Introducing the Coconino Circuit
"How to spend 3 weeks hiking in Arizona during the month of June without wrestling cacti in 110 degree heat"
(We'll see how it goes...)
Elevation Profile of the Coconino Circuit
(The header should actually say *counter-clockwise* from/to Flagstaff.)
Non-technical canyoneering gear to be carried the first half of the trip, clockwise from top-left: 3mm shorty wetsuit, 65L inflatable dry sack, dry bags for clothing, electronics & sundries, LokSak & gallon ziploc for double-bagging maps & papers, 8L eVent dry sack for sleeping bag, and inflatable pool floaty. The floaty may be optional; it'll float hiker plus pack but is unwieldy both in and out of the water. The wetsuit is twice as heavy but probably mandatory this time of year. 65L dry sack works as either a pack liner or the pack can go in the sack and the sack inflated for buoyancy. Fully water-proofed and insulated, it may be practical to swim more than what's required to avoid deep wading and bordering rocks, poison ivy, etc.
Two cameras?! Sigma DP2 (at left), moderate telephoto, compact SLR. DP1 (at right) for moderate wide-angle photography. Alas, each camera uses a prime lens (non-zooming), thus the perceived need to carry both. This system is still about 3 ounces lighter than the Panasonic GF-1 with two lenses I carried on the GET last fall, and I prefer the photographic results from the unique Sigma processor. But am I really willing to risk it all in the name of pleasing eye candy? (Zap, sizzle...) In any case, during the hike I'm hoping to upload low-res phone camera photos to this album, along with short daily entries. Watch for these to follow in the album sequence.
iPhone pic of Auza Tank, day 2 of the hike. More such pics forthcoming as connection allows, to be followed by SLR images after the trip. Beautiful out here, good water in the tanks and springs, forest green as life itself. Looks like the Coconino lucked out this otherwise dry year in the southwest. Two elk herds, a bear, pronghorn, and the wolfiest looking coyote I've ever seen. Mellow walking on silent roads through the far-ranging forest. Perfection.
5/25/11: A thru traverse of West Fork Oak Creek Canyon makes Aravaipa seem like a superhighway. Five miles in 9 hours was the best I could manage today. This included no fewer than 7 swims, much wading, and constant attention to rocks, brush, and blowdowns (in that order of significance). No trail, no people, and no free lunch. Wetsuit worked wonders in 50 degree water. Canyon is, of course, magnificent.
5/26/11 Perfected the strange art of backstroke swimming while wearing a pack. Two more cold swims this AM, then the tourist trail at last. All or nothing when it comes to socializing out here. Beyond Call o' Canyon parking lot, an obscure but glorious ascent via Thomas Point Trail, with sweeping views of Oak Creek Canyon proper (photo). Back to the Rim now, reconnoiter with the pine parks once more.
5/27/11 From Thompson Point (photo) it was down the eponymous Thompsons Ladder Trail to Oak Creek outside Sedona. This is a truly awful trail, poorly constructed, steep beyond measure, brushy with a thick mantle of chaparral, with cobbly volcanic rocks underfoot. But how sweet the vantage. Several hours of circumventing private property next ensued, a refreshing dip in the creek, more rocks, and the appearance of foreign tourists as I reached the Sedona area trail network. "Enjoy your hike, mate?" inquired a man with dreadlocks and an Australian accent.
5/28/11 The view from downtown Vortexville. Opted for a 24 hour Staycation in Sedona, exploring area trails and taking in the unreality of it all. People watching out front of the Fresh Fields supermarket was like an afternoon on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Folks move here for a reason; the larger than life scenery, the implied sense of mysticism, the cultural crossroads of Old and New West that the place has, if nothing else, cleverly invented for itself, carefully tending to an image. Not everyone could live in a place like Sedona, though many visit and enjoy its superficialities. Like the vortex itself, the town is an enigma, a riddle, and we see in it what we want to see, though nothing may be there at all. Only the towering rocks of red and white may know for sure.
5/29/11 Good connections today via Huckaby, Munds Wagon, Schnebly Hill, and Hot Loop trails. All except the last cut through the heart of the Sedona tourist circuit, with Schnebly Hill Road and its incessant cadre of Pink Jeeps, Sedona's "must do" 4x4 adventure, never beyond earshot. Still the bustle seemed appropriate enough given the one of a kind, picture postcard views of Redrock country, vibrant hues and elegant forms to match the best of what Moab or Escalante have to offer. You don't get much of that this far south at the edge of the Colorado plateau. Hot Loop Trail was surprisingly remote feeling by comparison, and also very scenic as it descends south overlooking the spectacularly incised gorge of Woods Canyon.
5/30/11 Surprised to find Woods Canyon (Dry Beaver Creek) deserted today, Memorial Day. A pleasant enough path winds up the canyon side, avoiding the drainage as much as possible due to the heavy stream of talus-sized boulders that reside there and in fact in all the "washes" in this region. A thick cap of lava covers this part of the Colorado Plateau, eroding here and there to expose the colorful sedimentary rocks beneath. The trail ended and I endured a couple of harrowing hours negotiating these roughly worn slopes in search of a cross-country exit back to the Rim, southbound. 800 vertical feet and several forced detours around the lava caprock and I stood victorious atop the mesa... surrounded by more minefields of rock. Tough going without a beaten path. Photo: upper Woods Canyon from atop the x-c climb.
Mullican Place Tank, with Apache Maid Mountain on the horizon. So much variety in the landscape, even over the course of a few hours' walking. (Note that photo locations appear in a Google map to the right of the image.)
It's midge season, kids. And the little buggers are in a biting mood, too. Mosquito headnet? No foil for these tiny carbon-based life forms. DEET repellent? Roundly ignored. Solution: keep moving and pray for wind (that twin bane of springtime hikers).
5/31/11 Over the volcanic plateau, down into the redrock narrows. The pattern continues, and I could get used to this. The upland walking, first on 4wd roads, then via the Apache Maid Trail, tends to be a solitary affair around here. Apparently few care to drive on roads this bang-em-up rough, or trails this rock-strewn and pocked with the permanent impressions of hooves and boots that came before. What passes for soil up there is a brownie mix of sorts, a recipe for heavy-duty trouble when wet. But not down here along Wet Beaver Creek. The Supai narrows at Bell Crossing (photo) is a well-trod delight. I opted to postpone a thru-trip of this swim-intensive canyon for another time. For maximum enjoyment, this may be an experience best shared with others.
6/1/11 Spectacular overlooks revealing the totality of Wet Beaver Canyon on the way up the Bell Trail this AM (photo). Along the mesa this trail soon faded to oblivion, before reemerging as a 4wd which, along with many more of the same, made up the bulk of the day's travel theme. Lonely roads, utterly abandoned, the kind you could lie down upon at any hour of the day or night and sleep soundly, awakening refreshed and ready for more roadwalking. At length one of these roads wandered out to an airy point and there below lay tomorrow's adventure: West Clear Creek. Whereas Wet Beaver looks desert-riparian from afar, West Clear Creek slices through a dense pine forest, revealing a savage plunge from the Rim through the sheer sandstone to the canyon floor. The view is improbable and captivating.
6/2/11 I'd hoped to drop into West Clear Creek as far west as possible, traveling east up-canyon. Ruling out impractical options and entry points I couldn't quite locate, I ultimately settled on the Tramway Trail (photo perspective), a steep but well engineered plunge into the canyon's verdant depths. Swimming wasn't required, but I couldn't resist a long dip on this hot afternoon, surrounded by sheer walls of Coconino sandstone that rose up cathedral-like, the scene somehow reminiscent of high canyons in the Sierra Nevada and certainly unique among Arizona landscapes. West Clear Creek divided headward and I joined Clover Creek, more intimate and subdued. Except for an unoccupied tent, no signs of modern man were present today. An elaborate petroglyph panel in an alcove above Clear Creek spoke of an enduring human presence, however.
6/3/11 Arizona again at its remarkable greenest as I joined the canyon of Toms Creek, meandering cross-country in a drainage as rough and tumble as Arizona makes them, seemingly one and all. The conspiracy of brush, blowdowns, boulders, and a wet creek slick with algae finally sent me scurrying for an early exit, which I found with much evasive maneuvering up pine straw and cliff-faceted slopes. Trail magic this afternoon, back on the plateau, crossing paths with a picnicking girl scout troupe and their chaperones, offerings of chips and candy with embarrassing amounts of praise for my little hike in progress. Over the Rim again, down into Pine Canyon (photo), unbelievably not to be outdone by West Clear Creek Wilderness in its diverse offerings of photosynthesizing flora. In a state whose very name proclaims its dryness, this part of Rim Country sings a very different tune, or rather whispers, in the lull of a trickling creek and the rustle of leaves overhead.
Pine Canyon Trail, featured as one of the 10 must-do summer hikes in this month's Arizona Highways magazine. Here we see the forest service busy getting trail cleared of blowdowns in time for the summer hiking hordes.
6/4/11 Laundry day in the little town of Pine. With larger Payson only a short drive south, and the more tourist-friendly enclave of Strawberry to the north, Pine has a certain optional quality about itself, as though a town at peace with its limitations. Local and visitor alike, while here, could just as well be elsewhere, and perhaps they just might go. I opted to stay. The locals are a good bunch, very much a mountain breed, many of them, without pretense or unnecessary graces. Urban transplants and elegant cowboy types aren't shunned here, but their numbers remain a refreshing minority in a state with strong desert-urban sensibilities, increasingly more than even Arizonans themselves may recognize. Pine also marks the point where my route joins the Arizona Trail for the return leg to Flagstaff. Still the route has a few alternatives in mind, short-range detours here and there to mix it up and see a bit more of what's worth seeing.
6/5/11 East of Pine the AZ Trail follows the Highline Trail for 20 miles along the flanks of the Mogollon Rim. This historic trail offers up nearly continual views of the Rim as well as a vast swath of the Tonto National Forest to the south. Two common misconceptions about the Highline worth dispelling: The trail is NOT, despite mapped appearances, an easy stroll, climbing as it does in and out of myriad drainages (most blessedly watered), almost never contouring on the level. It's also emphatically not a crowded trail, well-known and oft-discussed though it may be. Away from the few popular trailheads, even in high season as now, you're more likely to see elk than humans. In fact, a bull elk came close to my camp tonight, bugling away... in June!
6/6/11 Hike for 15 miles. Sleep for 8 hours. Simple enough, except when it isn't. Gaining the top of the Mogollon Rim this morning, leaning bodily into the 70 mph wind gusts buffeting me, I gazed south across the rugged miles, a pine green carpet below my doorstep, the sky immaculately blue as ever in June. After retreating to the sheltering woods for lunch, I reemerged, by chance turned an eye skyward, and beheld a billow of smoke rising above the treetops not more than a mile away. A new fire start. Wildfire! The wind blowing toward my intended path, the only option was to retreat leeward back down the Rim, watch and wait. Miles aborted in the name of safety. I settled in for a leisurely evening in camp, until a raccoon settled upon my food bag - 2am - ripped it to shreds, then tore off through the forest, irate hiker in hot pursuit. The masked marauder returned no fewer than 4 times to my now heavily guarded camp, before audibly sighing in defeat, moments before sunrise. Food saved, sleep lost.
New fire start less than a mile from my location near General Spring Cabin atop the Rim.
Leavings of my raccoon-mauled food bag.
General Springs Cabin
6/7/11 Deja Vu atop the Rim this morning. Fire extinguished, all systems go for the big push back to Flagstaff. Beyond General Springs Cabin the AZ Trail co-opts the Fred Haught Trail for a spell, part of the "Cabin Loop" network of trails that wind through the picturesque forest of mixed conifers that grows at the well-watered southernmost edge of the Mogollon Plateau, a swirl of dreamscape sandstone and sandy creekside trail tread underfoot. Farther along the familiar lava makes its return and with it more droughty conditions, hard luck tanks for drinking water. East Clear Creek was even dry (photo), never to be mistaken for the majestic gorge of West Clear. A group of two dozen scouts were out for a few days' backpack, several overheard to shriek in horror at the sight of a bone dry wash where a running stream and good camping prospects had been promised them for the evening.
6/8/11 Mile after mile across the "pine desert" today, this the nation's largest expanse of ponderosa forest, always inviting and charming through fresh eyes, yet by and by its monotony and lack of complexity are revealed, especially when experienced at a walking pace. Pretty but comparatively barren, mostly viewless. And where are the elk at this time of year? I caught but a fleeting glimpse of a lone adult today, when 7 years ago, on my AZ Trail thru-hike, April of 2004, the elk had been running in large herds at every turn it seemed. It's also worth noting that the trail continues to be routed on dirt roads, far too many of them, any built trail serving mostly as a means of connecting to the next roadwalk. A National Scenic Trail deserves better, and one can only hope that funding and interest will both come into alignment.
6/9/11 Ridin' on in to Mormon Lake Village. Yah, mule! 15 miles by noon, accommodating the PO & its offbeat hours of operation. All businesses in this little town (pop. 50 to 5000 reads the sign at town limits) are packed in along an Old West style boardwalk, a sort of miniature Tombstone on the prairie, which the grassland periphery of Mormon Lake itself does somewhat resemble. 7 years ago, during a snowstorm in April, the place was boarded up tight, no signs of life. Today the lodge, restaurant, saloon, and general store were alive & well, if a bit light on customers. I did my best to occupy the space, dining big, a plate alongside each elbow. Lunch & dinner were both sumptuous in a manner unbefitting the frank environs. In full: Sliced ahi tuna spinach salad with dried cranberries, portobello burger & steak fries, salmon with chopped walnut topping, baked potato, steamed zucchini side, cowboy beans, dinner salad, and a whole loaf of buttered pumpernickel.
6/10/11 The Arizona Trail is startlingly little-used in this region, especially for high season as now, sunny skies, pleasantly warm, verdant from passable winter moisture. Nearing Flagstaff and the hubbub of outlier byways, nevertheless I shared the trail today with one equestrian and one mountain biker, precisely no one else. The flat terrain, endless forest, lack of loop trails must keep most bipedal types at bay. Viewless forest no more, however, with meadow-framed vistas revealing Humphreys Peak drawing ever nearer, the final destination and actually the first mountain to be climbed on this Rim-and-canyon dominated journey. Trail magic at a roadside campground this evening, a paper bag containing 2 apples & a banana. "You look like you could use it is all," she explained. The miles must be taking their usual toll on outward appearances!
Upper Lake Mary and Mormon Mtn from Anderson Mesa
Prime Lake frames Humphreys Peak, the final destination and the first actual mountain to be climbed on this rim-and-canyon dominated journey.
6/11/11 Up along Anderson Mesa this morning, a plateau atop the plateau. Lake-dotted, if only seasonally. Volcanic in origin, as always in these parts. 7 years back, another in a string of wet days had rendered the ashy soil bog-like, each forward step an accumulation of ever more tenacious boot-sole mud until, heavy to the breaking point, it would slough away in a grand thud, making way for more of the same, that I was forced to retreat, roadwalking into Flagstaff via asphalt. It was nice to experience the mesa without the muck this go-round. A herd of elk passed by, a dozen strong, young-of-the-year trumpeting soprano, assuring mom of their whereabouts. Exploring in Walnut Canyon (photo) late in the day, discovered a striking little cave wedged out of the sandstone at trailside, contortions and grins in the company of some likeminded locals.
Photos and captions powered by El Sol. In this climate, at this time of year, this particular solar charger can fully power up a dead smartphone battery in under 2 hours.
6/12/11 No thru-trip of Walnut Canyon after all. No drinking water and no obvious way out, my conclusions after consulting with locals and seeing the place first-hand. This journey, like any that pursues novelties for the sake of having a unique adventure, is a game of give and take with nature. We have our ideas, and she tells us which are worth keeping and which to throw away. Or which to keep for later, under different circumstances, with sounder preparations. And so the list grows longer. (I'll be back.) The Arizona Trail so-called "equestrian bypass" around Flagstaff was an enjoyable consolation prize, though. Good cliffhanger views from above, peering into the depths of Walnut Canyon. And plenty of built trail (photo), winding through the pines, then a foray with pinyon and juniper, Route 66 and the BNSF railroad line, big peaks drawing near. The cicadas are out, squealing away from the branches, heart-stopping as a rattlesnake's buzzing tail.
6/13/11 Trainspotting and errand-running on the east end of Flagstaff, hunting and gathering at [well-known big box retailer] for the final push, the last heave, the penultimate perambulation across the castellated wilds (background photo). Only then will the journey be done. The Arizona Trail equestrian bypass offers easy access to this part of town. Most hiker services are here or within range of the city bus line. And the trail experience itself is qualitatively better along the bypass, rendering the "main AZ Trail" / "resupply route" deliberately spanning the city without obvious advantage. Hopefully more hikers will consider the path less traveled. You'll see Flagstaff either way, but as a side trip to its outskirts won't be overwhelmed by it.
6/14/11 Ascended the Heart Trail to Little Elden Mountain, then back down the Sunset Trail, 3000 feet of (scenic) elevation change in order to avoid this part of the Arizona Trail equestrian bypass, closed since the large Schultz Fire of 2010 (but reportedly now reopened, as I learned belatedly today). Two thousand feet of additional climbing were reserved for the afternoon's labor, now at last making progress along the slopes of San Francisco Mountain, the Kachina Trail winding clockwise through meadows resplendent with bracken ferns and copses of mature aspen (photo). This, too, is not the Arizona Trail, but runs higher on the mountain and is more impressive and also more difficult. Fully spent, I arrived at the Snowbowl ski lodge, sundown and out of water, only to gain the sympathies of some vacationing Australian blokes inexplicably hanging out behind locked doors. Faucets provided, hiker furiously filling bottles amidst an interrogation of curious onlookers with heavy accents.
6/15/11 Onward and upward to the roof of Arizona, Humphreys Peak, at 12,600' above sea level still a vertical mile or more above the Colorado Plateau from which it rises. Ascending through old growth spruce-fir forest and 1000 year old bristlecone pines, I emerged upon a saddle of scree and remnant snowpack overlooking the aptly-named Inner Basin, my first time here on the flanks of this weathered volcano, first encounter above treeline in the state. The summit was still a ragged mile above and beyond, the way harsh over fractured rocks, well-worn by a daily army of visitors, ever-present as always at this time of year. The moment was pure elation, but swarms of mobbing insects kept summit photos appropriately brief. More protracted was the ensuing descent. Weatherford Trail, the circle route, lay covered in a heavy mantle of snow in places, sidehill traversing a la early summer Sierra Nevada. Geology touched by glaciers of the past. Solitude on this arduous route of descent. Remarkable. Unexpected. Arizona!
6/16/11 (Photo: The front-facing lens on the iPhone in all its glory.) Finished back in Flagstaff today, or more accurately at Sinclair Wash south of town, a port of call along the "FUTS" and the point at which I successfully closed the loop. Plenty of company in these parts, from the caravans of mountain bikes along Schultz Creek, to shutterbug college students at Buffalo Park, gateway to the mountains from the city. And of course the city itself, the Arizona Trail anonymously branded along sidewalks in places, imbuing the 'hiker hobo' vibe upon all who trudge, dusty and worn by the miles. The bustle is a manageable one. The town is small, defined by its surroundings, its occupants well-focused on them, here for a reason. Flagstaff is the main staging ground for adventure in this region, blessed by the Coconino National Forest and all it has to offer. As a visitor to this part of Arizona, it's been an honor to share for a few weeks what the locals call home.
I know. I promised the Sigma DP series. Chalk it up to a last-minute wardrobe malfunction. The DP-1 had a sensor problem, back to Amazon with that one. The DP-2 was fine, beautiful in fact, but not to use over the course of a long hike. Sigma has a long, long way to go before the DP series is ready for a mainstream audience. Even for a devout fan these cameras are a nightmare to use. Everything you may have read about them is true and then some. No sane individual would ever become comfortably resigned to use one all day long for weeks on end.
summit of Humphreys Peak
cloudburst over Schultz Tank, San Francisco Mtns
(image appears as-recorded)
One of Arizona's last, best boreal forests, mere feet from the Snowbowl ski complex and related construction (water pipeline for snowmaking).
Soundtrack courtesy of hermit thrush, winter wren (?), and Clark's nutcracker.
Snowpack at 10.5k, along the Weatherford Trail, San Francisco Mountain, June 15 of a severe drought year. (Smoke from the Wallow Fire was visible on the eastern horizon.)
[Feel free to select 720p / HD video over a broadband connection]