National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

Tonto National Monument lies in the eastern Superstition Mountains of Arizona, east of Phoenix. It’s home to two cliff dwellings. Earlier in the year I visited (2019), both had been threatened and wrapped for protection from the Woodbury Fire, an anthropogenic fire that began at the Woodbury Trailhead in the Superstitions. The Woodbury Fire burned 123,875 acres in the mountains, including 88% of Tonto National Monument, the largest percentage in recorded history. Extreme winter moisture, extreme temperatures, and a delayed summer monsoon contributed to the fire, which burned from roughly June 8th-23rd.

Occupied by a community of the Salado culture (the prehistoric cultural group that lived in Tonto Basin) from the 13th-15th centuries, the cliff dwellings at Tonto were located in a position that offered protection from the elements as well as a rare annual water source in the Salt River. Salado culture was much like America today in that it was a cultural melting pot, the result of Ancestral Puebloan, Ancient Sonoran Desert People, and Mogollon cultures all moving into and intermingling in Tonto Basin. Ancestral Sonoran Desert People were native to areas south of the Basin, while the other two were located in the more mountainous areas to the north. Plants were farmed using water from an ancient spring still running today, and in the Salt River Valley. Salado culture spread throughout the Southwest, and the dwellings seen today are representative of a vast network that mingled various cultures together and ultimately reached from Four Corners to northern Mexico. While the reason for movement into the caves is unknown, both dwellings are built into natural caves. Some construction materials would have been found nearby – rock, sand, saguaro ribs, water, etc; others were brought from the surrounding area, such as juniper and pine wood for beams, both of which could be found in the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains. Stone and adobe form the walls; wood provides support for the roofs and doors. The smaller Lower Cliff Dwelling is about 20 rooms large. 40-60 people would have lived there at its peak. The larger Upper Cliff Dwelling – accessible only by guided tours that were not being offered when I visited – contained approximately 40 rooms, 32 at ground level and 8-10 second story.

IF YOU GO to Tonto National Monument:

  • Hours of Operation
    • 8-5 daily except Christmas Day (museum and visitor center)
    • Entrance to trail to Lower cliff dwelling: 8-4 daily except Christmas Day
    • Currently, only the viewing area is open due to COVID; the visitor center and trails to the cliff dwellings remain closed (the trail to the Upper dwelling is also closed for waterline replacement regardless)
  • Access
    • Lower Cliff Dwelling accessible by self guided tour
    • Upper Cliff Dwelling accessible only by guided tour, offered December-April
  • Trails
    • Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail, 0.5 mi, 350 ft elevation change, approx 1 hr round trip
    • Upper Cliff Dwelling Trail (ranger guided tours only beyond first 0.1 mi or so), 1.5 mi, 600 ft elevation change
  • Things to remember
    • Located at the northern extent of the Sonoran Desert, the heat here from May-September is no joke. If you visit during this period, try and come early (8-10). Take a bottle of water and a hat to provide you with some shade on the ascent to the cliff dwelling. This is particularly true from June-August, when high temperatures routinely top 100 degrees in the desert.
    • Entrance to the trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling closes at 4 PM, though you may remain on the trail until 5.
  • Other Points of Interest in area
    • Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
    • Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
    • Superstition Wilderness (Tonto National Forest)
    • Tonto National Forest
    • Four Peaks Wilderness (Tonto National Forest)
    • Scenic Drive: Apache Trail
    • Lost Dutchman State Park
    • Theodore Roosevelt Lake
    • Scenic Drive: Globe to Show Low
Lower Cliff Dwelling from the visitor center
Tonto National Monument

View out of Cholla Canyon toward Roosevelt Lake, with saguaros lining the canyon wall
Tonto National Monument
Room detail, Lower Cliff Dwelling
Tonto National Monument
Interior detail, Lower Cliff Dwelling
Tonto National Monument
Interior detail, Lower Cliff Dwelling
Tonto National Monument

Smoke-stained walls of the lower cliff dwelling
Tonto National Monument
Lower Cliff Dwelling from trail
Tonto National Monument

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National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Passage 21 (Four Peaks)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack
Length (Mi)19
SeasonMarch-May, September-November
Potential Water SourcesPigeon Spring (Mi 421.6 NB, 421.6 SB)
Bear Spring (mi 400.6 NB, 422.5 SB)
Shake Spring (mi 392.5 NB, 423.4 SB)
Granite Spring (mi 391.5 NB, 431.3 SB)
Buckhorn Creek (mi 390.5 NB, 432.9 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Lone Pine Saddle
South: Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Trailhead AccessNorth: Vehicular access; via graded dirt road
South: Vehicular access (parking at Roosevelt Lake Marina)
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsPhoenix (north end)
Roosevelt Lake Marina (south end)
Farther, Globe and Tonto Basin
ATA-Rated DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Precipitous terrain limits options, but there are some spots around Mills Ridge Trailhead & the Chillicut Trail junction
Ecosystems TraversedArizona Upland
Interior Chaparral
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
Highlights Four Peaks
Views of Tonto Basin & Roosevelt Lake
SOBO, first saguaro appearance on trail
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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 4

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Welcome back to Aspens Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico. Hopefully this wilderness account is helping you get through your coronavirus-related distancing and isolation, and giving you hope for what adventures may yet come in the post-COVID-19 future for you.

Wrapping up at Walnut Canyon National Monument. After finishing up the fantastic Island Trail, the Rim Trail yields some great sites as well, including an unexcavated site and several pueblos. The views of the canyon itself are pretty amazing too. Some kind visitors in the parking lot also give me some snacks when they hear about my attempt to hike across Arizona. One can always trust fellow parkies to help out! All in all, well worth the side trip here. I underestimated this stop and I am now running a little behind schedule, so it is time to head back and pick up the trail toward Flagstaff again.

Archeological site on the rim of Walnut Canyon
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Archeological pueblo on the rim of Walnut Canyon
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
An unexcavated archeological site on the rim of Walnut Canyon. Leaving such sites in place helps preserve the artifacts in as close to natural condition as possible. Walnut Canyon National Monument, one of 22 national parks in Arizona.
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Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)

About the area: Starting in the 1880s, theft and looting became an issue at Walnut Canyon as construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought more people to the region. By 1915, alarm among local citizens led President Wilson to establish Walnut Canyon National Monument, first under the US Forest Service as part of Coconino National Forest, then the National Park Service starting in 1934. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails and buildings, stabilized the walls of various cliff dwellings, and led guided tours. Further expansions of the site in 1938 by President Roosevelt and 1994 by President Clinton added additional stretches of the canyon into the monument, bringing it to its current 3600 acres of protected resources.

Today, Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff. Most are near the Island Trail that rings a peninsula of rock that Walnut Creek bends around, connected to the north rim of a canyon by a narrow ridge of rock, giving the peninsula the appearance of an island. Each room, built under limestone ledges, might have housed a family. The ledges afforded protection from the elements – they kept the dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were also easier to defend against invasion. Prior to building the cliff dwellings, the Sinagua lived and cultivated areas on the rim of the canyon. In a dry, semi-arid landscape – though not as harsh as some found further south – the communities relied on the intermittent flow of water in Walnut Creek for sustenance. It is not clear why the dwellings were abandoned around 1250, but suspected reasons include drought and relations with neighboring tribes. The National Monument also protects natural resources, including 387 species of plants as well as marine fossils remaining from when the area was located under a sea. Views from the canyon rim include the volcanic peaks around Flagstaff, including Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks, as well as landmarks such as Mormon Mountain to the south, all rising out of the extensive ponderosa forest covering the Mogollon Plateau.

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Rim TrailIsland Trail
Type of hikeOut & backLoop
Trail SurfacePaved trailPaved Trail
Length (Mi)0.71
SeasonAll yearAll year. Stairs may get icy in winter. Snowy & icy conditions can lead to closure of the trail.
Major attributesGood view of variety of cliff dwelling structure remains throughout the central portion of Walnut Canyon. Rim-top pueblo.Loop trail providing close-up view of cliff dwellings in inner canyon
Potential Water SourcesWalnut Canyon Visitor CenterWalnut Canyon Visitor Center
TrailheadsVisitor CenterVisitor Center
Trailhead AccessVehicular (paved road)Vehicular (paved road)
WildernessNoNo
DifficultyEasyStrenuous. 185 feet descent into canyon at 7000’ elevation.
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Hiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of parkHiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of park
Ecosystems TraversedRocky Mountain Montane Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Accessible?YesNo
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Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Passage 31 & 33 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 3

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff. Most are near the Island Trail that rings a peninsula of rock that Walnut Creek bends around, connected to the north rim of a canyon by a narrow ridge of rock, giving the peninsula the appearance of an island. Each room, built under limestone ledges, might have housed a family. The ledges afforded protection from the elements – they kept the dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were also easier to defend against invasion. Prior to building the cliff dwellings, the Sinagua lived and cultivated areas on the rim of the canyon. In a dry, semi-arid landscape – though not as harsh as some found further south – the communities relied on the intermittent flow of water in Walnut Creek for sustenance. It is not clear why the dwellings were abandoned around 1250, but suspected reasons include drought and relations with neighboring tribes. National Monument also protects natural resources, including 387 species of plants as well as marine fossils remaining from when the area was located under a sea. Views from the canyon rim include the volcanic peaks around Flagstaff, including Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks, as well as landmarks such as Mormon Mountain to the south, all rising out of the extensive ponderosa forest covering the Mogollon Plateau. 

Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail within Walnut Canyon National Monument (National Park Service-managed, Arizona)
Upper Walnut Canyon within Walnut Canyon National Monument, from the Canyon rim. Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks rise behind in the distance. (National Park Service-managed, Arizona)
Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks (Agassiz and Schultz) from the rim at Walnut Canyon National Monument


Archeological farming areas within Walnut Canyon National Monument (National Park Service-managed, Arizona)
Southward view from the rim of Walnut Canyon National Monument. Mormon Mountain rises in the distance. The “island” of the Island Trail passing many cliff dwellings is the narrow peninsula at right-center. (National Park Service-managed, Arizona)
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Starting in the 1880s, theft and looting became an issue at Walnut Canyon as construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought more people to the region. By 1915, alarm among local citizens led President Wilson to establish Walnut Canyon National Monument, first under the US Forest Service as part of Coconino National Forest, then the National Park Service starting in 1934. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails and buildings, stabilized the walls of various cliff dwellings, and led guided tours. Further expansions of the site in 1938 by President Roosevelt and 1994 by President Clinton added additional stretches of the canyon into the monument, bringing it to its current 3600 acres of protected resources.

Cliff dwellings on the walls of Walnut Canyon within Walnut Canyon National Monument (National Park Service-managed, Arizona). Can you spot the dwellings?
Cliff dwellings on the walls of Walnut Canyon within Walnut Canyon National Monument (National Park Service-managed, Arizona). Can you spot the dwellings?
Southwest panorama of Walnut Canyon, showing the canyon itself, the “Island,” (center-right), Mormon Mountain (distance, left), and Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff (distance, right). Smoke from a fire rises in the distance as well, possibly the one that I observed several days ago from the Peaks.

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Rim TrailIsland Trail
Type of hikeOut & backLoop
Trail SurfacePaved trailPaved Trail
Length (Mi)0.71
SeasonAll yearAll year. Stairs may get icy in winter. Snowy & icy conditions can lead to closure of the trail.
Major attributesGood view of variety of cliff dwelling structure remains throughout the central portion of Walnut Canyon. Rim-top pueblo.Loop trail providing close-up view of cliff dwellings in inner canyon
Potential Water SourcesWalnut Canyon Visitor CenterWalnut Canyon Visitor Center
TrailheadsVisitor CenterVisitor Center
Trailhead AccessVehicular (paved road)Vehicular (paved road)
WildernessNoNo
DifficultyEasyStrenuous. 185 feet descent into canyon at 7000’ elevation.
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Hiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of parkHiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of park
Ecosystems TraversedRocky Mountain Montane Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Accessible?YesNo
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Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Passage 31 & 33 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part II

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument, one of 420 national parks in the National Park System, protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people.

Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Limestone texture on the walls of Walnut Canyon; Walnut Canyon National Monument ((a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)

Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff. Most are near the Island Trail that rings a peninsula of rock that Walnut Creek bends around, connected to the north rim of a canyon by a narrow ridge of rock, giving the peninsula the appearance of an island.

Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)

Prior to building the cliff dwellings, the Sinagua lived and cultivated areas on the rim of the canyon. In a dry, semi-arid landscape – though not as harsh as some found further south – the communities relied on the intermittent flow of water in Walnut Creek for sustenance. It is not clear why the dwellings were abandoned around 1250, but suspected reasons include drought and relations with neighboring tribes. National Monument also protects natural resources, including 387 species of plants as well as marine fossils remaining from when the area was located under a sea.

Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)

Starting in the 1880s, theft and looting became an issue at Walnut Canyon as construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought more people to the region. By 1915, alarm among local citizens led President Wilson to establish Walnut Canyon National Monument, first under the US Forest Service as part of Coconino National Forest, then the National Park Service starting in 1934. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails and buildings, stabilized the walls of various cliff dwellings, and led guided tours. Further expansions of the site in 1938 by President Roosevelt and 1994 by President Clinton added additional stretches of the canyon into the monument, bringing it to its current 3600 acres of protected resources.

Panoramic view of Walnut Canyon from Island Trail in Walnut Canyon National Monument ((a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Unaccessible cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon viewed from Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Unaccessible cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon viewed from Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Upcanyon view of Walnut Canyon from Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Unaccessible cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon viewed from Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 51: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23), Part II

Disruptive event today, an F-16 that flew over while I was packing. It flew extremely low and around a mountain – possibly North Peak – and made me think very seriously about why that would be allowed over a designated wilderness area. Still, I manage to knock out a few miles to Chilson Spring before dark, with spectacular views of Deadman’s Canyon, the Verde Valley, and the western Mazatzal foothills along the way. The mountains are jagged and rugged and the trail traces steep slopes nearly the whole way across precipitous terrain.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

It’s here. The Mazatzal Divide represents the heart of the longest stretch of the Arizona Trail within a designated wilderness area. To that end, a reminder on the meaning of wilderness. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is “an area where man is but a visitor and does not remain.” Consequently, motorized access as … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 47: Red Hills, Part II/II

Second day hiking through the Red Hills toward the Mazatzal Mountains. Earning their name through the red rock colors, the Hills also provide hikers with wildflowers and diverse vegetation, in addition to showing the scars of recent wildfires and spectacular views of the range north toward the Mogollon Rim.

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Rim TrailIsland Trail
Trail SurfacePaved trailPaved Trail
Length (Mi)0.751
SeasonAll yearAll year. Stairs may get icy in winter. Snowy & icy conditions can lead to closure of the trail.
Major attributesGood view of variety of cliff dwelling structure remains throughout the central portion of Walnut CanyonLoop trail providing close-up view of cliff dwellings in inner canyon
Potential Water SourcesWalnut Canyon Visitor CenterWalnut Canyon Visitor Center
TrailheadsVisitor CenterVisitor Center
Trailhead AccessVehicular (paved road)Vehicular (paved road)
WildernessNoNo
DifficultyEasyStrenuous. 185 feet descent into canyon at 7000’.
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Hiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of parkHiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of park
Ecosystems TraversedRocky Mountain Montane Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Accessible?YesNo
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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part I

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff. Most are near the Island Trail that rings a peninsula of rock that Walnut Creek bends around, connected to the north rim of a canyon by a narrow ridge of rock, giving the peninsula the appearance of an island. Each room, built under limestone ledges, might have housed a family. The ledges afforded protection from the elements – they kept the dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were also easier to defend against invasion. Prior to building the cliff dwellings, the Sinagua lived and cultivated areas on the rim of the canyon. In a dry, semi-arid landscape – though not as harsh as some found further south – the communities relied on the intermittent flow of water in Walnut Creek for sustenance. It is not clear why the dwellings were abandoned around 1250, but suspected reasons include drought and relations with neighboring tribes. National Monument also protects natural resources, including 387 species of plants as well as marine fossils remaining from when the area was located under a sea.

Starting in the 1880s, theft and looting became an issue at Walnut Canyon as construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought more people to the region. By 1915, alarm among local citizens led President Wilson to establish Walnut Canyon National Monument, first under the US Forest Service as part of Coconino National Forest, then the National Park Service starting in 1934. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails and buildings, stabilized the walls of various cliff dwellings, and led guided tours. Further expansions of the site in 1938 by President Roosevelt and 1994 by President Clinton added additional stretches of the canyon into the monument, bringing it to its current 3600 acres of protected resources.

View into Walnut Canyon within Walnut Canyon National Monument
View along Walnut Canyon, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Panorama of upper Walnut Canyon from the upper Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail in Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail in Walnut Canyon National Monument

Just What is the Difference Between National Park Service Designations, Anyway?

Zabriskie Point sunrise, Death Valley National Park

It’s National Park Week! As I head toward the next national park on my account of the Arizona Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument, I wanted to stop and address one thing that is the source of a lot of misconceptions and questions about the National Park System.

Just what is the difference between all those national park designations, anyway?

Sunrise, Joshua Tree National Park, California
Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park, California

First, an important observation here. I realize that this is an age where things like nuance and capitalization are treated as irrelevant or unimportant. On this note, such things are often critical, because we are dealing with laws and presidential actions.

Great Fountain Geyser eruption, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

OK, some background. For those who aren’t aware, the National Park System has a variety of designations for its component parks:

National Park
National Monument
National Preserve
National Reserve
National Seashore
National Lakeshore
National River
National River & Reccreation Area
Wild River
Wild and Scenic River
National Scenic River
National Scenic Riverways
Scenic & Recreational River
National Historical Reserve
National Scenic Trail
National Military Park
National Battlefield
National Battlefield Site
National Battlefield Park
National Historical Park
National Historic Site
International Historic Site
National Memorial
National Recreation Area
National Parkways
National Park for the Performing Arts

Fort Point National Historic Site, San Francisco
Linville Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
Big Slackwater, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Whew. That’s quite the list! Just for an added twist, some parks contain multiple designations in one contiguous area. For example, the North Cascades National Park Service Complex includes not only the National Park but also two contiguous National Recreation Areas, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan. More on that to come. Many parks in Alaska and at least one in the lower 48 (Great Sand Dunes) contain both National Parks and Preserves, which each count as two national park units – the Park and the Preserve. There has been discussion about New River Gorge (currently designated a National River) being redesignated as such as well.

Washington Monument, National Mall & Memorial Parks, Washington DC

All of the above designations can be created by an Act of Congress. Congress can name a park anything it wants. It could name a park the National Playground or National Backyard if it wanted. It would be kind of ridicuous, but it could do it.

Now, National Monuments. How about those?

Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
Wildflowers on a rainy day at Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Well, the Antiquities Act of 1906 grants the President the authority to create parks from previously owned public lands, and under the law such sites automatically receive the designation of National Monument regardless of their characteristics. Most are smaller sites, focused on a single resource. A great example of this is Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It primarily protect the cave beneath the surface; the surface area is relatively limited in size. Other examples include areas like the Statue of Liberty.

But, there are some important caveats here! First, as noted, Congress can name a park anything it wants, and at least one National Monument has been created by an Act of Congress, not a Presidential Proclamation under the Antiquities Act – George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument in Virginia.

George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument, Virginia, on a gray President’s Day

Second, not all National Monuments created by Presidential Proclamation are small – some, despite meeting the legal size requirement to be limited in scope to the “proper care and management of the objects to be protected” are larger than some National Parks, partially due to the scale of the landscape and “objects to be protected,” and partially due to recent decisions by Congress to rename two relatively small sites, Gateway Arch and Indiana Dunes, as National Parks. Organ Pipe Cactus and Chiricahua National Monument are both substantially larger than either. (I think the characteristics of both make them better suited to be National Parks, personally, but Congress has not taken action to make that change.)

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

Third, not all National Monuments are managed by the National Park Service. This is important because other land management agencies have different missions, which may be either more multiple use (Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management) or more resource protection (Fish & Wildlife Service) than the Park Service is, which is primarily resource protection with a dose of public recreation and access thrown in to allow the public to experience the protected resources – “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as the Act creating Yellowstone famously proclaimed. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Grand Staircase National Monument, and Gold Butte National Monument are examples of BLM National Monuments. Misty Fjords National Monument in Alaska is an example of a US Forest Service National Monument. Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is joint BLM/USFS; Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona is joint BLM and NPS. More on this separately.

Different designations generally reflect the core resource or landscape of the site. National Seashores and Lakeshores largely contain spectacular stretches of coastline; the various battlefield designations (National Battlefield Park, National Battlefield, National Military Park, National Battlefield Site, and, in one or two cases, National Historical Park) protect historic battlefields; National Historical Parks and Sites generally protect historic areas, with the primary difference between those two being the relative size of the park, etc. National Parks generally contain a variety of resources, what the Park Service would term “multiple resources,” typically both natural and cultural, and thus tell a diverse story.

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

The key words here, however, are “largely” and “generally.” Why? Because there is, despite public perception and common belief, no actual legal dfference between the different designations; there is no law that defines legal characteristics for each designation. As noted above, Congress can name something anything that it wants. Gateway Arch National Park, for example, protects an almost exclusively cultural landscape. Mesa Verde National Park protects a primarily cultural landscape, albeit in a beautiful setting in southwest Colorado.

Interior dome of Old Courthouse, Gateway Arch National Park

There’s one rough exception. National Preserves and National Reserves are a unique designation that often allow additional resource activities that would be prohibited in the other designations.

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California

Now that we’ve gone over the designations, what misconceptions might you hear about these?

Well, first and foremost, you might hear some suggest that there is a status difference between them – notably, that National Parks are a higher “status” or an “upgrade.” This manifests in two ways. The first is the belief that there is some kind of hierarchy within the park system. This is what drove the redesignation of parks like Gateway Arch (formerly Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). And I admit, it’s a misconception I fell for myself at one time. However, its not true. The mission of the Park Service is identical regardless of designation. The management is largely identical, and differences are generally due to other parts of founding legislation, not the designation*. Most parks regardless of designation prohibit the gathering of resources within the park, but while Cape Hatteras National Seashore allows the gathering of seashells, Grand Canyon National Park also allows the gathering of pinyon pine nuts. The authorization for parks to allow such activities is written into other parts of the founding legislation, and is unrelated to the designation itself (as evidenced by the fact that both a National Park and National Seashore allow a variation on a similar activity). When parks such as Gateway Arch, Cuyahoga Valley, and Indiana Dunes were redesignated, all that changed was the letterhead and signage (and visitation). For this reason, when names are changed or a park of a different designation is renamed a National Park, “redesignation” is a more appropriate phrase than “upgrade.”

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

The second manifestation is that there is a difference in legal protections or legal status between the designations established by Congress and National Monuments. Now, I will observe that it many national parks start as National Monuments and are later further established by Congress, but there is a solid legal argument that since National Monuments are established through a path established by Congress and since the Antiquities Act, their legal status is identical to that of a park established directly through an Act of Congress. Major modifications thus have to be made to the site by Congress once established, just like with all other sites, rather than by the President. There is material in the Congressional Record and further legislation since (the Federal Land Management Policy Act of 1976) to back up Congressional intent on this matter.

It’s also easy when visiting an area like the Black Hills to compare somewhere like the previously mentioned Jewel Cave National Monument to the nearby Wind Cave National Park. And it is true that Wind Cave received its designation due in part to the 30,000+ acres that Wind Cave protects on the surface in addition to the cave beneath. While Wind Cave and its surface of mixed grass prairie and 450 pure bison are unquestioningly magnificent, the two parks should be viewed based on their individual characteristics. Wind Cave didn’t receive its designation because of anything it had that Jewel Cave didn’t, nor vice versa. They each received their designations because of the legal means through which the parks were established, and because of the characteristics of the individual site.

Pronghorn on the border of Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park, South Dakota

You might also hear some people say that “national parks are different from national park units.” Well, yes – but all 419 parks are units of the park system, including all 62 National Parks. Indeed, the better way to distinguish between the two is to use capitalization to indicate the 62 Congressionally-designated National Parks, since it is an official title granted by Congress, whereas the lowercase “national parks” usually refers to all 419. NPS typically reserves the term “unit” for a subsidiary part of one of the 419 parks, such as the “North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Lastly, as further evidence of the relative insignificance of most designations, there are at least 5 designations for battlefields, as referenced above. As a native of northern Virginia, I’ve been to many of them. The difference between them (other than the obviously smaller National Battlefield Site) is extremely limited, to the point of being practically nonexistent. If designations were truly impactful, this would not be the case. Indeed, I believe that one of the simplest ways to streamline park nomenclature would be to establish one designation for all battlefields. I favor “National Battlefield Park,” which makes both the primary resource and the National Park Service connection clear, but I’m open to other thoughts as well on that matter.

Antietam National Battlefield during the annual luminaries event, Maryland
Rose River Falls, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

I also mentioned North Cascades above. The three parks that make up the North Cascades National Park Service Complex are the product of compromise and politics and show how those processes influence designations and park establishment. When the park was initially proposed, the entirety of the North Cascades complex was within the National Park. But residents of the town of Stehekin were concerned – likely due to some of the misconceptions above, in part – about the implications of living within the border of a National Park. So that area was drawn into Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. In addition, the state of Washington wanted to build a road across the area, but park advocates wanted the park to maintain a wilderness character. So the road corridor became part of Ross Lake National Recreation Area, dividing the National Park itself into the North and South Units and accessed only by hiking trails and one short 6 mile spur road. Many visitors never actually cross into Park itself. Yet, all three parks are managed together as one unit despite their different designations. The different designations are the result of politics, not status or any other reason.

I hope this clarifies park designations somewhat. It’s important to remember that at their core the parks represent, protect, and interpret the shared natural, cultural, and historical story of America, beautiful and ugly. And the name a park receives as part of its role in telling that story is relatively limited in impact relative to the story itself. As Shakespeare famously wrote, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Have you been subject to any of these misconceptions over the years, as I was at one time? What do you think could be done by Congress to clarify such misconceptions and confusion that might result from the various nomenclature that is currently employed?

*with the exception, again, of National Preserves and National Reserves.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 15: Passage 37, Grand Canyon South Rim

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Unfortunately, I feel like the past few days off have broken my rhythm in terms of mileage. I spent last night with some friends on the South Rim before returning to camp for the night. Unfortunately, it seems I left my wallet at Maswik when I stopped there for dinner. So I’m up early, and head back to pick up my wallet at Maswick. I also grab some more cold weather gear at the Market before returning to the trail. I push through about 6 miles on the day across the Coconino Plateau, hiking across more limestone ridges, rice grass meadows, scrub, and pines with gambel oaks. The trail ultimately passes through an area that seems the subject of a recent prescribed burn shortly before I call it for the night. The oaks aren’t quite the aspens but they are putting on a good show as well. Tonight is going to be a cold one; I set up the tent for the frst time on the trip to combat that. All clothes and electronics are in my sleeping bag tonight. The forecast is for the temperature to go down to 16ºF tonight, but unlike the Kaibab there’s no wind, so here’s hoping it’s a bit more manageable. Fingers crossed.

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AZT sign, showing 113 miles to Utah, 688 to Mexico
Arizona Trail, Passage 37 (Grand Canyon South Rim)
Kaibab National Forest
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Reentering the ponderosas hiking on the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 37 (Grand Canyon South Rim)
Kaibab National Forest
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Backpacking past gambel oaks amid ponderosa pines
Arizona Trail, Passage 37 (Grand Canyon South Rim)
Kaibab National Forest
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Hiking past Gambel oaks in fall foliage amid ponderosa pines & rice grass
Arizona Trail, Passage 37 (Grand Canyon South Rim)
Kaibab National Forest
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Backpacking past Gambel oaks in fall foliage amid ponderosa pines & rice grass
Arizona Trail, Passage 37 (Grand Canyon South Rim)
Kaibab National Forest
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Hiking past Gambel oaks in fall foliage amid ponderosa pines & rice grass
Arizona Trail, Passage 37 (Grand Canyon South Rim)
Kaibab National Forest
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Backpacking past Gambel oaks in fall foliage amid ponderosa pines & rice grass
Arizona Trail, Passage 37 (Grand Canyon South Rim)
Kaibab National Forest

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 49: Whiterock Mesa, Part III

Departing Polk Spring, the trail continues to provide magnificent views of the northern Mazatzal Mountains and the neighboring Red Hills as it descends to the East Verde River. The trail will pass through both mountain ranges – first the Red Hills, then the Mazatzals. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” The Mazatzal Wilderness, which the trail will remain within now until just shy of Strawberry in the central Mazatzals, is about 390 square miles in size. It was one of the original Wilderness Areas designated upon the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – FR 194 to Pine Spring (Passage 45, Whiterock Mesa)

I got started around 10, heading down Passage 25 toward the East Verde River.
I hike through a gate and enter the Mazatzal Wilderness. Following cairns, the surface alternates between the basalt and more dirt – like walking through a wash. As the trail skirts the rim briefly, a magnificent view of the Mazatzal Mountains and Red Hills opens up to the hiker, then the trail experiences yet another spectacular sunset as it and the backpacker fall off the Mesa to Polk Spring near the East Verde River.

Pink ribbons spread across the bluish/purple sky at sunset

Fossil Springs Wilderness – FR 708

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

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Passage 37 (Grand Canyon South Rim)
Trail SurfacePaved
Dirt singletrack
Forest road
Length (Mi)23.5
SeasonApril-November
Potential Water SourcesGrand Canyon Village (99.9 SOBO, 688.8 NOBO)
Tusayan (105.1 SOBO, 683.6 NOBO)
Upper TenX Tank (113.4 SOBO, 675.3 NOBO)
Watson Tank (116.3 SOBO, 672.4 NOBO)
TrailheadsNorth: South Kaibab Trailhead (Yaki Point)
South: Grandview Lookout
Trailhead AccessNorth: Shuttle & foot access
South: Vehicular access (graded dirt road)
WildernessNo
Possible resupply pointsGrand Canyon Village
Tusayan
ATA-Rated DifficultyEasy
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)FR 328 south of Grand Canyon National Park boundary
Area east of Tusayan has numerous options
HazardsHeat – wear a cotton shirt so you can soak it. Synthetics aren’t great in the desert.

Hyponatremia – “drunk on water.” To avoid, ensure adequate salt & electrolyte intake and ensure you eat as well as drink water. Symptoms are almost identical to dehydration, but drinking more makes it worse. Prevention is by far the best solution.

Dehydration
Ecosystems TraversedGreat Basin Conifer Woodland (edge of Grand Canyon)
Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland (remainder of passage)
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Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland Canyon Edge (Great Basin Conifer Woodland)
Common Trees/Shrubs* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries
* Gambel oaks



Pinyon Pine
Juniper
Gambel oaks
Common herbaceous plants* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Rabbitbrush
Stansbury cliffrose
Common succulentsBanana yucca
Claret cup hedgehog cacti
Passage 31 & 33 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: North Kaibab Trail, Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls (Day 8 – Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Continuing to hike down the North Kaibab Trail at Grand Canyon National Park from Roaring Springs, one descends through Bright Angel Canyon, passing the Manzanita Resthouse and Cottonwood Campground while crossing and recrossing Bright Angel Creek. The trail flattens out around Cottonwood, halfway from the North Rim to the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campground. The bridge to Ribbon Falls is out, but I’m able to ford the creek – something that was not possible the last time that I hiked this trail, during the spring runoff. I’m able to identify a trail that leads to the falls and make it over to see them briefly before making it back to the main trail and continuing toward the River.

Continue reading “Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: North Kaibab Trail, Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls (Day 8 – Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)”

Continuing to hike down the North Kaibab Trail at Grand Canyon National Park from Roaring Springs, one descends through Bright Angel Canyon, passing the Manzanita Resthouse and Cottonwood Campground while crossing and recrossing Bright Angel Creek. The trail flattens out around Cottonwood, halfway from the North Rim to the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campground. The bridge to Ribbon Falls is out, but I’m able to ford the creek – something that was not possible the last time that I hiked this trail, during the spring runoff. I’m able to identify a trail that leads to the falls and make it over to see them briefly before making it back to the main trail and continuing toward the River.

Continue reading “Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: North Kaibab Trail, Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls (Day 8 – Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)”

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 8: Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon, Part 1 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Day 15)

Grabbed a few things at the general store on the North Rim of Grand Canyon today, then packed up camp. The park has a number of special sites at the campground, available first-come, first-served, to those who hike or bike into the park. I then proceed over to the Backcountry Information Center, and get put on another thruhiker’s permit for Bright Angel Campground at the bottom, near the Colorado River. My pack weighs in at 46 pounds, not overly light but lighter than it has been. Obviously some of my efforts to cut weight before crossing the canyon paid off. After a side trip to see the aspens in Thompson Canyon, as recommended by the LE ranger that I spoke to yesterday, I head into the canyon.

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Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
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Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona

This is the only part of the Arizona Trail that I have solid familiarity with, having hiked from the South Rim to the North Rim and back in May. If there’s anything I know, it’s to expect the unexpected. In May I ran into rain, hail, and snow between Cottonwood and the North Rim as elevations changed. I was also delayed heading back to the South Rim the following day by several hours due to a torrential rainstorm that blew through. Fortunately, none of that materializes today. It’s still going to be warm at the bottom, but not as warm as it would have been had I started right when my season ended, and the warmth is a welcome change from the Kaibab cold of the past few nights. The trail starts 8297 ft of elevation and drops to the Colorado River at 2480 ft.

The route heads down the legendary North Kaibab Trail, past the Coconino Overlook, where I have a long conversation with a park PSAR volunteer hoping to do the trail themselves in the spring, to the Supai Tunnel, around which the grade peaks at 25%, one of the steepest on the entire AZT. Fortunately, I’m going down. By this point, I have descended through the Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap Formation, Coconino Sandstone, and into the Supai Group.

Backpacking view down Roaring Springs Canyon from Coconino Overlook. Komo Point at junction of Roaring Springs and Bright Angel Canyons. South Rim can be seen in right-center, with San Francisco Peaks above
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking view down Roaring Springs Canyon from Coconino Overlook. Komo Point at junction of Roaring Springs and Bright Angel Canyons. South Rim can be seen in right-center, with San Francisco Peaks above
Arizona Trail Passage 38 (Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
North Rim layering above, seen backpacking the North Kaibab Trail. Kaibab Formation at top, sloping Toroweap, Coconino Cliffs, and sloping Hermit Shale lead down to the Supai Group
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
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Hiking view through the Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail
Arizona Trail Passage 38 (Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Backpacking view down Roaring Springs Canyon from the Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail. Redwall Bridge visible in shade, lower right of image.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking view down Roaring Springs Canyon from the Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail. Redwall Bridge visible in shade, lower right of image.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Backpacking view down Roaring Springs Canyon from the Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail. Redwall Bridge visible in shade, lower right of image.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park

The trail continues to descend. It enters the Redwall Limestone and drops through a series of switchbacks to the Redwall Bridge before beginning a more gradual traverse through the layer, a stretch where the trail was literally blasted out of the cliff, almost forming a half-tunnel. The trail continues through the Muav Limestone to Roaring Springs at the border with the Bright Angel Shale, the source of all of the drinking water for Grand Canyon National Park. The water from the springs is pumped to the North Rim and flows by gravity to Indian Gardens on the South Rim before being pumped to the rim itself from there. Entering Bright Angel Canyon, it passes through a segment of trail that was literally blown out of the side of the cliff by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the terrain was so rugged, forming a kind of half-tunnel above the trail in the side of the cliff.

View back toward Supai Tunnel, backpacking the North Kaibab Trail descending into Roaring Springs Canyon
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking view down Roaring Springs Canyon from north side of Redwall Bridge.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Backpacking view down Roaring Springs Canyon from Redwall Bridge
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Upcanyon view of Roaring Springs Canyon, Redwall Bridge in lower center. NK Trailhead is located in pine forest on upper left.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
North Rim seen hiking the North Kaibab Trail in Roaring Springs Canyon
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
View down & across Roaring Springs Canyon from backpacking on the North Kaibab Trail. Uncle Jim Point at upper left. Rim in distance is in Bright Angel Canyon.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the North Kaibab Trail in Roaring Springs Canyon. This section of trail, one of the most rugged and remote on the developed Corridor between the North and South Rims, was blown out of the cliff by the CCC in the 1930s.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Upcanyon backpacking view of Roaring Springs Canyon. Redwall Bridge in lower center. NK Trailhead is located in pine forest on upper left.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
Roaring Springs, viewed from hiking the North Kaibab Trail.
Arizona Trail, Passage 38 (Grand Canyon, Inner Canyon)
Grand Canyon National Park
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Fossil Springs Wilderness – Waterfall Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

Fossil Springs Wilderness – Fossil Springs Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. The Wilderness has 11,550 acres with 30 species of trees and shrubs and over 100 species of birds. Fossil Creek itself is one of two Wild & Scenic Rivers in Arizona as well, designated by Congress in 2009 after the Fossil Springs Dam was decommissioned by Arizona in 2005. Fossil Springs, the source of the creek, release 30 million gallons of water per day, incredibly prolific for its location in Arizona.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Pine Ridge to FR 194 (Passage 26, Whiterock Mesa)

I finally get off around 11:30 & run into Matt and a female friend near East Tank. I’m glad for the company and we walk together for a while. The road condition is terrible – lots of loose basalt – and the going is slow. I finally reach the split to Strawberry and encounter them again, and their friend who picked them up flags me down and brings me a beer. Some more trail magic! I think my biggest challenges are becoming the pack weight and the solitude. I head for a short side trip to Fossil Creek.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Pine to Pine Ridge (Passage 25, Whiterock Mesa)

The trail first rolls through the pines and passes Pine Creek (dry) and Bradshaw Tank on its way to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa, which provides an excellent overlook of Oak Spring Canyon, the highlight of the passage, before dropping to the bottom. Like on the Highline, foliage still lingers in the warmer Canyon. I also spot some cool geology in what appears to be dikes in some of the rocks.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 41, Part II – Highline Trail (Passage 27, Highline)

Having filled up on water and eaten lunch, the trail ascends from Webber Creek and the Geronimo Trailhead toward Milk Ranch Point, jutting out from the Mogollon Rim. This is a much more consistently wooded & shaded stretch that appears to have been spared by the Dude Fire of 1990 and February Fire (2006). It also seems to be wetter here – there are still touches of green in the ferns as the trail ascends. Gamble oaks, maple and ponderosa dominate the trail through this stretch, and the light filtering through the canopy and the leaves is magical.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 40-41 – Highline Trail (Passage 27, Highline)

The trail continues to roll across the eroded foothills of the Mogollon Rim, the impressive and distinctive southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau, where the elevation jumps around 4000 ft in elevation. The Highline continues to define itself as a diverse landscape where the species of the desert below and the pine forests above mingle.

The Mazatzal Mountains – the next major hurdle once I make it to Pine – loom in the distance as well, and ironwood line the more open stretches of path across the Highline, where the Dude Fire burned the forest in 1990.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Highline Trail, Part II (Passage 27, Highline)

The Arizona Trail continues west toward Pine, curving around parts of the Mogollon Rim that reach out, and segments that sit farther back, rolling across the eroded foothills beneath the parapets that’s tower overhead. The diverse plants continue to amaze. How often do you find blue spruce growing next to agave cactus!

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Clear Creek to Mogollon Rim (Passage 28, Blue Ridge)

The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing. I was told that there may be water in one direction near the crossing but didn’t need it and therefore didn’t check. Climbing out the other side, the northern aspect of the slope is apparent – while ponderosas covered the southern slope opposite, the northern one featured Douglas fir and blue spruce. Obviously the different sides show different microclimates depending on the sun aspect, the temperature and moisture levels on each side given the orientation and angle of the slope. The trail rises back to the ponderosa forests on the Mogollon Plateau and traverses them, the site of my first human sighting in 3 days, then reaches General Springs Canyon. Dipping into General Springs Canyon, silence and quiet take hold. I passed a nice campsite near the end of GSC, but the pools nearby were still frozen at the end of the day, suggesting it would get colder in the canyon overnight (and that solar exposure during the day was limited) than on the Rim, so I continued forward to the rim itself. Lights can be seen in the distance, but I’m not sure which town. Likely Pine or Strawberry. Tomorrow begins the descent off the rim at long last.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 38 – Blue Ridge Ranger Station to Mogollon Rim (Passage 28, Blue Ridge)

Managed to push through the entire Blue Ridge Passage today, one of my best days on the trail. I left the Blue Ridge Ranger Station this morning and headed south for the Rim. Saw a herd of elk near the Blue Ridge Campground and Elk Tank while climbing Blue Ridge itself. The trail also passed through an active prescribed burn, though it was low intensity so probably not considered a public hazard at this point. I’m familiar with them anyway, having worked as a PIO (public informations officer) on one over the summer at Grand Canyon. The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing.

Arizona Trail, Day 36 – Passage 29 (Happy Jack)

The low last night was projected to be 12º, the coldest night yet on the trail, and I would say that may well have been accurate. Fortunately I came prepared for such conditions. Today I will be one of the first to walk the full new Happy Jack passage routing south of Shuff Tank.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Mormon Lake to Shuff Tank (Day 34; Passages 29 & 28, Mormon Lake & Happy Jack)

It’s brutally cold this morning, notably because of the strong wind that whips across the clearing to the west. Not setting up the tent last night was a mistake. I ultimately fill up for the last time at Navajo Spring and run into a few dayhikers who have completed over 300 miles of the trail themselves. Two of them are the Grouper and the Oracle. I continue south, aiming for Gooseberry Springs TH and Passage 29, Happy Jack.

Arizona Trail, Day 33 – Mormon Lake Zero

It’s cold and raw after the rain the night before. I walk about 3 miles up the road to Double Springs and then use the AZT to get back to my prior campsite to grab the sleeping pad, then retrace my steps again. Did it hail up here?

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Grabbed a few things at the general store on the North Rim of Grand Canyon today, then packed up camp. The park has a number of special sites at the campground, available first-come, first-served, to those who hike or bike into the park. I then proceed over to the Backcountry Information Center, and get put on another thruhiker’s permit for Bright Angel Campground at the bottom, near the Colorado River. My pack weighs in at 46 pounds, not overly light but lighter than it has been. Obviously some of my efforts to cut weight before crossing the canyon paid off. After a side trip to see the aspens in Thompson Canyon, as recommended by the LE ranger that I spoke to yesterday, I head into the canyon.

Aspens in Thompson Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
Aspens in Thompson Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Arizona
View down Roaring Springs Canyon from Coconino Overlook. Komo Point at junction of Roaring Springs and Bright Angel Canyons. South Rim can be seen in right-center, with San Francisco Peaks above. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
View down Roaring Springs Canyon from Coconino Overlook. Komo Point at junction of Roaring Springs and Bright Angel Canyons. South Rim can be seen in right-center, with San Francisco Peaks above. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
North Rim layering above the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38. Kaibab Formation at top, sloping Toroweap, Coconino Cliffs, and sloping Hermit Shale lead down to the Supai Group.
View through the Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
View down Roaring Springs Canyon from the Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Redwall Bridge visible in shade, lower right of image.
View down Roaring Springs Canyon from the Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Redwall Bridge visible in shade, lower right of image.
View down Roaring Springs Canyon from the Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Redwall Bridge visible on lower right-center of image in shade.
View back toward Supai Tunnel from North Kaibab Trail descending into Roaring Springs Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
View down Roaring Springs Canyon from north side of Redwall Bridge, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
View down Roaring Springs Canyon from Redwall Bridge, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
North Rim from North Kaibab Trail in Roaring Springs Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park
Upcanyon view of Roaring Springs Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park. Redwall Bridge in lower center. NK Trailhead is located in pine forest on upper left.
Upcanyon view of Roaring Springs Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park. Redwall Bridge in lower center. NK Trailhead is located in pine forest on upper left.
View down & across Roaring Springs Canyon from North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Uncle Jim Point at upper left. Rim in distance is in Bright Angel Canyon.
North Kaibab Trail in Roaring Springs Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. This section of trail, one of the most rugged and remote on the developed Corridor between the North and South Rims, was blown out of the cliff by the CCC in the 1930s.
Komo Point on the North Rim rises above the junction of Roaring Springs Canyon and Bright Angel Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, AZT Passage 38.
Roaring Springs, viewed from the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Tarantula on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Tarantula on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Tarantula on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Tarantula on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Tarantula on the North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Bright Angel Creek from the North Kaibab Trail in upper Bright Angel Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Arizona Trail Passage 38.
Bright Angel Creek from the North Kaibab Trail in upper Bright Angel Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Arizona Trail Passage 38.
Cascade waterfall on Bright Angel Creek from the North Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Arizona Trail Passage 38.
View toward the junction of Bright Angel Canyon (center) and Roaring Springs Canyon (left). Komo Point to right; Uncle Jim Point on upper left. View from North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
View down Bright Angel Canyon, North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
Remnant transcanyon telephone line built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
North Rim in Bright Angel Canyon from North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
North Rim in Bright Angel Canyon from North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
North Rim in Bright Angel Canyon from North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
Crescent moon above rim of Bright Angel Canyon, North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38
Bright Angel Canyon from North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
Bright Angel Canyon from North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
Bright Angel Canyon from North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.
Yes, there is still water in the desert.
Ribbon Falls, Bright Angel Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Trail Passage 38.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: Passage 39, Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Part II (Day 7, Part III)

Day 14 hiking across Utah and Arizona, from Lee’s Ferry to the Mexico border. Hiking across Lindbergh Hill, the Arizona Trail rolls southward through the aspens to AZ-67, then crosses and joins a road following an old power corridor south toward the North Rim through a mix of aspens and pines to reach the Widforss Trailhead.

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Arizona Trail looking toward Lindbergh Hill, Grand Canyon National Park
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Arizona Trail on Lindbergh Hill AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, east side of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
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Hiking the Arizona Trail, east side of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park

The Arizona Trail almost directly parallels AZ-67, rolling through the hills beside. It crosses the road and follows an old utility corridor down the west side past Thompson Canyon to the Widforss Trailhead past more magnificent aspen foliage. At Widforss, a strange situation arises.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, east side of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the Arizona Trail, west side of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Backpacking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Backpacking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
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Hiking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Backpacking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing, Grand Canyon National Park
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
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Backpacking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Squirrel in conifer tree, possibly a Kaibab squirrel. Hard to see from this angle whether it has tufted ears or not.
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Backpacking the the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
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Backpacking the the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Backpacking the the Arizona Trail south of AZ-67 crossing
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park

When I reach the trailhead, I notice that the Widforss Trail is blocked off, which is strange since we had been informed that area was still open and accessible despite the Ikes Fire to the west. An LE ranger approaches me and asks if I’m a thruhiker, and I say yes, that I came from just outside the park. He asks if I saw anything unusual on the trail, and signs of a fire or anything. Apparently someone on the Widforss trail somehow managed to set their tent on fire. How that happened, I can only imagine, but apparently they managed to do it. I mention that I worked on the South Rim and we talk for a while before I press on to the campground, where I encounter Eric and the two thruhikers, Roger and his friend, who I met at the North Rim Country Store yesterday. We talk for a while and then head to the lodge to get something to eat. I’m interested in eating at the restaurant, but it’s going to be a bit of a wait, so I grab some pizza and a beer with them and sit out on the fantastic patio area the lodge has overlooking the canyon.

Hiking past aspens in Harvey Meadow
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
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Backpacking the Arizona Trail north of the North Kaibab Trailhead
AZT Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon at sunset, south view from Transept Trail toward San Francisco Peaks from Grand Canyon Lodge
Grand Canyon National Park
Moon over Grand Canyon at sunset, south view toward San Francisco Peaks from Grand Canyon Lodge
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon at sunset, south view toward San Francisco Peaks from Grand Canyon Lodge
Grand Canyon National Park

I should say, the North Rim Lodge (or Grand Canyon Lodge, as it is officially known), is my favorite lodge so far in the park system. It blends seamlessly with the natural beauty around it, having been constructed of native stone. It has some of the best food I’ve had at any lodge – superior to that on the South Rim for sure. And it is perched directly on the rim of the canyon, so you can just sit on the patio, grab a drink and soak in the view – which stretches farther than the South Rim vista due to the higher elevation of the Kaibab and the North Rim.

And sitting out there with a couple other thruhikers, talking about our plans for the next day, how we are going to get across the canyon, permits and logistics, and plans for the days beyond, as the sun set over the canyon, is just incredible.

Ultimately, I do get a spot at the restaurant as well. The hostess recognizes my name. Apparently she has been told about me through a mutual friend on the South Rim. She’s also a seasonal ranger; her season just ended at Glen Canyon. She gives me her boyfriend as my waiter, and we talk about hiking, the Arizona Trail, and other long distance trails (I’m already considering the Long Trail) throughout dinner. Shortly thereafter, I experience my second bit of “trail magic” – he shows up at the end of the meal and tells me not to worry about the bill, “I took care of it.” Guess he appreciated me and the conversation I provided. Back to sleep before trying to get a permit for Bright Angel tomorrow to cross the canyon.

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Arizona Trail, Day 31 – Anderson Mesa to Double Springs (Passages 30, Anderson Mesa & 29, Mormon Lake)

There is a lot of cool railroad history west of Lake Mary Road, the trail follows an old logging railroad grade for much of the route and in places the ties are still visible. Very cool. The forest turns into a dense mixed conifer and I have a chance encounter with a mountain biker named Chris who recently moved here from Idaho. We talk about the trail ahead and some I’m looking at doing in Idaho.

Arizona Trail, Day 30 – Anderson Mesa (Passages 31 and 30, Walnut Canyon and Mormon Lake)

The trail reaches Lowell Observatory’s Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI). The NPOI measures precise relative positions of stars in the sky for the Naval Observatory to use as reference when determining geographic positions of locations on both Earth and in space, as well as for use in timekeeping. Over four football fields long, it uses a six-mirror array directing multiple light beams from a star to a single point, enhancing image detail and separating stars that are so close that even the largest conventional telescopes cannot separate them visually. Near the NPOI is an excellent view of Upper Lake Mary in the valley of Walnut Creek below, after which the trail continues across Anderson Mesa.

After reaching Horse Lake, I make camp for the night. The sky is black as coal and the night is filled with coyotes howling.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 29 – Flagstaff to Anderson Mesa (Passages 31 & 33, Flagstaff & Walnut Canyon)

Welcome back to Aspen’s Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico. After doing a full resupply yesterday to get me through to Pine, where my next box has been shipped, and replacing some gear, including a new pair of boots and new sleeping pad, today started with breakfast with Oscar at Tourist Home, … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 29 – Flagstaff to Anderson Mesa (Passages 31 & 33, Flagstaff & Walnut Canyon)

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Arizona Trail Thruhike, Day 26: Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Part 2 (Arizona/Utah Day 33)

The ponderosas are dense throughout, and their reddish bark glows in the light that filters through the green needles. The gambel oaks continue to impress along the route as well, adding splashes of yellow, red, and orange to the green ponderosa woodlands. The trail crosses two spur trails leading to overlooks with more magnificent views of the canyon.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Passage 31 – Walnut Canyon (Arizona/Utah Day 33)

The trail crosses FR 303, Old Walnut Canyon Road, and heads west toward Flagstaff. Rolling in and out of drainages, It traces the rim of Walnut Canyon in places, and veers away into the woods in others. Heading west, the forest transitions back to the ponderosas, rolling up and down through drainages. The ponderosas are dense throughout, and their reddish bark glows in the light that filters through the green needles. The gambel oaks continue to impress along the route as well, adding splashes of yellow, red, and orange to the green ponderosa woodlands. The trail crosses two spur trails leading to overlooks with more magnificent views of the canyon. Both well worth the minor extra mileage and time.

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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 4

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 3

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part II

Walnut Canyon National Monument, one of 420 national parks in the National Park System, protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part I

Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

Passage 39 (Grand Canyon North Rim)
Trail SurfaceDirt trail
Length (Mi)24.3
SeasonSpring-fall. No vehicular access to this section December through mid-May. Feet of snow in winter.
Potential Water SourcesCrane Lake (mi 46.5 SOBO, 742.2 NOBO)
Little Pleasant Valley Tank (mi 48.8 SOBO, 739.9 NOBO)
Wildlife Drinker (mi 56.5 SOBO, 732.2 NOBO)
Dog Lake (mi 56.6 SOBO, 732.1 NOBO)
North Canyon Spring (mi 58.9 SOBO, 729.8 NOBO)
Crystal Spring (mi 59.5 SOBO, 729.2 NOBO)
Sourdough Well (mi 62.1 SOBO, 726.6 NOBO)
Upper North Canyon Creek (mi 63.9 SOBO, 724.9 NOBO)
TrailheadsNorth: Grand Canyon National Park boundary
South: Grand Canyon North Rim
Trailhead AccessNorth: Foot access only
South: Vehicular access May 15-November 30 (services close October 15)
WildernessNo
Possible resupply pointsNorth Rim village, including Grand Canyon Lodge and General Store
ATA-Rated DifficultyEasy
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Campsites within Grand Canyon National Park require permits. Dispersed backcountry camping is allowed November 1-May 14 and requires a permit & Leave No Trace principles. Camping is otherwise restricted to the North Rim Campground and designated backcountry sites (there are no such sites directly on the trail). When the Campground is open, first come first serve hiker/biker sites are available for $15.

Note: As of August 2020 the North Rim Campground is closed and no new backpacking permits are being issued at this time. This includes backcountry sites on both the rim and Inner Canyon sites.
Ecosystems TraversedGreat Basin Subalpine Conifer Forest
Logistics for AZT Passage 39. Sources: Personal experience, Guthook Guides, AZT Guide to the trail
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Great Basin Subalpine Conifer Forest
Common Trees/Shrubs* Corkbark fir
* Gambel oak
* Quaking aspen
* White fir
* Blue spruce
* Engelmann spruce
* Buckwheats
* Currants
* Dwarf juniper
* Elderberry
* Fendler’s ceanothus
* Greenleaf Manzanita
* New Mexican locust
* Perry’s rabbitbrush
* Raspberry
* smooth sumac
* Snowberry
Common herbaceous plants* Bracken Fern
* Buckwheats
* Cinquefoils
* Columbines
* Fleabane daisies
* Geraniums
* goldeneye
* Goldenrods
* Groundsels
* Hairy golden aster
* Indian paintbrush
* Lotus
* Lupines
* Meadow-rue
* Parry’s bellflower
* Peavine
* Penstemons
* Puccoon
* Pussytoes
* Thistles
* Western & white prairie asters
* Wild strawberry
* Wormwood
* Yarrow
* Yellow hawkweed
Common succulentsPrickly pear, occasionally
Aquatic* Bulrush
* Buttercups
* Rushes
* Sedges
* Water plantains
Passage 39 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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