Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Foot Part VII - A.B. Young

Long ago someone noted that "variety is the spice of life", which is a sentiment I can agree with, especially when it comes to having lots of choices for outdoor hiking. And I count myself as truly fortunate, for I live in an area surrounded by public land containing a great deal of diversity in terms of topography, leaving me with no shortage of options.

One of the trails I have at my disposal is called A.B Young (also sometimes referred to as East Pocket Mesa), and it's a great selection for early spring or late fall hiking. Located along U.S. Highway 89A south of Flagstaff in Oak Creek Canyon, this relatively short but steep trail ascends the west side of the canyon above the creek to reach an active fire lookout.

Finding the beginning of the trail can sometimes be a challenge, as it is not signed from the highway. A good starting point is the Bootlegger Day Use Area, which may or may not be open to the public. If the gate is open, you may park here but a Red Rock Pass is required to avoid a citation. If the gates are closed there is just enough room on the east shoulder of the highway across from the picnic area for a couple of vehicles, but be mindful of heavy traffic when getting in and out.

Once you've managed to park your vehicle, walk westward through the picnic area towards the creek bank. A steep descent leads to the clear waters of Oak Creek, which is a beautiful and somewhat rare riparian habitat in the desert. Here trees like sycamore, willow, and ash line a verdant and vibrant zone of life, and year-round water sustains many animals and plants.

Next you must cross the creek, which can be an interesting experience. In spring snowmelt from the Mogollon Rim above can swell the creek significantly, making it impossible to negotiate safely. Even when the flow is less, finding the right combination of boulders to hop across without taking a dunk can take some time as you work your way up or downstream to pick the perfect spot. If you don't mind getting wet, a refreshing dip while wading the creek is also a possibility.

Once you've managed the passage, look for a trail uphill and parallel to the creek and head south for a short distance until you find the actual trail sign - a metal plate with the words "AB Young" cut into the steel. Here begins the initial climb of 1600 feet in just over 1.6 miles.

At first, a mature conifer forest provides welcome shade as the moderately steep path heads up. Soon however the trail emerges into open, shadeless territory populated with manzanita, mountain mahogany, barberry, and other dry climate loving vegetation. The trail is rocky and steep, and there is no respite from the intense sun until the canyon rim above, so avoid this hike in the summer months.

The high desert climate is perfect for cactus plants, and species like prickly pear are frequently spotted along the way. This plant has flowered, and the purplish "pears" growing atop the flat pads are the fruiting stage of life. This succulent, fleshy treat is a favorite food of birds and javelinas, who eat the fruit and later spread the seeds after digestion, allowing the plant to reproduce.

The lack of cover allows for excellent views as the trail climbs higher and higher. The path uses 33 switchbacks to reach the rim, and many hikers will use each one to pause and catch their breath while admiring the scenery.

Closing in on the upper canyon wall, outcroppings of Kaibab limestone begin to appear. They provide a means to gauge the steady uphill progress of the path.

Looking ahead ponderosa pines dominate the skyline, indicating the rim of the canyon. A few more switchbacks will deliver the hiker to the end of the climb. In the meantime, don't forget to stop and admire the local flora, in this case a fruiting manzanita shrub with vivid red berries.

Looking back and down it's easy to see how far the trail has taken you. The highway below is a slender ribbon of traffic, full of cars with people who have no idea a trail even exists above them.

Looking across the canyon reveals that the east side is quite a bit lower than the west side - 700 feet or so. This is the result of faulting that created Oak Creek Canyon.

Finally the crest is reached, and here oak and pine trees create a cool canopy under which to sit while taking in the panorama that extends to the north, east, and south.

After a moments rest, it's time to take up the hike again, this time following the rim of the canyon as it climbs slowly to the south. There are a few good spots to break out of the trees and find a nice rock to sit upon for lunch or just relaxation, although there is still almost 3/4 of a mile to go to reach the lookout.

After contouring along the rim for a bit, the path takes a turn away from the edge towards the west, and into the woods. Even at this relatively high elevation, warm and dry conditions persist, as evidenced by this patch of agave growing amidst the pines.

Climbing a rocky knob, the lookout tower at East Pocket Mesa looms ahead. This active tower at 6700 feet above sea level still serves Coconino National Forest during fire season, and is one of the few remaining all wooden structures in the southwest.

If the lookout is manned, it may be possible to climb the tower via a steep narrow staircase. The platform provides excellent views of the surrounding area, including Wilson Mountain, Munds Mountain, the Verde Valley, and the San Francisco Peaks above Flagstaff.

When I visited last fall, the lookout gave me the 10 cent tour. The interior is somewhat spartan, but the woman on duty made an effort to warm the place up with lots of personal touches. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in the often solitary environment of a fire lookout, and by all indications this individual was a perfect fit.

After a nice visit, it was time to head back down the trail for the return journey. One really great aspect of this hike is having the cool, soothing waters of Oak Creek waiting on the other end. Just the thought of plunging hot, tired feet into the water is enough to quicken my step and make the hike down seem effortless.

No comments:

Post a Comment