Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Foot Part I - Upper Oldham Trail

When I'm not rolling down the highway towards some isolated natural wonder, I'm spending time in my own backyard. I am fortunate to live in an area that offers an incredible variety of hiking trails within a few minutes drive, and I get outside to enjoy the fresh air and scenery as much as possible.

The San Francisco Peaks and surrounding features provide ample hiking opportunities ranging from moderate traverses to steep slogs. The elevations range from 7000 feet above sea level to 12,633 on Mt. Humphrey, so hikers can enjoy a wide diversity of environments. My favorite trails in the area are found in the Dry Lake Hills trail system just north of Flagstaff. This blog entry is an introduction to one of those trails - I'll add more as time allows.

The Dry Lake Hills trails are part of the Peaks Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest - take a look at their recreation website and you'll see just how many different hiking and biking opportunities exist in the area. Anyone who wants to spend time enjoying the great outdoors in a forested mountain setting will have lots to explore.

The Upper Oldham Trail #1

The Oldham Trail actually begins in town at Buffalo Park, a forested regional park at the base of Mt. Elden. Here you can make connections east, west, and south on one of the many trails of the Flagstaff Urban Trail System (FUTS). This outstanding network of trails is a work in progress. It links most of the city and surrounding areas for hikers, joggers, and cyclists and is eventually destined to encompass over 130 miles (currently 49 miles of improved trail exist).

Oldham trail is divided into two sections - the upper and lower. I prefer to hike the upper section, and to get there I need to drive a short distance north on Elden Lookout Road. This rough and rocky dirt road is accessed off U.S. Highway 180 just before it reaches the city limits of Flagstaff on the northwest. The first couple of miles are paved, but the remaining two miles require a high clearance vehicle.

The trailhead is on the right side of the road - the sign in the picture above marks the Lower Oldham and Rocky Ridge trails which also begin here. The trail parallels Elden Lookout Road for the first mile or so, following the course of a normally dry stream bed at the base of rocky cliffs. In about .2 of a mile you reach the beginning of yet another trail in this area, the Brookbank Trail. This fun little track crosses the road and climbs up the hills on the opposite side, leading to even more hiking options.

Continue on the right, following the creek as it steadily climbs up. Here on the north side of the hill, temperatures are cooler as sun exposure is more limited, and the large boulders wear a coat of moss and lichen. Wax Leaf Currant, Bracken Fern, and Red Monkeyflower as well as aspen and fir soften the rocky terrain and provide welcome shade.

Soon the trail reaches the junction with Upper Oldham proper. The direction turns southward up a small canyon. Upper Oldham was once a road leading to the top of Mt. Elden, but it was abandoned long ago in favor of the current approach. The trail is rocky but wide, and shows evidence of runoff from the slopes above after heavy rains.

This section takes a direct approach up the drainage. There are no switchbacks, just a steady climb towards the head of the canyon. Again because of the northern aspect, the vegetation here is a classic example of how microclimates work. Just on the other (south) side of Mt. Elden where sun and terrain work to produce a hotter and drier climate, drought tolerant ponderosa pines dominate the area. On this side however, the relatively protected and slightly wetter canyon shelters fir, spruce, and aspen trees, and in some ways is reminiscent of a northwestern forest.

Near the head of the canyon the trail finally begins a series of switchbacks up the ridge. At times the grade is steep, but overall the ascent is moderate. For the first time you begin to catch glimpses of the surrounding hills, but views are still limited because of tree cover.
After traversing upwards for a while the trail reaches Oldham Park, a grassy meadow. The top and our destination is very near.
After passing the short distance through the meadow, the trail crosses the road. The skyline looms just ahead, and after climbing a short hill the views you've come for are in sight. Here also is the junction with the Sunset Trail, which links to Mt. Elden to the south, and the Brookbank and Schultz Creek trails north and west. There are many loop possibilities for those interested in a longer hike, or if you have a car shuttle you can take in the rugged and steep Mt. Elden trail among others.

Here on the ridge the views to the northeast and east can stretch 100 miles or more on a clear day. Below on the flanks of the mountain you can see evidence of the 1977 Radio Fire, which burned as a result of a careless campfire. Some areas are experiencing a regrowth of aspen, while others remain mostly bare except for shrubs and grasses. The refreshing breeze up here is a welcome sensation after a good workout climbing up. My "do-everything" watch tells me the elevation is 8830 feet, but I know it's just over 8900. Either way it's a great day in the neighborhood.

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