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Monday, June 27, 2022

Willow Crossing


The limestone arch in Willow Valley

Tucked into a sliver of space in the canyon-addled watershed of West Clear Creek, Willow Valley is a calm oasis of green in an water-carved landscape.  Within the shallow canyon, a sketchy trail known as Willow Crossing descends from an airy plateau littered with toppled trees from past wildfires, wildflower meadows and a smattering of tall pines into a narrow canyon with a totally different character. 

Inside the riparian zone of Willow Valley

Bound by chalky limestone walls chiseled into layer-cake-like formations, the ecozone inside the mini, Mogollon Rim gorge transforms from a sunny, lightly-wooded mesa into a jungle of greenery. 
The rim above Willow Valley in Coconino National Forest

This tiny Eden isn’t easy to find or follow, but careful explorers are rewarded with many surprises. A series of rough dirt back roads near Clints Well in Coconino National Forest northeast of West Clear Creek Wilderness, lead to a barely-there trailhead. To pick up the historic route, follow the old barbed wire fence to a gate near the edge of the canyon. Pass the gate (close it behind you) and pick up the obvious path leading downhill.
Riparian vegetation in Willow Valley

As the short, rocky trail descends among hairy stands of common mullein that can sprout corn-like shoots to over 6 feet high, riparian vegetation closes in on the trail.
Common mullein grows on the canyon rim

Willow Valley is in the watershed of West Clear Creek

Gamble oaks, boxelder, New Mexico locust and a tangle of the eponymous willow trees clutter the slopes. Where the trail bottoms out at a drainage, look for water-loving wildflowers and shrubs like larkspur, wild roses and red-osier dogwood. 
Larkspur colors the trail in summer.

Like all “crossing” trails on the Rim, this one hops the drainage and heads up to the opposite lip of the canyon. In between the rims, the hike’s signature attraction stands nearly obscured by tree cover and wild grape vines woven among thickets and boulders.
Red-osier dogwood grows in the drainage area

A delicate natural arch carved from the canyon’s sedimentary rock walls forms a fragile bridge over a fold in the disintegrating wall revealing a glimpse of sky and Ponderosa pines 400 feet above.

LENGTH: 2-3  miles round trip

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 6,400 – 6,800 feet


From Payson, go north on State Route 87 to Lake Mary Road (County Road 3) turn left and go north on CR3 to Forest Road 81 at milepost 297.7. Turn left and continue 3.1 miles to Forest Road 81E. Set your odometer, and go left on FR 81E 1.14 miles to Forest Road 9366M—an easy-to-miss, unmarked dirt road on the left. Go 0.5 miles on FR 9366M to a cattle guard and gate. The trailhead is just past the gate on the left near the generic “trail” sign and rock cairns. A high clearance vehicle is recommended on the forest roads.


Coconino National Forest

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Keyhole Sink


Keyhole Sink surrounds a moist seep area

Not too far off Old Route 66 a few miles east of the town of Williams, a cloistered box canyon with vertical stone walls encircles a depression where water sometimes cascades over the cliffs and pool at the base of the pine-shaded oasis. 

The woodsy approach to Keyhole Sink

The sounds of tree frogs, birds, and scampering squirrels bite through a soundtrack of wind rustling through aspen canopies.  The moist, cool place vibrates with a life essence that transcends the moment.  It’s like walking through a sort of time capsule set on perennial-fill mode.
A petroglyph panel at Keyhole Sink

The Kaibab National Forest site’s ample forage grasses, water and quiet isolation made this a perfect spot for wildlife to congregate, feed, drink, and--oh yeah--be stalked.  

Aspen saplings on the Keyhole Sink Interpretive trail

From roughly 1,000 years ago, ancestral Native American hunters documented their experiences at this enchanting hideaway by pecking images of deer, bear and other local wildlife into the folds and panels of cliff faces that are the weathered remains of ancient lava flows.   Today, hundreds of the images are visible on the volcanic escarpments.
Keyhole Sink is a wildlife oasis

Dense galleries depict a vibrant, and resource-rich environment.  While the meaning and utility of the petroglyphs is best known to the makers, present day viewers may immerse in the pure beauty of the etchings and extrapolate the notes of celebrations, observations, and maybe just the plein air sketches they may have depicted.  Regardless, it’s clear that Keyhole Sink remains a living, breathing microcosm of life in the forest. 
Visitors must be front-line protectors of this heritage site

A short, interpretive trail and a descriptive brochure available online, guide visitors through the woodsy outdoor classroom.

Sadly, there’s a history of vandals defacing the rock art. Restoration involves hundreds of volunteer hours, thousands of dollars, and years of work with no guarantees of fully rehabilitating the artfacts.  Why this happens in a place that is sacred to modern Native American tribes is beyond comprehension. The place is not a “ruin”, it’s an ancestral homeland.

Although Keyhole Sink is monitored by Arizona site stewards, visitors must be the front-line protectors. As with all heritage sites, respect the irreplaceable artifacts. Do not touch or otherwise alter the rock art, stay on designated trails, pack out all trash, and leave what you find so that future generations may appreciate this Arizona point-of-pride.

LENGTH: 2 miles round-trip

RATING: easy

ELEVATION: 7,100 – 7,000 feet

GETTIGN THERE: From Flagstaff, go 16 miles west on Interstate 40 to the Parks exit 178. Connect with Historic Route 66 and go 4 miles west (left) to the Oak Hill Snow Play Area on the left. The trailhead is located across the road from the parking lot at a signed gate.


Kaibab National Forest


Friday, June 17, 2022

Coconino National Forest Proposed Fee Changes 2022

 Coconino NF seeks public comments on proposed fee changes at six recreation sites

Site Name

Current Fee

Proposed Fee

Bell Trail



Bruce Brockett Trail



Dry Creek Trail



Fay Canyon Trail



Lava River Cave



Mescal Trail



SEDONA, Ariz., June 13, 2022 – The Coconino National Forest is seeking public input on proposed fee implementation at six specific high-use recreation sites to provide consistent maintenance and keep these sites and trails at a level of quality visitors have come to expect.


Numerous day-use sites, overnight camping sites, and other recreation sites are managed without user fees across Coconino National Forest. The following day-use sites would be added to the current Red Rock Pass Fee Program, and the Interagency America the Beautiful Passes will also be honored at these sites.

The public comment period begins today. To ensure that your comments are considered, please send your comments to the Coconino National Forest no later than August 31, 2022 using one of the following methods:

  • Mail: Address to Coconino NF, Red Rock Ranger District, Attn: Chris Johansen, P.O. Box 20429, Sedona, AZ 86341-0429

  • Online: Go to and utilize a public comment mapping tool to comment on specific sites or to make a general comment on fee proposals.

  • In person: Oral comments must be provided to Christopher Johansen during normal business hours (Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.) or by calling (928) 203-7529 and indicating you would like to provide comments on the proposed recreation fee changes.


Once public involvement is complete, the proposed fee changes will be reviewed by the Recreation Resource Advisory Committee (RAC) during their winter 2022 meeting. If the RAC and the Regional Forester approve of the changes, fees could be implemented at these sites as early as spring 2023.


In 2004, Congress passed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (REA) which allows the Forest Service to retain funds collected at certain recreation sites and use these funds locally to operate, maintain, and improve these sites.


These additional funds along with 95% of the revenue from recreation fees remain on the national forest to operate, maintain, and improve facilities. The resource derived through collection of fees helps provide quality recreation opportunities that meet the modern expectations of visitors and creates a more financial sustainable developed recreation program for the benefit of future generations.


Under REA, all new fees and any fee changes must be proposed and approved by a citizen’s advisory committee, Arizona Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Committee. Committee members represent a broad array of recreation interest groups to help ensure that the Forest Service is proposing reasonable and publicly acceptable new fees and fee changes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Forest Closures 2022


Hiking vicariously thru oil painting. Escudilla Mountain

Tinder box dryness, wildfires and dry lightning season combine for extremely dangerous conditions in Arizona.  About this time each year, land managers begin implementing State 3 Fire Restrictions which include FULL FOREST CLOSURES.   

Please check before heading out and RESPECT ALL CLOSURES & RESTRICTIONS. 

I'll be staying local for the next few weeks, hiking in the early morning and hiking vicariously by indulging in my hobby of making oil paintings of some of my favorite national forest hiking trails.

Here's a list of websites to check current restrictions:















Monday, May 23, 2022

Upper Lake Mary


Mormon Mountains stand out over Upper Lake Mary

At the tail end of the twin reservoirs of Upper and Lower Lake Mary, an airy draw closes in on the murky meanders of Walnut Creek. 

Upper Lake Mary viewed from FR 9485C

Cutting through dry stubble and emergent grasses, the entrenched creek course snakes south through coniferous woodlands in Coconino National Forest.
Rocky Mountain iris bloom May - September

Earthen dams on the creek contain the elongated lakes that are a major source of water for the City of Flagstaff roughly 15 miles to the north.

Log pole fence on the shore of Upper Lake Mary

 While the lower lake is usually bone dry, Upper Lake Mary retains enough water for boating, water skiing, fishing, and picnicking. Nearby camping and access to the Arizona National Scenic Trail, make the lakes a popular recreational destination. 
Drought has altered the landscape around the lake

Water levels vary depending on rain and snowmelt.  According to the USGS, Upper Lake Mary is about 5.6 miles long with a surface area of 939 acres and a maximum depth of 39 feet when at full capacity. Prolonged drought has altered the lake’s size and character.
Field bindweed bloom May - September

Deepest near the dam at its north end, Upper Lake Mary shallows out as it bends southward gradually morphing into puddles, mucky swales, and a dry draw where the ghost of the creek exists in deeply incised, twisted channels.
Butter & eggs bloom May - September

A short forest road on the east shore provides a close look at this transitional segment where the lake goes from pond to puddle to pasture in just under one mile.  Forest Road 9485C serves as the trail for the 2-mile round trip hike. 
San Francisco Peaks on the horizon

Wide, rocky, and relatively flat, the dirt two-track sits just below Lake Mary Road. 
Mountain dandelion bloom May - October

Over the first-quarter mile, Ponderosa pine trees stand over the last sizable reaches of lake water where Great blue herons, waterfowl and—for early morning hikers—elk, might be spotted browsing the weedy fringes.
Hike uses FR 9485C below Lake Mary Road

The rounded peaks of Mormon Mountain stand out over an ever-fading spillway to the south.  About where a rustic pole fence stands at what appears to be the former edge of the lake, water sightings are replaced by juniper-framed views of the creek meanders and glimpses of the San Francisco Peaks to the north. 
Creek meanders at the far south end of Upper Lake Mary

While drought has altered the landscape, there’s still a thriving understory of blooming shrubs and wildflowers. Sunflowers put on an especially gorgeous show in late summer, blanketing the shores in acres of brilliant yellow.

LENGTH: 2 miles round trip

RATING: easy

ELEVATION: 6,830 – 6,850 feet


From Flagstaff, travel  15.5 miles south on Lake Mary Road (County Road 3) to Forest Road 9485C on the right past milepost 329. There are no fees at this day use parking area.



Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Wildlife Watching in Dead Horse Ranch State Park


Mingus Mountain reflects in a lagoon at DHRSP

Wildlife watching in Dead Horse Ranch State Paris a hit-or-miss prospect.

Great blue herons are easy to spot at DHRSP

It’s a definite maybe for a river otter sighting, odds are good to spot a Great blue heron and certainly a red-winged blackbird, and observant watchers might spy a fast-moving California kingsnake. 
Limestone cliffs flank a lagoon at DHRSP

All bets are off though, for catching a gray fox climbing a tree.  
Diverse habitats at DHRSP attract wildlife

Still, a walk through the park that melds a semi-arid high desert climate with a humid riverside riparian habitat yields animal encounters both common and rare.
Silverleaf nightshade bloom along the lagoon trails


Situated on the north banks of a tree-lined bend of the Verde River, Dead Horse Ranch State Park has more than 20 miles of hiking trails. 

Keep wildlife wild. Observe from a distance.

Vociferous red-winged blackbirds thrive among reeds

The park trail menu has options for hikers of all ability levels including the ADA-accessible Canopy Trail, easy lagoon loops, and access to more challenging Coconino National Forest routes like 15.8-mile Lime Kiln Trail and Raptor Hill.  With easy access from Old Town Cottonwood, shaded paths in the Verde Valley park offer a quick escape from summer heat.  

Under a canopy of cottonwood, walnut, and willow trees, three level, multi-use, accessible trails loop around the park’s lagoons that draw river water by way of the historic Hickey irrigation ditch.

Globemallow add spots of orange to the trails

Open to hikers, bikers and leashed dogs, the wide, groomed tread of the loops is welcoming to strollers and other mobility devises making them family-friendly choices for exploring the water-centric site.   
River otters, waterfowl, deer and amphibians live in the park

A walk around the reedy, birdy ponds that capture mirror images of distant Mingus Mountain and a nearby wall of layer cake limestone reveals an oasis-like environment that abuts both a shady river corridor and arid mesquite scrubland. 

Benches and picnic tables placed around the lagoons provide comfortable places for observing wildlife in their natural environments. 

Lagoon trails are easy and accessible

AZ black walnut trees shade the lagoon trails

For best results, consult the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s Wildlife Viewing Tips. And remember to keep wildlife wild by not feeding or disrupting their habitats.

LENGTH: 1.9 miles total for lagoon loops

RATING: easy-accessible

ELEVATION: 3,300 feet


675 Dead Horse Ranch Road, Cottonwood.

From Main Street in Cottonwood, go south on 10th Street and follow the signs to the park.

DAY USE HOURS: 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.


Visitor center, camping, cabin rentals, ramadas, fishing, restrooms, horseback rides

FEE: $7 daily fee per vehicle



Monday, May 2, 2022

Forest Road Double-Header


Hunting Tank off Forest Road 80

Two water holes, two canyons, two roads and some excellent views. That’s the draw for this largely ignored double-header backroads trek.

Basalt cliffs along FR 80 in Coconino National Forest

Using a pair of forest roads in the Beaver Creek Watershed a few miles west of Stoneman Lake, the who-knew hike is easy to access off paved Stoneman Lake Road (Forest Road 213) but is disguised by nondescript signs that give no clues to the good stuff they hide.  

Western blue flax (which can be white) on FR 80

View of Rattlesnake Canyon from FR 80

Located where Arizona’s Central Highlands meet the edge of the Colorado Plateau roughly 35 miles south of Flagstaff, Forest Roads 9241E and 80 wind through a landscape of canyons, volcanic features, and acres of golden pastureland.

Smoke from the Crooks Fire hangs over Bradshaw Mountains

FR 80 traces the lip of Rattlesnake Canyon

The allure of this under-the-radar slice of Coconino National Forest oozes from its hybrid high-desert-meets-tall-pines environ that muddles the picture postcard “house vistas” of both Sedona and Flagstaff.
Corral at Hunting Tank

Hikers take in the views at Hunting Tank

Cinder Tank attracts wildlife in Coconino NF

The first leg of the circuit begins at Forest Road 9241E. Identified as a “short route” on the Coconino National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map, the road is essentially just a gated parking area.  A ring of boulders blocks entry to the trail--a fading two-track that’s open to foot traffic and  equestrian use.  The weedy road traces the edge of a finger gulch at the far northeast end of Rarick Canyon, dropping steadily to where it meets a wildlife water hole.

Point where cinder tank road fades out

Tinged red by a wall of decaying volcanic stone and the trampling of elk, bobcats, skunk, racoons and domestic livestock, Cinder Tank marks the beginning of a short segment of shady Ponderosa pine  forest that stands in contrast to the juniper scrubland that defines much of the area. 
Narrowleaf yerba santa blooms April - August

Beyond the tank, the road gets rougher as it heads up an embankment to emerge on an airy mesa with views of 7,307-foot Apache Maid Mountain and glimpses of the layered landforms around Sedona peeking through stands of Utah serviceberry shrubs and tangles of Gamble oaks. 
Utah service berry blooms April - May

The road vacillates between an obvious two-track and a barely there footpath before being swallowed whole by grasses and shrubs at the 1.3-mile point. The weed-choaked dead end makes for a good turn round point.  

Part two of the circuit begins about a half-mile farther east on Stoneman Lake Road at Forest Road 80 where there’s a gate, cattleguard and a sign commemorating the Chaves Historic Trail, an important, centuries-old travel corridor between Prescott and Winslow.

View of Sedona from cinder tank road

Forest Road 80 is a 9.2-mile seasonal road that’s open to motorized use for high-clearance vehicles. The south end of the rough, narrow road also serves as a scenic hiking route. 

Tall pines shade the road above cinder tank

From the parking area, the road heads north descending easily to an unsigned junction roughly 0.2-miles in.  The right fork heads to a rustic corral and a sizable water hole called Hunting Tank.  It’s a scenic detour of just over a half mile roundtrip and well worth a visit.
Finger gorge of Rarick Canyon on right

From the junction, FR80 dips into a finger cove of Rattlesnake Canyon then climbs to the lip of the gorge’s northeastern reaches. 
Yellow evening primrose bloom April - June

Gamble oaks in a meadow near cinder tank

High point vistas include Alligator juniper-framed looks at the Bradshaw Mountains to the west and glimpses into the sinuous, stony corridor of Rattlesnake Canyon below. 
The road above cinder tank

After topping out on a breezy mound where traffic on Interstate 17 can be seen whizzing by to the north, walls of sheer basalt and pillars of contorted volcanic ejecta close in on the road as it parallels the ever-shallowing canyon to where it levels off just yards from the freeway at the 2-mile point.
Apache Maid Mountain seen from FR9241E

While FR 80 continues north for another 7+ miles, the canyon head serves as a fine turnaround point for sampling one of the many scenic routes that make up the 380,000+ miles of the National Forest Road System.


LENGTH: 2.7 miles roundtrip

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 6,091 – 6,237 feet


From Interstate 17 drive 19 miles north of Camp Verde and take the Stoneman Lake exit 306. Head east (go right) at the bottom of the off ramp and follow Stoneman Lake Road (Forest Road 213) 4.3 miles to Forest Road 9241E on the right where there’s a gate and cattle guard.


LENGTH:  3.5 miles roundtrip as described here

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 6,000 – 6,234 feet


From the Cinder Tank Road parking area, continue 0.4-mile east on Stoneman Lake Road to the parking area for Forest Road 80 on the left.