Saturday, May 30, 2009

North, Part 1 - The Volcano

I don't want to take anything away from the wonderful places to visit I've already listed, it's just that the farther north you go, the deeper you venture into what I consider the best showcase of geography on the planet. Southern Utah used to bill itself as the "Greatest Earth On Show", and in many ways they win the award hands down. But let's not shortchange the comparable terrain you'll find just up the road from town. And yes, the Grand Canyon is on my list.

U.S. Highway 180

There are two roads leading north out of Flagstaff, and both lead to the Grand Canyon. This is where the similarities end. U.S. Highway 89 departs town from the northeast, and skirts the edge of the Painted Desert into the Navajo Indian Reservation. I'll cover that highway and its attractions in depth later on.

For the most scenic route to the Canyon, I recommend U.S. Highway 180. This route contours around the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks, eventually reaching just over 8000 feet in elevation. The road passes through towering stands of ponderosa and aspen forest before dropping into the pinyon-juniper environment found around 6000 feet. The only caution is that during winter U.S. 180 can be slick, icy, and possibly closed due to drifting snow, where Highway 89 typically is not.

Arizona Snowbowl Ski and Summer Resort

7 miles up the highway from town, you'll reach the turnoff to the Arizona Snowbowl. The Snowbowl is one of 4 ski areas that exist in Arizona, and is one of the nation's oldest, having begun operations in 1938. Located high on the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks, the area offers great winter and summer recreation opportunities. In winter skiers and snowboarders enjoy an average 260 inches of dry southwest powder on over 32 runs with an overall vertical rise of 2300 feet. In summer the area offers scenic chairlift rides on the main lift, where at the top you can view outstanding panoramas of much of northern Arizona from 11,500 feet. Just taking the drive up Snowbowl Road (7 miles each way) to the area is worthwhile, especially in fall as aspen trees turn rich yellow and orange colors against the somber green backdrop of fir, spruce, and pine.

Hiking the Peaks

For those hardy souls looking to "bag" Arizona's tallest mountain, the Humprey's Peak trail is the ticket. At 4.5 miles and over 3200 feet elevation change each way, you'll know what kind of shape you're in pretty quickly. The trail begins easily enough as it switchbacks through mixed conifers and aspens down low, but even so you'll feel the lack of oxygen. Just below the saddle, you'll be huffing and puffing as you switch into "mountain goat gear" to negotiate the loose volcanic soil above treeline. When you reach the summit, you'll be rewarded with outstanding views across much of the area, including the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. A cautionary note: During the summer thunderstorm season (typically July to early September), hikers are advised to get an early start, and be below treeline before the lightning starts.

If you want to experience the beauty of the Peaks with a lot less effort, then you should check out the Kachina Peaks trail. Where other trails make for the ridges or summit of the mountain, the Kachina trail traverses in a gently rolling fashion across the southern flanks of the Peaks, through small open meadows, lush aspen groves, and mixed conifer forests. Here the destination (5 miles each way) is not nearly as important as the journey, and makes for a great day outing.

Lava River Cave

The entire region surrounding Flagstaff was once the scene of frequent vulcanism, with the Peaks being the largest remnant of this history. Another very cool (literally) feature of this geologically hot period is the Lava River Cave, a mile long magma tube where intrepid hikers can experience utter darkness and the kind of complete quiet found only deep underground. A flashlight (an extra is always a good idea!), good walking shoes, and warm clothing are essential to enjoy this subterranean wonder. To get there, drive 9 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. 180 and turn west (left)on F.R. 245 at milepost 230. Continue 3 miles to F.R. 171 and turn south 1 mile to where F.R. 171B turns left into the parking area.

Red Canyon Geological Area

25 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. Highway 180, you'll find a very unusual and visually appealing landmark - Red Canyon Volcano. Red Canyon is a cutaway model of a cinder cone, where the side of the mountain has been sliced off, exposing the heart of the volcano. A short hike leads into the interior, and a visitor could be excused for thinking they had stumbled into a miniature version of Bryce Canyon. Rock pillars and fluted columns grace the wall of an amphitheater like setting. This feature makes a great short day hike on the way to Grand Canyon. Located 25 miles northwest of Flagstaff, at milepost 247 on U.S. Highway 180

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