Saturday, September 5, 2009

On Foot Part II - Mt. Elden Lookout Trail

All dressed up and nowhere to go - at least not on a road trip. Since my next outing won't be for another couple of weeks, I'll share more of the recreation here in Flagstaff.

Elden Lookout Trail

Of all the trails found in the Dry Lake Hills system, none is more challenging than the Elden Lookout trail. Though it is relatively short in length at 2.5 miles each way, it more than compensates by being unrelentingly steep. Gaining over 2400 feet primarily in the last 1.5 miles, this rocky path climbs up at a steady grade to the summit of Mt. Elden. Hikers looking to prepare for the Grand Canyon will find similar trail conditions here, from the loose rocks of the trail bed to the large boulders and cribbed steps that negotiate the many switchbacks.

This trail is very easy to reach - the trailhead is located right off U.S. Highway 89 at the east end of town. It begins innocently enough about .5 of a mile from the base of the mountain, climbing very gently through a forest of mixed ponderosa, juniper, and scrub oak. From here there are several options for those wanting a less strenuous outing, such as a 2.2 mile round-trip on the Fat Man's Loop, or a longer hike to the west on the Pipeline trail to Buffalo Park. The truly ambitious can arrange a car shuttle for a hike up and over Mt. Elden to the Brookbank, Oldham, or Sunset trails found to the north.

Soon after reaching the basaltic pillars of volcanic rock that form the foundation of the mountain the trail begins a no-nonsense climb up the side. At first the trail ascends a broad talus slope fronting the hill, but as it works its way higher the angle becomes more acute and the switchbacks more frequent.

At nearly a mile in, you reach the junction with the Mt. Elden trail. The Fat Man's Loop continues on along the flank of the mountain for a bit before descending and rejoining the main trail below. The truly committed turn left (north) here.

Because of the southern orientation, the slopes here host vegetation that can endure constant exposure to the southwestern sun. Although rain and snow fall more abundantly here than at lower elevations the geology is porous, and water does not remain on the surface for long. Agave, wax leaf currant, chaparral, and juniper dominate the environment. It is not uncommon to see many small species of reptiles, including the endangered horned lizard.

The trail is rocky to put it mildly. While some energy and effort was made in the construction of the path, in most cases the rock is simply incorporated into the trail. Cribbing is used to form steps in a lot of areas, but even so giant steps are what you'll take coming or going.

As you climb higher and higher, your view of the city below expands to include vistas to the south and east. One notable feature is the Nestle Purina Dog Food Processing Plant. If the wind blows from the south you'll experience the unmistakable aroma of roasting pet food - an acquired taste I can assure you.

At around the 8000 foot elevation mark, ponderosa and fir trees become the primary plant life. The trail itself grinds up and up, with a rare mostly level section on occasion, with even rarer areas of rock-free trail bed.

Finally the trail makes one long switchback to the east, and approaches the edge of the mountain. This long sloping ridge holds a few more twists and turns upwards before finally making the approach to the lookout. The views have gotten steadily better, and the spur looking east opens the panorama up further.

By this time only the sight of the tower ahead is keeping my legs in motion. The upper trail is no less steep for nearing the top, and determination and dried fruit power the final push.

Near the ridge top aspen trees form a welcome green corridor. There is ample evidence of burned trees from the 1977 Radio Fire, and the white barked aspen is often the first generation of life to replenish the once well forested landscape.

Finally the trail tops out on the rocky ridge, revealing open views to the north and the San Francisco Peaks. The lookout tower is a further .2 miles from this point, but I did not continue on this outing as active thunderstorms were still rumbling overhead, and the view is really no better there than from this point.

The ridge also marks the junction with the Sunset trail, which leads over the Dry Lake Hills to many other trails and explorations. For me however, I am content to savor the conquest of this challenging yet rewarding excursion. After all, I need to save some hiking for the next time.

No comments:

Post a Comment