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Monday, August 13, 2018


A shady spot on the Ant Hill Loop Trail
For a few precious days each summer, monsoon rains cool the air just enough to make hiking in Sedona bearable. 
A slick rock bend on Ant Hill Loop
Although sweltering temperatures rarely scare determined hikers away from Red Rock Country trails, the exposed, stony terrain of the high-desert trekking hub amplifies heat, making for an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous journey.  After a good monsoon soaking, though, lingering moisture offers brief respite.
Newborn frogs emerge from a monsoon puddle.
Summer is also an ideal time to try some of Sedona’s shorter, lesser-used trails.  The Ant Hill Loop resides in a shady pocket south of the hyper-popular Soldier Pass-Brins Mesa route that features a set of famous natural arches, the Seven Sacred Pools and Devils Kitchen sinkhole. 
Desert frogs & toads grow from eggs to fledglings in days
With nearby attractions like those diverting traffic, it’s likely you’ll encounter little company on the Ant Hill Loop.  Tethered to the north end of the Adobe Jack trail system northwest of town, the mini circuit can be hiked as a quick out-and-back trip or combined with dozens of linked routes for an all-day outing.
Puddles serve as frog nurseries in monsoon season.
To find the obscure path, begin on Soldier Pass Trail and hike 0.2-mile to the Jordan Trail junction at Devil’s Kitchen.
   Head right (east) and follow Jordan Trail 0.5-mile to the signed turnoff. 
Red rock spires seen from the Jordan Trail
The half-mile-long loop swoops through cypress woodlands and shrubby drainages with excellent views of iconic rock formations like Chimney Rock, Coffee Pot Rock and Airport Mesa. 
The trail is part of the Adobe Jack System in NW Sedona.
A favorite side-trip for mountain bikers, the trail is replete with slick rock traverses and edgy bends. This highly textured trail is a mashup of smooth rock, spiked agaves, peeling bark, knotty wood grains and tiny quartz crystal nodules glinting from russet sandstone. 
Pine and cypress trees shade Ant Hill Loop.
The Grand Central Trail---one of the backbone routes of the Adobe Jack system—bisects the loop. Use the map signs at each junction to customize your trek or simply go full circle and swing back the way you came. 
Agaves are plentiful along the trail.
In addition to giving hikers a bit of relief, monsoon rain creates fugitive water sources critical in the life-cycle of desert critters.  Standing pools like those found in cracks, sandy rivulets and potholes along rocky Sedona trails can become pop-up nurseries for frogs and toads that grow from egg to tadpole to adult in just days.  Some never make it out of their nursery before the life-giving water evaporates. The lucky ones live to adapt and survive in rhythm with the rains. Just like hikers.
Crystals in sandstone.
Artistic natural textures. 
LENGTH: 1.8 miles as described here.
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 4315 - 4520 feet
GETTING THERE: Soldier Pass Trailhead:
From the State Route 179/89A traffic circle in Sedona, go 1.25 miles west (left, toward Cottonwood) to Soldier Pass Road. Turn right and drive 1.5 miles to Rim Shadows, turn right and continue 0.1-mile to the trailhead on the left. Trailhead gate is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
A Red Rock pass is NOT required to park at this trailhead.

Monday, August 6, 2018


This box canyon is a highlight along the north leg of the trail.
The bucolic pastures and quiet backwoods of Vernon, Arizona--population 122--is the last place you’d expect to be the scene of a vile triple homicide. It happened, though and the sad story is standard fare in local lore.
Ruins of a pioneer homestead.
Pioneers began settling the rural community in the eastern White Mountains in the 1890s, making a living on the surrounding lumber-rich forests. 
The ruins of an infamous pioneer cabin.
Legend has it that among the early pioneers were three women who lived in a log cabin just south of town.
Section 31 Tank attracts swarms of dragonflies.
Back-fence chatter about the women hiding a large amount of money on their property eventually reached the ears of criminals.  The women were murdered and their homestead ransacked. No riches were found.  Today, all that remains of the tragic scene are crumbling stone foundations and piles of rusty-nail planks.  
Delicate Torrey's Crag Lily bloom in sunny spots.
The historic homestead is one of many points of interest on the Land of the Pioneers Trail #651 that’s located 5 miles south of Vernon.   Constructed in a customizable, triple-loop format, trail No. 651 wanders through a mix of deep pine-oak woodlands and airy, juniper-dotted meadows. The most scenic elements of the hike are found on the north leg of the 8.7-mile circumference loop.
Beautiful White Mountains views from Ecks Mountain.
Bright red paintbrush wildflowers stand out along the paths.  
From the trailhead, the north leg departs at the kiosk following a dirt road. Just past the first of several cattle gates, the trail bends left onto a single track.
A sunny section of the circumference loop.
Like all White Mountains Trail System routes, this one is very well maintained and outfitted with location markers placed roughly every quarter-mile.
Approaching the box canyon.
The markers correspond with downloadable maps, so you’ll always know where you are on the trail. White diamond tags denote the main outer loop while yellow dots indicate shortcuts for the three inner loops.  The hike to the cabin site is just over a mile. The first ruins appear at location marker L30 and the main cabin ruins are a quarter mile farther at maker L29. This is also where the shortcut for Loop 1 veers off for a 3.5-mile option. Next up on the big loop, look for a short spur path on the left near marker L26 that leads to Section 31 Tank. The secluded water hole reflects the sky and teems with multi-colored dragonflies. 
Yellow dots indicate shortcut routes.
After another 0.75-mile, the trail traces the edge of rocky box canyon with steep drop offs and first glimpses of dozens of eroding cinder cones in the Springerville Volcanic Field. This is one of the prettiest spots on the trail.  Beyond the canyon, the trail begins its ascent up the flanks of Ecks Mountain.
One of several rustic gates along the route.
To bypass this challenging section, take the signed shortcut for a 6.8-mile moderate trek. Sweat expended on Ecks Mountain and an optional short spur that leads to a vista point pays off with excellent panoramic views of Greens Peak and rolling prairies that stretch into New Mexico.
Pink Windmills bloom through September.
A set of tight switchbacks mitigate the vertical descent down to the south leg of the loop. The final miles back to the trailhead undulate through boulder-studded ravines, moist drainages and fields of wildflowers shaded by the afternoon clouds that roll in like clockwork during White Mountains summers.
Be prepared for afternoon summer storms.
Circumference Loop: 8.7 miles
Loop 1: 3.5 miles
Loop 1-2 combo: 6.8 miles
ELEVATION: 7220 – 7864 feet
Section 31 Tank is located along the north leg of the big loop
From the junction of US 60 and State Route 260 in Show Low, go 19.4 miles east on US60 to County Road 3140 (Vernon Road/Forest Road 224). Turn right and continue 5 miles south, turn right onto Forest Road 5 and drive 0.5-mile to the trailhead on the left.  Forest roads are gravel and dirt, suitable for passenger vehicles.
INFO: White Mountains Trail System

Monday, July 30, 2018


Thistles around Potato Lake attract pollinators.
Whether called crayfish, crawfish, crawdads or aquatic cockroaches, there are two sure things about the prolific freshwater crustaceans--they harm native species and they love bacon.
With few natural agents to control them, the population of non-native crayfish released into Arizona lakes and streams via bait bucket dumps or other means, has exploded.
Potato Lake is surrounded by pine forests.
Their voracious appetites and territory-hogging talents are decimating indigenous aquatic wildlife. They consume the eggs and larvae of native fish, amphibians and reptiles and gobble up critical food supplies.
Invasive crayfish threaten native species.
Plus, their nearly year-round reproductive cycle means they can commandeer a waterhole in no time flat. They need to go.
Forest Road 9362T serves as the trail.
The best way to help eradicate them is to prevent their introduction in the first place. The second-best way is to catch them with a dangling wad of raw bacon and cook them up for dinner.
Tree huggers embrace an aspen.
If you’re inclined to the later, pack a net, a propane cook kit with your favorite seasonings and hike out to Potato Lake.
Although you could drive to the tiny lake located off Forest Road 300 on the Mogollon Rim, a hike along two old roads that have been closed to motorized use offers quieter, alternative access.
From the parking area in a primitive campsite 2.5 miles southwest of the lake, hike 0.3-mile north to a “road closed” sign. This is Forest Road 9362T which is open to foot traffic, bikes and equestrian use only.  Following the remains of a rocky two-track, the route descends toward the lake on a barely noticeable incline. The 650 feet of elevation loss will be apparent on the way back.
Fences protect sensitive habitats.
This lovely path curves northeasterly through woodlands of Gambel oaks, conifers, New Mexican locust and a smattering of aspens.   Except for a few spots where a healthy understory of ferns and brambles spill over its uneven course, the road is easy to navigate.
A hummingbird moth sips nectar.
At the 1.5-mile point, take the less-obvious left fork where two metal poles mark a Y junction.  Make note of this swerve as it’s easy-to-miss on the way back. From here, the route vacillates between shaded woods and dewy meadows with roaming herds of grazing cattle.
At 1.8 miles, veer right onto Forest Road 147B. This segment flanks yawning draws, sunny pastures, waterways and pristine canopies that provide habitats for the endangered Little Colorado spinedace and the Mexican spotted owl. 
A sunny spot on the way to Potato Lake.
Please respect these pristine ecosystems by staying on the roads and not cutting or jumping fences.
Bellowing bovine graze in meadows near the lake.
Non-motorized backwoods roads are open to hikers.
At 2.3 miles, a cattle gate marks the beginning of the final 0.2-mile walk to the lake. Ringed with pines, the lake’s water level ranges from puddle to sizable pond depending on rainfall.
Potato Lake is a tiny pool on the Mogollon Rim.
A 0.7-mile walk around the lake’s perimeter reveals clumps of common silverweed and aquatic buttercups growing from its muddy banks and fields of purple thistle that attract swarms of pollinators including hummingbird moths that sip nectar though long curved feed tubes.
Hikers on Forest Road 147B.
Diverse ecosystems around the lake support myriad wildlife.
Beneath the lake’s glassy surface, crayfish--which resemble mini lobsters-- stir up mud and are easy to spot congregating under semi-submerged logs.  
Approaching Potato Lake.
If you follow Arizona Game and Fish Department rules regarding their capture and transport, you may harvest as many of these villainous invertebrates as you like. Boil them lobster-style for a protein-rich entree that tastes like crab. They’re great with garlic, peppers and corn. Beer helps.
LENGTH: 5.7 miles out-and-back
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 7234 – 7888 feet
From Payson, go 27.7 miles north on State Route 87 to Forest Road 300 (Rim Road) located near milepost 281.  Go 1.7 miles on FR300 to Forest Road 9362T on the left.  If you have a high-clearance vehicle, descend about 0.1 mile on the rough dirt road and park in the primitive campground.  The hike begins at the “road closed” sign at the north end of the site.  
Coconino National Forest
Arizona Game & Fish Crayfish information:

Monday, July 23, 2018


View from the Rim Lakes Vista Trail
About halfway up the Military Sinkhole Trail, I thought of Michael Corleone. In a memorable scene from the 1972 film The Godfather, protagonist Corleone rebuffed a ride as he approached his ancestral Sicilian village for the first time, deciding to savor the experience by walking to it instead. I get it.
Mixed conifer woodlands on Military Sinkhole
There’s a sort of reverence associated with trekking to special places. A slower, boots-on-the-ground pace syncs well with epic experiences. Like the village of Corleone, the Mogollon Rim is a place best crept up to on foot.
Arizona Thistle grow in Rim-top meadows
The Rim is a roughly 200-mile escarpment at the edge of the Colorado Plateau that runs east-west across central Arizona.  It’s easy enough to drive right up to its precipitous cliffs and take an edgy, 40+-mile motor tour along Rim Road 300, but to get a better sense of the scale and structure of this geological wonder, you need to climb it from base-to-ceiling.
Shady forests define the Military Sinkhole Trail
One of the most convenient ways to do this is to hike up the Military Sinkhole Trail. 
One of many soulful sights on Rim Lakes Vista Trail.
Located 27 miles east of Payson on State Route 260, the historic route makes an aggressive, 850-foot ascent to scenic ledges on the top of the Rim. The multi-faceted route begins with a walk through deep, mixed-conifer woodlands of the Tonto National Forest. Shaded by enormous Douglas firs with their characteristic barbed cones, spruce and pines, the first mile is a cool and gentle climb.
There's little shade, but great views, on parts of the trail.
Top of the Drew Trail
Where the trail dips into drainages, canopies of Bigtooth maples cast filtered sunlight on moss-embellished boulders and mushrooms popping through carpets of pine needles and cracks in decaying logs. (Keep this one in mind for a fall foliage hike.) Beyond the maples, the forest thins out, emerging onto an exposed ridge to merge with an abandoned military road built by General George Crook in the 1870s.  Like many old roads in the area, this one plows uphill without the benefit of climb-calming switchbacks. 
Butterfly on Gregg's Ceanothus shrub.
It’s a rocky, quad-burning segment with little shade, but great views of the Mazatzal Mountains and green valleys mitigate the pain.
Defunct military road built by Gen. George Crook.
The ankle-twisting road gradually levels out as it enters a corridor of arching Gambel oaks and fields of bracken ferns.  At this point, vertical walls start to flank the trail, hinting at the enormity of thrills that follow. 
Bigtooth maples thrive in moist drainages.
With the hardest parts over and the jumbled cliffs of the Rim’s edge hovering above, the trail enters the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest for the final slog to the top.  At a signed junction just below Rim Road, Trail No. 179 continues straight ahead on a not-very-interesting path that connects with the General Crook Trail.
Limestone escarpments flank the final slog to the top.
 To reap the rewards you came for, head west (left) at the junction and follow Rim Lakes Vista Trail No. 622.
Keep this trail in mind for fall foliage hiking.
After a short traipse through a flowery meadow, breathtaking vistas and refreshing mountain breezes overwhelm the senses. 
Ferns grow waist-high in damp spots below the Rim.
The tough pilgramage culminates at scenic overlooks that frame wildland views. Here, hordes of camera-toting visitors stream from parked vehicles to stroll a few yards from the road for the same result.  However, regarding this experience; hiking is to driving as a clarinet is to a kazoo.  
Hooker's Evening Primrose blooms close by noon.
After savoring your hard-won eye candy, head back the way you came, or make an 11.7-mile loop by continuing 3.3 miles on Trail No. 622 to the Drew Trail No. 291.  Head 1.8 miles downhill to Highline Trail No. 31, turn left and hike 4.1 miles back to the trailhead.
A particularly fragrant section of the Military Sinkhole Tr.
A distinctively-barbed Douglas fir cone
LENGTH: 5 miles up-and-back or 11.7-mile loop.
RATING: moderately difficult
ELEVATION: 6750 – 7600 feet
Two-Sixty Trailhead (SR260):
From Payson, go 27 miles east (right) State Route 260 to the “Two Sixty” trailhead turn off on the left. Follow the good gravel road for a quarter-mile to the trailhead parking area where there is a restroom and a corral.
Rim Lakes Vista Trailhead (Rim Road): For an optional top-down hike. From Payson, go 30 miles east (right) on State Route 260 Rim Road (Forest Road 300). Go 2 miles on FR300 to the trailhead on the left.