.  The challenging route can be done as an out-and-back or car shuttle hike.  Most people begin at the South Fork day use area.  Shaded by tall pines, firs and spruce trees, the first mile of the trail escaped the wrath of the 2011 Wallow Fire that burned more than a half million acres of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  This Eden-like stretch follows the South Fork of the Little Colorado River.  The waterway is cluttered with willows, alders, Red-osier dogwood, skunk bush, poison ivy (leaves of three; let it be) and wild roses.  Where the water comes closest to the trail, be on the lookout for stealthy Great blue herons and ingeniously-constructed beaver dams. As the trail moves southeast, gradually gaining elevation, it creeps up on the scar of the fire. 
An elk bolts across the trail.
A charred tree trunk here and a pile of burnt logs there precede the kick-in-the-gut moment.  Just over a mile in, Eden meets Hell.  
Greens Peak (left) and the Springerville Volcanic Field
Oddly prefaced by a gateway of willows, the next 5 miles of flame-plundered terrain are physically taxing and difficult to process emotionally.  Those who remember what the trail looked like before the fire will find this segment heartbreaking. 
So. Fork of the Little Colorado on the way to the trailhead
Running through the middle of the canyon-bound wasteland, a slender trickle of water clunks and chugs beneath a resurgent fringe of aspen saplings and spotty stands of survivor pines.  From this point on, you’ll need to hop over dead fall and stay alert for other hazards.  Three miles in, the trail crosses the river and begins a 1500-foot ascent to the top of a bench where views of the surrounding Springerville Volcanic Field roll out to the New Mexico border. 
Boggy Mexican Hay Lake attracts pronghorn.
The high mounds of Greens Peak and Mount Baldy tower over dozens of eroded cinder cones and acres of golden grasslands.  The route then winds down toward Mexican Hay Lake, which is rarely more than a weedy bog.  The open space surrounding the lake is prime habitat for pronghorn.  One of the fastest land mammals, the elegant, horned beasts can run as fast as 60 miles-per-hour.
Red-osier dogwood grows along the river.
It’s worth sitting quietly at the edge of the lake to catch a glimpse of them sprinting over open prairies leaving clouds of rattled birds in their wake.  The trail ends at the northwest edge of the lake; however, a rough, mile-long dirt road continues to State Route 261 and the Point of the Mountain Vista rest area.  If you parked a shuttle vehicle there, just keep walking, otherwise, return the way you came. 
The first mile of the trail escaped the Wallow Fire.
On a recent visit, I was startled by a family of Bighorn Sheep lounging on a picnic ramada at the rest area.  They seemed unconcerned about my presence as they lazed in the shade at the edge of a scenic overlook area. 
The 2011 Wallow Fire damaged much of the trail.
Whether the shaggy band wandered there by chance or because they had learned to associate picnic tables with food handouts, I gave them what they needed most--- telephoto lens distance, a clear escape route and not a smidge of food.
Bighorn Sheep at Point of the Mountain vista area.
LENGTH: 14 miles round trip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 7540 – 9060 feet
Greenery along So.Fork of the Little Colorado River.
South Fork Trailhead
From the Hon-Dah Casino in Pinetop-Lakeside, go 32.8 miles east on State Route 260 to County Road 4124 located near milepost 390 on the right.  Go 2.6 miles south on CR 4124, cross a bridge and turn right into the trailhead parking area. Roads are paved and sedan-friendly gravel.
Point of the Mountain
From the County Road 4124 turnoff, continue 2.3 miles east on State Route 260 to State Route 261, past mile post 393. Turn right and go 7.1 miles to the vista point on the left just past milepost 405. Hike 200 feet back up SR 261 and follow Forest Road 70B/FR8070B (unmarked at this writing) around the lake to the trail.  NOTE: SR 261 is paved but the forest roads are rough, unmaintained dirt.  You could drive the mile to the trail but four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.

Monday, June 4, 2018



Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
Sunset Crater seen from Lava's Edge Trail
Volcanoes are one of earth’s most powerful and mesmerizing geological features.  Simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, they can hibernate for years before rumbling back to life spewing fiery ash clouds and fountains of molten rock that create indescribable paths of destruction.  Recent eruptions of Hawaii’s Kilauea and Guatemala’s Fuego volcanoes remind us of the landscape-altering forces inherent in these natural phenomena.
O'Leary Peak lava dome towers over the Bonito Lava Flow
Although Arizona is more commonly associated with saguaro-studded deserts, gaping chasms and red rock formations, much of the state’s landscape is a product of volcanism.  The San Francisco Volcanic Field north of Flagstaff is home to more than 600 extinct volcanoes that sprawl over the edge of the Colorado Plateau from Williams to the Little Colorado River.  Many familiar hiking trails climb to the summits of these ancient and eroded snuffed smokers.  Humphreys Peak, Kendrick Peak, Benham and O’Leary Peak are just a few examples. 
San Francisco Mountain is an extinct stratovolcano
Views from the tops of these classic trails showcase a landscape dotted with cinder cones, lava domes and expansive lava flows that melt into the colorful flatlands of the Painted Desert and the edge of the Grand Canyon.  To complement the impressive highpoint overviews and get a close look at the inner workings of a young volcano, take a hike on the Lava’s Edge Trail.  The 3.4-mile roundtrip trail is one of several within Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument that explore ground-level volcanic features.  The moderate-rated route shoveled out of crunchy cinders and soft black sand traces a ragged hem of a petrified magma skirt.  Geologists date the eruptive phase of Sunset Crater to between the years 1040 and 1100 which means the volcano’s birth was undoubtedly witnessed by the Hopi and Zuni people who lived nearby.
Aspens sprout from creases in the inky basalt
 The 1000-foot cinder cone blew ash and debris for miles around before liquid rock oozed from its western base forming the Bonito Lava Flow.  Lava’s Edge Trail wanders through the hardened remains of the flow.  The free-flowing aa—jagged basaltic lava—cooled into bizarre razor-edged slabs, contorted pillars, splatter cones, crusty walls and arched squeeze ups.  The acres of raw, blocky basalt look as fresh as the flows shown spilling from Kilauea on the nightly news. 
The hike is on rough cinders and black sand
Over the past 900 years, plant life has struggled to take hold in the steely ground.  Still, a stronghold of hearty Ponderosa pines, pinions, skunk bush and aspens have taken root in crevasses where water and organic materials provide hospitable conditions along the route.  In addition to the other worldly lava field and its parent 8039-foot cinder cone, the trail is flanked by two other types of volcanoes.  To the north of the trail, the double-humped form of O’Leary Peak (a lava dome volcano) soars to 8,916 feet while to the west, the bald peaks of San Francisco Mountain (a stratovolcano) top out at 12,633 feet.  
A Ponderosa pine frames the San Francisco Peaks 
To better understand the science behind the trail’s many points of interest, stop by the visitor center to view informative videos and displays or take part in a ranger talk.  As quiet and peaceful as the dormant volcanic highlands might appear; don’t be fooled.
Pines shade the black sand path
The fireworks aren’t over yet.  
The San Francisco Volcanic Field is still considered to be active, with the next event predicted to happen to the east of Sunset Crater.  Whether the earth resumes its fire show in the coming minutes or not for a million years, recent events in Hawaii have given us a vivid preview of what it might look like.
Rough aa lava cooled into bizarre sculptures
LENGTH: 3.4 miles roundtrip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 6920 - 6960 feet
From the Interstate17/40 junction in Flagstaff go east on I-40 east to the U.S. 89 north exit.  Continue north on US89 to the turn off for Sunset Crater (FR545), located just past milepost 430.  Turn right and follow the signs 2 miles to the park entrance.  From the fee station, continue 1.3 miles to the signed trailhead on the left.  
Sunset Crater and the Bonito Lava Flow
FEE: Park entry fee is good for 7 days of exploring within both Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments. See website for fee schedule, free days and accepted passes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Butte Creek Bridge at Stricken Park
Besides packing the usual gear and water, hikers on Prescott’s Butte Creek Trail #321 should be prepared to duck.  That’s because the 1.6-mile city-managed section of the route passes through the private Hassayampa Golf Club.  
Part of the trail goes through a private golf community 
This pleasantly diverse pathway that skirts manicured greens and glass-faced homes with wrap-around balconies provides alternative access to the Thumb Butte Area in Prescott National Forest.  The trail begins at Stricklin Park where a bridge embellished with whimsical dragonfly sculptures crosses Butte Creek.  
Fragrant cliffrose
Even in drier years like this one, the creek corridor is alive with greenery.
Canyon grapes thrive near the creek
Massive Fremont cottonwood trees sway above a meandering strip of willows, oaks, wild roses, reeds, Canyon grape vines and boxelders.  The well-marked trail wanders through a shady, boulder-lined woodland before it crosses another bridge and enters the golf community property.  The slim path is open to all for recreational use, but you must stay on the trail.  The next mile explores the suburban-forest interface passing by emerald greens, golf cart paths and steep-walled riparian ravines where humid pine-moss-addled air mingles with the scent of cliffrose and fresh cut grass. 
A pine-shaded passage of Butte Creek Trail
As the trail gains elevation, the iconic form of Thumb Butte rises to the north followed by views of Prescott Valley, the Bradshaw Mountains and the peaks of Flagstaff.  At the 1.6-mile point, the trail enters Prescott National Forest. For a short stretch beyond the boundary gate, the trail moves through a forest clearing full of not-so-pretty slash piles (cut branches staged for burning or removal) but soon regains its beauty in a woodland dominated by Scrub live oak, manzanita and Ponderosa pines. 
Riparian vegetation on Butte Creek Trail
After 0.7-mile, the path meets the first of several junctions that connect with the Thumb Butte Area trail system. 
Thumb Butte seen from forest boundary
Download the forest service map to customize a long loop or head back the way you came (watching out for errant white balls flying among scrub jays and ravens) and take a walk around 5-acre Stricklin Park where you’ll find an archeological site with interpretive sign.
Greenery along Butte Creek
Claret cup cacti bloom along the trail May -July.
LENGTH: 6.2 miles out-and-back
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 5450 – 6100 feet
Watch out for flying golf balls.
Stricklin Park Trailhead: 1751 Sherwood Drive, Prescott.
From downtown Prescott, travel 1.8 miles west on Gurley Street to Sherwood Drive. Turn left and continue 0.2 mile to the Strickland Park sign on the left. Park along the street.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Trails at Desert Mountain

The Trails at Desert Mountain
China Wall Loop 
At the risk of inciting an uproar, be warned--I’m about to write about private hiking trails.
I hear you. What? Why? Don’t tease me! 
In fact, I wrestled with this one myself, and ultimately decided that although only residents and invited guests may hike on The Trails at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, the story of their development is an inspiration.
A Sugar Sumac tree shades a trail
Many of us traipse along Arizona trails never giving a thought about how they got there or who takes care of them. 
Desperados Trail Scouts prep to lead guided hikes
Some hikers I’ve encountered believe that tax dollars and some mysterious well-funded branch of government plans, builds and hires the magic fairies who fix damage and haul out dog poop and trash.  Although some trails are within the domain of federal, state and city governments, they may also receive additional support non-profit agencies and volunteers. Other trails exist solely by the efforts of individuals who raised funds, secured land, built the trails and made the ongoing commitment to maintain them.  If you’ve hiked anywhere in the Greater Phoenix area, you’ve likely benefited from the efforts of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, Desert Foothills Land Trust, Maricopa Trail & Parks Foundation and the Arizona Trail Association. These are just a few examples of foundations that work tirelessly to save land from development and build trails for our use. The work isn’t reserved for public lands.
The trails are surrounded with lush desert vegetation 
Private communities are stepping up to preserve precious swaths of Sonoran Desert for the protection of indigenous plant and animal species, sensitive ecosystems and responsible recreational activities. One group that champions the cause in the private sector is the Desert Mountain Community Foundation and the Desperados Trail Scouts.

Ocotillo and agave decorate a scenic highpoint 
The trails share a border with Tonto National Forest
When you stand on the 4890-foot highpoint of the Desert Mountain Trails System, you’re witnessing a miracle of sorts.
“Look to the right and you’ll see 3 million people. Look to the left and you’ll see 3 million acres,” says Troy Gillenwater, community resident and one of the founders of the private North Scottsdale trails.  “It’s a buffer zone between civilization and wilderness,” adds co-founder Bob Borsch. 

Inspired by the beauty and potential of the mountainous, 3000-acre parcel that shares five miles of border with the Tonto National Forest, Gillenwater and Borsch set out to preserve the developer/investor-owned land.
Skull Mesa on the western horizon
During exploratory hikes within the property, Gillenwater bushwhacked through pristine swaths of high desert and chaparral discovering incredible bio-diversity, washes, springs, geological features, historic artifacts and abandoned mine prospects.  
The two men decided to harness their respective skill sets and business acumen into preserving ownership of the site.
Views of McDowell Sonoran Preserve peaks to the south

In 2010, the Desert Mountain community residents raised $72 million in 72 days to purchase all community assets from the developer, including six golf courses, clubhouses and 3000 acres of pristine Sonoran Desert adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. All funds came from community members.  With ownership in the hands of the Desert Mountain community versus the developer, the land was protected from development.  Today, 2700 acres of the site are zoned as conservation/open space in perpetuity.  It will never be developed.
The award-winning trails run through pristine desert

The next step was to plan and build a sustainable trail system.  Gillenwater and Borsch rallied community residents to step up and donate all the needed funds.  Matt Woodson of internationally-acclaimed Okanogan Trail Construction was contracted to build the 15-mile stacked loop network that offers a mix of easy walks and aggressive summit climbs that top out at nearly 5000 feet.  The first trails in the system were opened in 2012 and won the 2013 American Trails International Award for Best Developer Trails.
Hikers navigate the 15-mile trail system

Of course, a trail system this good begs to be shared.
On April 15, 2018, the Desperados Trail Scouts hosted their first annual Desert Mountain Wilderness Hiking Invitational.  Several area hiking clubs were invited to participate in a day of fun, networking and hiking.  The Desperados offered several guided hikes. I participated in the China Wall-Sunset Summit Loop, a moderate-rated trip through some of the most lush desert I’ve seen in the area.  On the trail’s highpoint, views of suburban homes and golf courses lapping at the edges of surrounding mountain ranges and national forest clearly illustrate the vulnerability of our precious open spaces.

Troy Gillenwater and Bob Borsch at The Ranch trailhead
With the land protected and the core trail system in place, objectives for the site continue to evolve.  Some ideas on the table include linking with the Valley-circumnavigating Maricopa Trail and adopting nearby Tonto National Forest trails.  Although no concrete plans are in place, it’s possible that communities like Desert Mountain could follow the Arizona Trail Gateway Communities model of providing support and facilities for long distance hikers.  
Trailhead kiosk recognizes project movers & shakers

If you think these exclusive trails don’t matter because you can’t hike them, consider the following the next time you’re hiking the trails around Skull Mesa and Seven Springs. Those untouched mountain peaks and natural geological formations you see on the southern horizon instead of homes are there because a community worked to preserve your view.
The private land is not a barrier, it’s a bridge. 

Beat the Crowds this Memorial Day Weekend: Hike Local.

Maricopa County Regional Parks Offer Safe & Fun Memorial Day Weekend Events
Yavapai Point at Lake Pleasant Regional Park
This Memorial Day weekend, don’t let forest closures, wildfires, crowds, holiday traffic and the unfortunate presence of drunks drivers on the freeways prevent you from enjoying the outdoors.  If you’re opting to avoid the holiday maelstrom by sticking around the Valley this weekend, consider getting re-acquainted with the Maricopa County Regional Parks system.  Early morning and evening programs and ranger-led hikes offer quick and easy ways to get outside year-round.  Here are just a few examples of fun things to do.

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, Cave Creek
Life Along the Creek Hike
Jewel of the Creek  at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area
Friday, May 25: Life along the Creek.  Hike with Ranger Kevin through a rare riparian area on Cave Creek while learning about the fascinating survival skills of the site’s plants, animals and ancient human inhabitants.
Saturday, May 26: Moonlight Hike.  The desert comes alive on this moon-illuminated trek.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park
Friday May 25: Moonlight Hike.  Explore magical desert environments under a glowing moon.
Learn about saguaros.
Saturday May 26: In Search of Saguaros. It’s the height of saguaro blossom season and you can learn interesting facts about the magnificent desert giant on this ranger-lead hike.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Friday, May 25: Find the Ranger.  Ranger J.D. will be wandering along the Waterfall Trail with a surprise for those who find him.
Saturday, May 26: Rattlesnakes! Fact and Fiction.  Scared to death of snakes? This workshop explores myths, misinformation and ways to safely live with local “buzz worms”.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park
A perennial Memorial Day favorite, it’s smart to plan ahead and expect crowds before heading out to hike, bike, fish or paddle.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Many Popular Coconino National Forest Trails now CLOSED Due to High Fire Danger

Fossil Creek, San Francisco Peaks, Mt Elden, Fisher Point-Fay Canyon Area, Mormon Mountain, Mogollon Rim south of SR87, parts of the Arizona Trail, Kachina Trail. Closures will stand until conditions improve.  


Arizona Forests and Recreation Areas to Close Due to High Fire Danger

Extremely dry conditions and high fire danger are triggering closures of some Arizona public lands. CLOSURES BEGIN WEDNESDAY MAY 23, 2018.
Lands under Stage III Fire restrictions mean there's NO ACCESS.  This includes hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, picnics---everything.  Restrictions began rolling out today and will remain in effect until conditions improve.
Know before you go.  Closures will be strictly enforced and violators will face steep fines and possible jail time.