Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On Foot Part III - Brookbank Trail

If I haven't got a trip planned during my days off, I'm usually making the most of my time by wearing out my hiking shoes. As mentioned before, the area around Flagstaff has many trails of varying difficulty to explore. Right now I'm covering some favorites which also happen to be easy to access, in the Dry Lake Hills just a few miles from home.

Before I share the next installment in this "footloose" adventure, I would be remiss if I did not mention the excellent map I use to navigate the labyrinth of trails located around me. It's called simply enough Flagstaff Trails Map, and it was compiled by Emmitt Barks Cartography. For years I walked better known paths, and then one day came across this guide in a local bookstore. Since then I've discovered a number of new trails thanks to this excellent resource .

Printed on durable and waterproof plastic, the map (a portion of it is pictured above) has excellent features including elevation profiles, mileages, and descriptions. I highly recommend it for hikers and map junkies alike, both categories into which I fall.

Brookbank Trail

Like so many trails in the Dry Lake Hills, Brookbank Trail can either be walked as a standalone outing or incorporated into a loop - it really depends on how far you want to go. Also like other trails in the area, it follows an old road so the grade is not too steep, even though a few sections of prolonged "up" will leave you breathing harder than usual.

The name Brookbank is somewhat misleading, as there are no brooks to be found in this region. The volcanic geology of the area has created a porous and permeable surface layer which greedily absorbs all water, leaving no trace on the ground. Only during sustained heavy downpours or in spring with sudden snowmelt do any of the ravines and drainages run with water, and then only ephemerally.

The trailhead is located a few miles up Elden Lookout Road - see the previous entry titled "On Foot" for how to get there. I usually prefer to park at the Lower Oldham/Rocky Ridge trailhead just .2 mile south. Vehicle space is limited at Brookbank, and given the opportunity I try to avoid any more bouncing around on this rough and rocky road than I have to.

The trail starts west up a gradual and stony slope that roughly parallels a drainage. In the sunny open areas ponderosa pine and gambel oak dominate the landscape, while several species of fir linger in cool and shady folds of the canyon. Rocks and boulders of varying sizes and shapes dot the slopes and gullies, many wearing pale green coats of lichen.

The path crosses a dry streambed then begins to switchback up the southern slope, making several long gradual traverses. At a couple of points the trees give way to framed views of Flagstaff to the south.

For the most part the average hiker will spend more time looking at the tops of their shoes as they grind up the hill, which is o.k. since not many opportunities for panoramic views present themselves on this section of trail. Like just about all of the Dry Lake Hills paths, Brookbank is intent on reaching the summit and it climbs steadily up to reach that goal.

Just before reaching the top the trail splits. The path continuing west comprises the Schultz Loop, while Brookbank goes north. On this trip I'll follow Brookbank for another mile or so, then return to this area to explore more of the Dry Lake Hills.

Once the trail stops climbing it begins a gentle traverse around the north side of the hills. Cooler, wetter micro-climate dynamics influence vegetation here, and fir, aspen, and spruce dominate the plant community. Here also the trail tread is less rocky, with gentle undulations that generally hover at the same elevation - about 8400 feet.

There are also great views along the trail to the north, looking over Schultz Pass and the San Francisco Peaks.

As Brookbank meanders to the east and its junction with the Sunset trail, several small meadows appear on the saddle between hills before the trail crosses over to the south side, where it again traverses just below the crest. At Sunset, hikers can elect to turn back west towards Schultz Tank, continue on east to Upper Oldham for a loop hike, or use a car shuttle to descend Mt. Elden. The many possibilities are what makes the Dry Lake Hills trails system so enjoyable.

Just above where the two trails diverge, a large open meadow holds the only surface water for miles, making it a favorite place for wildlife. Mule deer, elk, coyote, bobcat, black bear and mountain lion are the larger game animals found here, as well as many species of smaller mammals like skunk, fox, raccoon, and squirrel.

An unmarked trail in the meadow branches to the south, and leads for nearly a mile through grasses and native flowers to an overlook of Flagstaff.

After soaking up the peaceful serenity of the overlook, it's time to head back down. As I leave the meadow and begin the descent, bracken fern line the trail. A few plants are already turning brown, heralding the end of another summer in the high country. Fall is around the corner, and the cooler air, clear blue skies, and colorful foliage provide even more excuses to get out and enjoy the landscape.

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