Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On Foot Part XII - The Weatherford Trail

After living and recreating in and around Flagstaff, Arizona for nearly 20 years there are still a few places in my backyard I had yet to visit. One of these is the Weatherford Trail, which ascends the south flank of the San Francisco Peaks and connects to other routes exploring the Inner Basin and the highest point in the state, Humphrey's Peak.

The Weatherford has an interesting history, beginning as one man's dream of a toll road to the summit in 1916. The automobile was still somewhat of a novelty at the time, and people were constantly testing the limits of the new "horseless carriage" to see where it could take them. Envisioned as a tourist attraction by local Flagstaff entrepreneur John Weatherford, the road eventually made it to Fremont Saddle, but was ultimately abandoned in 1934 as maintenance costs and lack of revenue forced the San Francisco Mountain Scenic Boulevard Company out of business.

Today the route serves as a long and gradual path for hikers and horse riders to visit an area of the mountain relatively few people see, and provides access to a variety of trails that can be done as an "in and out" or as part of a long circumnavigation of the Peaks. This post focuses on the nearly 13 mile round-trip from the trailhead on Shultz Pass Road to Doyle Saddle and back.

Beginning at the parking area south of Schultz Pass Road, the trail immediately heads north, quickly crossing a natural gas pipeline. The first .5 mile of the hike is characterized by dense thickets of ponderosa pine also known as "dog hair", which are small trees growing in close proximity to one another. These unhealthy stands of immature trees are endemic to many areas of the forest, and represent years of poor management practices by humans.

As the trail climbs gradually towards the mountains the scenery improves markedly, featuring occasional open meadows flanked by mature ponderosa trees that present a park-like setting. Scientists who study the pre-settlement ecosystem believe this is a more realistic representation of how the environment appeared before fire suppression, the introduction of domestic livestock, and widespread logging of the landscape created the conditions we see today.

Not long afterwards white-barked aspens line both sides of the trail, forming a colonnade where the slightest breeze sets the leafy green rafters rustling in a gentle and soothing whisper.

Every so often a void opens up ahead, offering views of the Peaks themselves. At just over 12,500 feet, both Agassiz and Humphrey's peaks tower over everything else in northern Arizona, and harbor the only true alpine habitat in the state.

Because of extensive timber harvesting in the past, not many of these "yellow-bellies" exist today. Beautiful and stately, old growth ponderosa pines can live several hundreds of years and reach heights of 150 feet or more. At maturity the bark is a yellowish-reddish color, and at this point the tree is exceptionally resistant to fire, except where dense undergrowth exists that promote crown fires.

At about the 1.7 mile mark the Kachina Trail intersects the Weatherford from the west. This long and relatively level trail girdles the south - southwestern slopes of the Peaks and forms one section of a possible loop hike.

Shortly after the junction the trail enters the Kachina Peaks Wilderness proper, where only human or horse legs can power you to the summit. Created in 1984, the Wilderness preserves nearly 19,000 acres of high altitude habitat that is exceedingly rare in the desert southwest.

Having reached the point where the mountain begins to rise dramatically from the gently sloping terrain at its base, the trail now begins a series of long switchbacks to achieve the saddle. Although the grade seems very slight, do not be deceived. Beginning at 8000 feet near Schultz Pass and ending at 10,800 above sea level this hike will leave those unaccustomed to high elevation hiking feeling a bit winded.

One thing I find quite curious is the existence of horned lizards in a sub-alpine environment. As reptiles it's hard to imagine they'd do well in this climate, but not only do they seem to thrive at altitude they do so in abundance. I have seen many of these spiny creatures sunning themselves on the trail where winter snowfall often exceeds several feet in depth, so they must have a trick or two under their scales.

Although we're well into the hike at this point there are two things I should mention about the Weatherford Trail. First the positive. This is an outstanding fall color hike, with expansive views of aspen groves interwoven into somber evergreen slopes. When cool crisp days with electric blue skies feature blazing gold and orange color splashed on a canvas of dark green it's sure to be a memorable experience.

Second is the not so great news. This is by and large the rockiest trail of all the area hikes I've done. I don't meant large rocks embedded in the ground creating an uneven surface. No, what I'm referring to are tens of millions of volcanic clinkers ranging in size from small pebbles to grapefruit, loose and unconsolidated and filling the trail bed from side side for long stretches. If this sort of thing annoys you it's probably best to stay away.

For my part I'm not especially fond of rocky trails, but being outdoors in beautiful environments is my thing, and if I have to stumble around and pick my way oh-so-carefully to get where I'm going then so be it. But I will say that as a "head down full-tilt" hiker, the Weatherford is frustrating because it seems impossible to get any sort of stride or rhythm going due to the ridiculous number of rocks. So, you've been warned.

Once the climb begins in earnest, there's not much to see as the trail engages in several very long and unremarkable switchbacks. The forest here is old growth sub-alpine timber, consisting mostly of Douglas Fir ,Corkbark Fir, and Limber Pine dominating a gloomy understory. There is also a good deal of deadfall across the trail, although not so much as to be arduous. And did I mention there were a lot of rocks?

To be sure there are highlights as the path breaks into the open from time to time, revealing tree clad pinnacles supporting the expanse of sky.

After what seems to be just short of forever, the saddle finally looms ahead. A last rocky switchback leads to an open platform suspended between Fremont and Doyle Peaks. From here can be seen the last remnants of winter snow clinging to chutes and crevices of the Inner Basin.

The Weatherford continues on from here, at first staying nearly level for a mile before intersecting with the Inner Basin Trail. It then begins a steady climb to near 12,000 feet where it joins the Humphrey's Peak Trail ascending the western flank of the mountain.

Speaking of Humphrey's Peak, here is a view of the "backside". At 12,633 feet Humphrey's is the highest point in Arizona.

This view shows Fremont Peak in the foreground at just under 12,000 feet, with the summit of Agassiz looming beyond. At 12,345 Agassiz is the second tallest in the range and the state.

This closeup shows the treeless upper reaches of Agassiz and long zig-zag switchbacks of the Weatherford as it climbs to the saddle between the peaks.

Doyle Saddle is frequently windswept as the mountain funnels upper air currents over and through the passes. Anyone making a overnight journey across the range will appreciate this simple yet effective windbreak - a good place to pitch a tent and have some measure of shelter against the elements.

Many times the journey is what compels the traveler to make the trip, while in other cases the destination provides the motivation. Although I can't say I really enjoyed the rockier sections of the trail, there is certainly enough beauty and serenity here to distract from the minor annoyance of a few stones in the path.

In this instance you get the best of both worlds - a scenic and peaceful walk in the wilderness of Arizona's highest mountains, and a bird's eye view of the "other" side of the Peaks. That should be more than enough reason to get your feet moving up the trail.

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