Thursday, September 27, 2012

On Foot Part XIV - Making the Connection: Dry Lake Hills Loop No. 1

Trailhead map showing closeup of Dry Lake Hills Loop #1
Quality of life is certainly a very subjective concept, and it varies widely from person to person. In my case what makes the difference is the environment that surrounds me. I am fortunate indeed that the community I call home is located in a beautiful natural setting, and more importantly that many opportunities for recreation exist just beyond my front door.

In previous posts I have documented some of the many hiking trails found within a short distance of Flagstaff, and the area that offers the closest and most varied catalog is known as the Dry Lake Hills. This self contained region lies to the south of the larger San Francisco Peaks, creating somewhat of a buffer zone between the high alpine mountain and the bustling city below. Here you'll find long ridgelines and steep escarpments where trails criss-cross pine clad hills rising 1000 feet and more over the surrounding terrain.

Many trails in the Dry Lake Hills work well as stand alone hikes and are rewarding enough to be experienced as "out and back" adventures. For those seeking to cover additional ground or for more variety, the proliferation of routes makes it possible to create a wide array of loop hikes. In this post I'm detailing one of the many options available, and in the future I'll present a couple more.

 The Mt. Elden - Sunset - Heart - Christmas Tree Loop

This particular loop uses 4 different trails that together constitute a trip just over 8 miles in total. Hikers completing this circuit will encounter a surprisingly diverse range of environments, with a mixture of high desert plants, ponderosa pine, aspen, and spruce inhabiting microclimates that reflect not only elevation but orientation to the sun.

Through it all the geology is composed of dacitic lava, with a few remnant sections of the sedimentary rock that was lifted and shunted aside when the upwelling of volcanic material occurred. The steep relief of much of the topography is a testament to both the erosion resistant qualities of dacite and the relatively short time period it took to create the mountain.

Loop hikes start with a choice: which direction should you go? In my case I am rather fond of steep rocky trails, so I elect to begin with the hard part, taking a clockwise direction with an immediate ascent of the Mt. Elden Lookout Trail. This 2.6 mile calf buster climbs the southern aspect of Mt. Elden in a more or less zig-zag fashion, attaining over 2300 feet in elevation gain along the way.

Mt. Elden trailhead

Although certainly challenging from a physical standpoint, once you reach the trail junction just below the lookout the hike becomes much less arduous, and with the exception of a 2 mile descent down a different rocky trail the remainder of the route is a pleasant and scenic ramble.

Sunset - Mt. Elden trail junction

Of course if you've still got some juice left in your legs upon reaching the junction, it's not too much of a detour to make the .2 miles to the lookout for some great views over the city and a closer look at the man-made forest of communications equipment installed on this lofty perch.

The Elden trail portion is located on the south facing side of the mountain, and as such receives full sunlight. This makes for a generally warmer and drier climate, and is reflected in the types of vegetation that populates the slope. When you make the transition to the north aspected Sunset Trail, the difference is dramatic and sudden.

In 1977 the human caused Radio Fire swept much of this area completely, denuding the slopes of trees. Despite the initial devastation the healing power of time has allowed for some recovery. At this elevation and latitude the first trees to reappear were the aspens, which along with other shrubby plants have begun the long process of rehabilitation.

The Sunset trail begins with a long, somewhat level traverse on the north side of Mt. Elden, eventually emerging onto a slender ridge connecting the main body of the mountain with the rest of the Dry Lake Hills. I really enjoy the Sunset trail for many different reasons, but particularly for the beautiful and vibrant color splashed across the mountain in fall.

Looking back on the Sunset trail towards Mt. Elden

Once on the airy, open ridge views to north include the tallest mountain in Arizona, the San Francisco Peaks.

The ridge served as a natural firebreak during the Radio blaze, and many of the trees at the top were spared. Here the path follows along the spine, dropping slightly in elevation as it nears the next waypoint.

After an easy mile of walking, the Sunset trail meets up with the junction of the Upper Oldham trail.

The intersection represents just one of the many loop possibilities found throughout the Dry Lake Hills trail system. For now we continue straight ahead, at first staying near the crest before dropping just below on the eastern face.

This scenic half mile segment offers the best view east over the outlying communities of Doney Park and Timberline, and beyond into the hazy brown and pink of the Painted Desert on the horizon. While enjoying the scenery, hikers should be aware that mountain bikes are permitted on the Sunset trail, and this downhill section has become fairly popular with riders.

As the Sunset trail makes a sudden turn to the west and downhill, the next section in this loop portfolio appears on the east side - the Heart Trail

Dropping quickly below the level of Sunset, the descent on the Heart Trail appears loose and rocky - which it is for at least the first few hundred yards. Soon however the path levels out enough to allow for looking up instead of carefully negotiating the steep, debris filled pitch.

One result of the 1977 fire was the removal of trees and shrubs which masked some of the more unusual rock pillars and outcroppings on this face of the mountain. Although the extent of revegetation is not as extensive in other places, enough has grown in to soften the contours of the jagged and harsh foundation that lies underneath.

Heart trail follows a descending ridge for the most part, making long graceful switchbacks through open air. Although the grade is moderate overall, a few places on this upper section feature enough of an incline with lots of rocks to warrant special attention.  Even so hikers have ample opportunity to take in expansive views as they make their way to the valley below.

The lower sections of Heart trail are characterized by frequent stands of Gambel or scrub oak, growing in family clusters.

The further down you go the more rocky the path becomes, requiring more attention to placement of the feet.

Much of the rubble is metamorphic in origin, but some of it springs from the few visible surface layers of sedimentary rock that once covered the entire region. Here is a rare outcropping of red sandstone seen along the way.

Nearing the base of the mountain the route becomes more brushy as it levels out, and isolated stands of ponderosa pine appear. Gradually the chunky red rock underfoot disappears to be replaced by sandy, white soil.

My only complaint about this otherwise excellent hike is that at the point where the Heart trail meets the Sandy Seep and Christmas Tree trails no signs exist to mark the junction. Anyone unfamiliar with the territory could easily take an errant turn and wind up heading the wrong direction. Just so you know - the correct answer is turn right onto the Christmas Tree trail.

The not-so-obvious and unmarked trail junction

At this point you should be heading generally west, contouring around the base of Mt. Elden. The path itself shows a fair amount of traffic and is easy to follow.

Soon the sounds of traffic along the always busy Route 66/U.S. Highway 89 fill the air, and despite the screen of trees it's hard to maintain the illusion of being deep in the forest far away from the trappings of civilization. I suppose this what it feels like to walk in Central Park in downtown Manhattan.

After about 1.5 miles, the Christmas Tree trail we've been traveling meets the easternmost extension of Fat Man's Loop, a circular route which is incorporated into the Elden Lookout trail.

From here it's only a short walk to the junction with Fat Man's Loop and the Mt. Elden Lookout trail, followed by the previously traveled .2 mile back to the trailhead and parking area.

By now you've covered over 8 miles (more if you took any detours like a trip to the lookout) and seen how varied and scenic the country is just on the other side of the hill, so to speak. You've gained and lost nearly a vertical mile in elevation, and probably lost a pound or two in sweat.

What you get in return is up to you, but from my perspective I can tell you the gift of a day in the natural world is one without price - especially if you are fortunate enough to see the sunrise over Mt. Elden like I have.

Sunrise from Mt. Elden

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