Arizona Trail, Day 20: Passage 34, San Francisco Peaks (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 26)

Slow start. I overslept by 15 minutes past sunrise, but the views atop Missouri Bill are fantastic – all the way to the North Rim, the Navajo and Hopi Nations, and the San Francisco Peaks. Small alpine plants are blooming, too.

North panorama atop Missouri Bill Hill in the Coconino National Forest. View over the Navajo Nation, Hopi Mesas, and the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Center distance is the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Wildflowers atop Missouri Bill Hill in the San Francisco Volcanic Field.
Wildflowers atop Missouri Bill Hill in the San Francisco Field along the Arizona Trail
West panorama from atop Missouri Bill Hill along the Arizona Trail in the Coconino National Forest, including the San Francisco Peaks and Volcanic Field.
Cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field from atop Missouri Bill Hill in the Coconino National Forest
Cholla cactus on Missouri Bill Hill in the Coconino National Forest

For those who didn’t see my last post, another note about the San Francisco Peaks. They are the highest peaks in Arizona today, including Humphreys at 12633 and Agassiz at 12360 ft. They are a product of a volcanic hotspot under northern Arizona that formed what we know of today as the San Francisco Volcanic Field, a cluster of lava fields, around 600 cinder cones, and lava domes surrounding Flagstaff. The most prominent feature are the Peaks, an extinct stratovolcano complex. San Francisco Mountain erupted around 400,000 years ago in a lateral blast (think Mt St. Helens). The eruption carved a hole in the northeast side of the mountain and is estimated to have lowered the height of the mountain by approximately 6000 ft. At an estimated height around 18000 ft prior to the eruption, had the eruption not taken place it would be the highest peak in the continental United States today. The view from the top reaches into Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico at a minimum. I’m not sure if you can see the southwest corner of Colorado. The most recent eruption in the San Francisco volcanic field was Sunset Crater, now contained within Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and probably one of the most unexpected places for many visitors in the United States where one can walk on and get a hands-on experience with lava. Sunset Crater last erupted around 1085 AD, meaning there is human documentation of the event from native people.

I head back down and south along the AZT, encountering a European couple heading nobo, fnishing what they started in the spring (apparently they bailed when they ran into a blizzard in Flagstaff in April), and yet another friendly camper. The ecosystems change again, from pinyon-juniper to sparse ponderosa. These also seem affected by dwarf mistletoe, and it’s obvious a prescribed burn or wildfire has come through.

The Arizona Trail approaches the San Francisco Peaks, lit up by aspens in fall foliage on their slopes. The center of this view of the Peaks is the area that was blown out by its last eruption. Humphreys Peak on the right, 12633 ft, is the highest in Arizona. Coconino National Forest, Arizona.
The Arizona Trail crosses back from pinyon-juniper into ponderosa forest in the Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail crosses back from pinyon-juniper into ponderosa forest in the Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail heads through ponderosa pines toward the San Francisco Peaks in the Coconino National Forest
Ponderosa pines amid golden rice grass along the Arizona Trail in the Coconino National Forest

A gorgeous view of the peaks with aspen on their middle flanks appears, an irressistible photo op. After a brief retracing of steps for my camp light, it is on to Kelly Tank, encountering a strung-out group of hikers from Maine, South Carolina, and Washington. We talk and fill up on water, me providing recommendations for Grand Canyon & Flagstaff.

Rice grass meadows among the ponderosa pines and mighty San Francisco Peaks lit by aspens. Humphreys Peak, right, is the highest in Arizona at 12633 ft. Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest.
Rice grass meadows among the ponderosa pines and mighty San Francisco Peaks lit by aspens. Humphreys Peak (12633) is on the right, highest in Arizona. Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest.

Then it is on through the glowing light beams through the ponderosa, on to camp among the aspens at around 8300 ft, and the discovery of the largest, most painless blister I’ve ever had. Unsurprisingly, right around a spot I’ve been trying to treat for possible fungal infection. Maybe a connection there? Also, everything around – grasses, ferns – totally browned out from the dry summer.

Another skeleton, showing the harsh reality of the area despite its beauty on fall evenings.
Sunset light ignites the tip of ponderosas on the lower slopes of the San Francisco Peaks.
Cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field aglow in evening light. Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest

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