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Monday, April 12, 2021

Crackerjack Road


The FR 209 crossing of the East Verde River

From its source on the Mogollon Rim near Washington Park north of Payson, the East Verde River flows southwest through Tonto National Forest, feeding a gorgeous swath of greenery before merging with the Verde River. 
The first part of the hike follows Ash Creek

Over its 34-mile length, the central Arizona waterway cuts through a transitional landscape where the desert creeps up against sheer rock escarpments at the edge of the Colorado Plateau trickling down from an environment of tall pines and forest lakes into high desert scrub and rugged backcountry of the Mazatzal Wilderness.  
Milk vetch is a common bloomer along the hike

Where the tributary stream wraps around Houston Mesa Road at its confluence with Ellison Creek, the Water Wheel group of recreation sites attract anglers, bathers and hikers. 
Riparian corridor of the East Verde River

Those who don’t mind crowds, noise and hefty day-use fees will have a blast at these splashy, easy-access hot spots.  But for a less congested look at the waterway’s midsection, take a stroll on a nearby back road. 
FR 209 crosses Ash Creek several times

More plod than plunge—don’t bother packing a swimsuit-- this moderate hike follows Forest Road 209 that’s also known as Crackerjack Road.  
Sycamore and chiseled cliffs line FR 209

The dirt track, which is part of the Payson OHV Trails system, begins 3 miles north of town off State Route 87.  From the highway, it’s just over a 3-mile hike to the East Verde, but it’s the stuff in between that makes this walk memorable. 
Crossing at the East Verde River

Seeds of an ash tree

The road traces the course of Ash Creek, crossing it several times as it makes a gentle descent through pine woodlands.  The first mile passes by many campsites used by OHV enthusiasts but soon leaves the party scene behind and enters a stunning, canyon-bound riparian corridor. 
Shaggy, green-white bark of an AZ sycamore

Lined with sycamores, cottonwoods and the eponymous ash trees, the trip unpacks amazing views of sculpted cliffs and scoured ravines.  At the 2-mile point near where some powerlines cross the route, the road emerges from the deep woods around Ash Creek and heads uphill where the gaping gorge of Horton Canyon stand out to the south.  
Fresh sprouts on an ash tree

At the top of a rise, first glimpses of the river’s emerald entrenchment winding past the East Verde Estates community come into view.  To the north, peeks at the distant flat-topped Mogollon Rim barely rise above a terrain of endless gullies, hills and juniper flats.  From this point, the road dips downhill paralleling the river’s flood plains.
Vegetation thrives along Ash Creek

The road heads uphill near Horton Canyon

Corralled by colorful stone embankments rubbed smooth by running water, the East Verde River crossing is a beautiful little place with room to explore along its banks. 

Gregg's ceanothus shrubs smell like lilacs

Still pools, clear cascades and tumbling mini waterfalls reflect russet rock walls and leafy fringes for many perfect photo opps.  

The hike turnaround point is where clumps of reeds and samplings encroach upon a concrete slab that spans the water and a Salt River Project water monitoring station stands near a massive cottonwood tree.  For a longer albeit dryer and hotter hike, follow the road another 4 miles to the Crackerjack Mine site, otherwise, backtrack and enjoy the watershed in reverse.

Peaceful scene along the East Verde River

LENGTH: 6.4 miles round trip to the river and back.

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 4,389 – 4,831 feet (1,083 feet of accumulated gain)


From the State Route 87/260 junction in Payson, go 3 miles north on SR 87 to Forest Road 209 at milepost 256 on the left.  Park in the dirt turnout or continue along FR 209 to one of the many parking aprons and campsites along the road.  The road is sedan-friendly for about one mile. 



Monday, April 5, 2021

Badger Mountain Trail


View from Badger Mountain Trail in Prescott

From its northern terminus at State Route 69 to where it meets the Ranch Trail in Prescott National Forest, the Badger Mountain Trail delivers a continual joyride through changing vistas and ecozones. 

The 6.77-mile route winds around the undulating edges and gullies of what is better known as P Mountain—a high-visibility hill inscribed with a big white “P” that stands out over a sea of shopping centers, hotels and casinos. 

Badger Mtn Trail crosses several drainage areas

Located just over a mile from historic downtown Prescott off State Route 69, the Badger Mountain Trail links the Prescott Mile-High Trail System, Prescott Circle Trail and forest service paths. 

Sierra Prieta Mtns seen from Badger Mtn

Granite Mountain (center) seen from Badger Mtn

The internal route is accessible via connecting trails at either end, however, neither terminus has parking, so the best way to get into the heart of the trail is to use the Turley Trailhead that’s tucked into a suburban neighborhood.  This access point lands hikers smack in the middle of the trail. 
Views of Prescott Valley dominate the hike

Route traces the western slopes of Badger Mtn

Map signs posted at junctions make following the trail simple.  From the trailhead, begin by hiking 0.64-mile on the Turley/Badger Connector to the signed turnoff for Badger Mountain.  For the best views and most variety, head right at the signpost and into the core of the uphill trek.  
Badger Mountain is also known as P Mountain

Initially, the sparsely shaded trail unpacks great views of iconic Prescott geological formations Granite Mountain and Thumb Butte.  As the trail makes its gradual ascent up the mountain’s west flanks, views of sprawling Prescott Valley and the distant peaks of Flagstaff dominate the skyline.
Turley Connector/Badger Mountain junction

At a little past the 1-mile point from the trailhead, the route makes and abrupt bend into the first of several drainage areas it will traverse where the vegetation changes from high-desert scrub to oak-conifer woodlands.
A twisted manzanita shrub on Badger Mountain


The trail makes long, easy curves in and around these leafy corridors providing dappled shade and brakes from the sun-exposed slopes.  Vistas also alternate among big valleys, green ravines and the pine-covered peaks of the Sierra Prieta Mountains to the west.
Oak trees line ledges above a drainage

Near the 2-mile point, the route enters the national forest for the final climb to the Ranch Trail #62 junction.  This makes for a good turn around point, otherwise continue on trail #62 for 3.8 miles to Walker Road near the Lynx Lake Recreation Area.
Thick vegetation in a drainage area

LENGTH:  7.38 miles up-and-back as described here or 6.77 miles one way for full trail

RATING:  moderate

ELEVATION: 5,669 – 6,308 feet as described here or 5,510 – 6,308 for full trail


From Courthouse Square in downtown Prescott, go 1.1 miles east on Gurley Street to just before the State Route 69/89 interchange.  Turn right onto Overland Road and continue to a stop sign at Butterfield Road, turn left and continue to the junction of Wagonwheel Road and Well Fargo Road.  Veer right and follow Wells Fargo 0.2-mile to the signed turn off for the Turley Trail on the right.  Follow this narrow dirt road a short distance to the parking area.

INFO & MAPS: City of Prescott


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Sugarloaf Circuit


Coffeepot Rock (left) from Sugarloaf Summit

How sweet do you take your hikes; one lump or two?  The choice is yours in Sedona’s North Urban Trails System. 

Chimney Rock seen from Andante Trail

Boasting two confectionery hill climbs that can be done either alone or as a barbell-shaped double loop, the system also showcases many iconic Red Rock Country landforms and great mountain vistas.  Located just 3 miles west of Uptown Sedona, Sugarloaf and Little Sugarloaf, two russet sandstone lumps that sit below 6,355-foot Capitol Butte (a.k.a. Thunder Mountain), anchor a network of scenic suburban paths less than a mile north of busy State Route 89A. 
Little Sugarloaf seen from Thunder Mtn Trail

While neither loaf climb is particularly difficult, each has its own character. 

Several trailheads offer easy access to the system, but for this double-header, start at the Thunder Mountain trailhead off Dry Creek Road.  To tackle the more difficult climb first, follow the Lower Chimney Rock trail 0.1-mile, head left at the Thunder Mountain junction and continue hiking on Lower Chimney Rock.  The hulking mound of 4,872-foot Little Sugarloaf looms to the south as the trail makes an easy ascent to its base.  Although Little Sugarloaf is not as tall as its companion to the east, it’s the wilder of the two. 

Sedona's North Urban Trails System, East

The climbing starts at the Chimney Rock Pass/Summit junction where the route makes a steep, exposed 222-foot crawl up the mountain’s north face.  The narrow, rough-hacked, 0.2-mile summit path hangs close to the edge for unobstructed views of the Sedona area and distant Mingus and Woodchute Mountains across the sprawling Verde Valley.  When done ogling the sights, descend to the junction and head left to follow Lower Chimney Rock for 1 mile tour around the base of the hill.  You’ll pass the trailhead and then pick up the Thunder Mountain trail heading east (right) where amazing up-close looks at iconic Chimney Rock stand out above crumbling russet sandstone walls.  Soon, the buff-colored flanks of Capitol Butte come into view and the trail dips into one of the route's many deeply wooded drainage areas before emerging at the Andante trailhead.  Follow the Andante trail 0.6-mile to where it reconnects with the Thunder Mountain trail, then follow the signs to the Sugarloaf Loop and Summit trails. 

Urban landscape viewed from Sugarloaf

Compared to Little Sugarloaf, hiking up 4,911-foot Sugarloaf “regular” is a walk in the park.  
It's a steep, edgy climb up Little Sugarloaf

The 0.2-mile trail is wide and well-worn, ascending 201 feet straight up the middle with no precipitous exposure or very steep spots.  A series of slickrock passages and natural red-rock stairs glide hikers up the hill, revealing a decidedly urban landscape below. 
Route traces the sandstone walls of Capitol Butte

To the west, streets and houses roll out in familiar grids while to the north, the form of Coffeepot Rock protrudes from a rock jetty off of Capitol Butte.  On the bald, pine-and-yucca- rimmed top, views stretch south for glimpses of Courthouse Butte and Airport Mesa.
High desert vegetation on Sugarloaf hill

Capitol Butte (right) is a commanding presence

Descend and make a 0.7-mile swing around Sugarloaf Loop before retracing your steps back to the trailhead.
The route crosses several drainage areas


LENGTH:  5.3 miles

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION:  4,560 - 4,911 feet


Thunder Mountain Trailhead:

From the State Route 179/89A traffic circle in uptown Sedona, go 3.2 miles west (toward Cottonwood) on SR 89A to Dry Creek Road.  Follow Dry Creek Road 0.5-mile, turn right on Thunder Mountain Road and continue 0.6-mile to the trailhead on the left. There are no fee or facilities at this trailhead.

May also be accessed by the Andante Drive and Sugarloaf trailheads.


INFO: Coconino National Forest

North Urban Trail System, East


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Clay Mine Trail


Beautiful mountain and valley views on Clay Mine Trail

In the ubiquitous quest for health and beauty, the promise of a quick fix seduces better than the long game.  For those rare few who won the beauty and longevity genes lottery (I’m looking at you Sophia Loren and Cicely Tyson) having a great face and physical fortitude without investing in a whole lot products is an enviable characteristic.  The rest of us use mud.

Join a ranger-led hike to explore inside the mine

While luxurious, earthy promise-in-a-jar blends available at health-and-beauty counters everywhere from discount stores and late-night infomercials to indulgent destination spas provide a feel-good boost and a surface glow, they rarely cure anything.  Still, dangling carrots endure, and people have made billions selling muddy treatments promoted as healthful and youth-restoring.  Thus, was the case of Leila P. Irish.

Creosote shrubs bloom even in drought conditions

In the 1930s, the entrepreneurial woman saw the potential in marketing a buff-colored clay found among the tailings of an abandoned, dud gold prospect in what is now Cave Creek Regional Park.  For reasons unbeknownst to modern science, Irish envisioned a miracle cure in the otherwise unremarkable, chalky rock.  She transformed the common earth into a marketable gold mine of another type by grinding the soft sediments into a fine, talc-like powder and selling it at premium prices as a calcium, iron and silica rich health supplement and basic elixir for building strong teeth and nails and enriching blood.  The product took off, making Irish and her Pearl Chemical Mine very wealthy.

Clay mine treasure: miracle cure or snake oil?

When Irish’s dreams of further cashing in on the magic muck by establishing a nearby health resort complete with therapeutic mud baths didn't pan out, she sold the claim in 1949 and the mine and its sensational issue of debatable value fell into oblivion. 

Today, the clay mine lives on as a curiosity site in Cave Creek Regional Park.  To get a close-up look at the mine’s innards and learn more about the history and science behind the bizarre bit of Arizona lore, sign up for a tour led by park rangers.  But if you’re fine with just a look in from behind a locked gate that protects the cave, grab a park map and head out on your own. 

Benches are placed at scenic spots on the trail

The 1.5-mile Clay Mine Trail may be accessed from either the Overton or Go John trailheads near the park nature center and can easily be looped into longer, more difficult hikes. 
Big valley views on the way to Clay Mine

Rock outcroppings line the route

As a standalone trek, the route rolls through desert hills and high passes with outstanding views of the Valley and surrounding mountain ranges.  With the ongoing drought, wildflowers are scant this year.  But hearty, desert plants like creosote, brittle bush and desert marigolds have mastered the long game and push through with spots of beauty along the way.
There are many ways to extend the hike

LENGTH: 3 miles round trip

RATING: easy

ELEVATION:  2,000 -2,300 feet


Cave Creek Regional Park, 37900 E. Cave Creek Parkway, Cave Creek.

Take Interstate 17 north to Carefree Highway (State Route 74). Head east (right) and continue 7 miles to the park entrance at 32nd Street.  Follow the main park road to the Overton or Go John trailheads at the nature center.

There are restrooms and water at the trailhead.

PARK HOURS: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

FEE: There’s a $7 daily fee per vehicle.


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Spence Basin Trail System


There's excellent signage throughout the hike

Populating the space between the Thumb Butte and Granite Basin recreation sites in Prescott National Forest, the new Spence Basin Trail System adds nearly 30 miles of hiking options to the area’s already packed menu. 
Granite Mountain seen from Vista Trail

The routes, which were adopted and developed over that last few years, are located less than 5 miles northwest of historic downtown Prescott and are accessible by way of paved roads.  While the trails can be reached through connecting routes that extend north from Thumb Butte, the Spence Springs trailhead that opened in 2019 offers direct access to the heart of the system.

A boulder passage on Juniper Gate Trail

Ponderosa pines shade the Noodle Loop

The nearly 30-mile maze of Spence Basin’s loopy, hilly single tracks speak to their mountain-biker origins.  Tightly woven, with dozens of ways to customize both length and difficulty levels, the trails roll out in the varied terrain around Spence Creek.  The signage along the routes is among the best you’ll find anywhere, making it simple to find your way around.  Junctions are outfitted with you-are-here-style map signs that show mileages, connecting routes, GPS coordinates, emergency location codes and smart phone app codes.  Deciding where to begin exploring the convoluted trail cluster is the only dilemma.  For first-timers, an introductory loop using the Noodle, Vista, BLM and Juniper Gate trails is a great way to experience some of the best bits.  Here’s how.

Snowy Sierra Prieta Mtns seen from Vista Trail

From the trailhead, cross the road and begin with a short walk on Noodle Loop #760.  At the first junction (emergency marker sign SB03), turn right onto the Vista Trail #706.  This leg of the hike starts by delving into a sunny juniper-dotted drainage area with patches of shady ponderosa pine and oak woodlands.  Vista Trail makes an easy climb on slopes at the northern edge of the system.  Exposed highpoints reveal views of Thumb Butte and the Sierra Prieta Mountains to the south and fleeting glimpses of Granite Mountain and Williamson Valley to the north. 

Spence Springs Trailhead opened in 2019

BLM Trail cross a drainage in Spence Basin

At map sign SB18, pick up the BLM trail #729 which spirals off the high ledges into the rough-cut drainages of Spence Creek. 
Alligator junipers are abundant along the trails

Tracing the creek and major runoff areas, this segment of the hike winds through forests thick with water-loving shrubs and soaring pines.  Next up, connect with the Juniper Gate trail #714 at map sign SB05 and get ready for yet another flavor thrown into the mix.  True to its name, this leg is heavy on the junipers with a side of edgy traverses and cool boulder passages above the rocky creek bed. 
Snow lingers in crevases in Spence Basin

Follow Juniper Gate back to the Noodle Loop, which spools out like limp fettuccine with hairpin turns wrapping around inclines and scoured ravines, and follow the signs back to the trailhead.  
Trails cut through coniferous woodlands

After scratching the surface with this sampler hike, download the map app to see more ways to enjoy one of Prescott’s newest hiking hubs.
Thumb Butte seen from Vista Trail

LENGTH: 4.6-mile loop as described here

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 5,490 – 5,936 feet


Spence Springs Trailhead:

From Courthouse Square in downtown Prescott, go north on Montezuma Street which will turn into Whipple Street then Iron Springs Road (County Road 10) for 4.8 miles to Spence Springs Road on the left.  This is located just past the turnoff for Granite Basin Recreation Area.  The trailhead is on the left a few yards down the road. 

At this writing, the trailhead has a port-o-potty and map kiosk but no water.

Future plans include the addition of a vault restroom and picnic tables.