Arizona Trail Approach, Day 8 (Part III) – Buckskin Gulch to AZT

Wire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

I make better time than I expect, and encounter the Dragoos from Oklahoma about 1.5 mi from Wire Pass. I’m surprised that I’m that close to the Pass, since I hadn’t expected to make it for several miles. We have breakfast together and hike out, and find another large petroglyph panel at the junction between Wire Pass and Buckskin. After a tight squeeze through the Wire Pass narrows – I had to take my pack off and pass it through separately – and a water fill up and interesting conversation with Pete from Brockton, Massachusetts, they give me a lift over to the AZT.

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Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4042.jpgBuckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Wire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4062.jpgWire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4063.jpgWire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4064.jpgWire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4069.jpgWire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4065.jpg
Wire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Arizona Trail, Day 49: Whiterock Mesa

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.

Arizona Trail, Passage 25: Whiterock Mesa, Part 2

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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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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Arizona Trail, Day 46 – Passage 26 (Hardscrabble 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.

Arizona Trail, Day 45 – 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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Arizona Trail, Day 43, Part III – Passage 27 (Highline)

The Arizona Trail following the Highline continues its route around Milk Ranch Point, passing some artifacts – perhaps ranching or mining related, as many seem to be in Arizona. Magnificent views to the south are common, with the Mazatzal Mountains an ever-increasing sight to the southeast.

Arizona Trail, Day 43, Part II – 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.

Arizona Trail, Day 42-43, Part I – 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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Arizona Trail, Day 41 – Passage 27 (Highline), Part 3

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!

Arizona Trail, Day 41 – Passage 27 (Highline), Part 2

Arizona Trail, Day 41 – Passage 27 (Highline), Part 2

Magnificent views of the Mogollon Rim and one of the most ecologically diverse stretches of trail to date, this entry covers from the Washington Park Trailhead across the Highline National Recreation Trail.

Arizona Trail, Day 41 – Passage 27 (Highline)

It’s another chilly morning, camped directly on the Mogollon Rim. I’ll be dropping several thousand feet today to the base of the Rim, completing the long traverse of the Coconino National Forest and entering the Tonto National Forest with views that are nothing short of spectacular.

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Arizona Trail, Day 40 – 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 39 – Passage 28 (Blue Ridge), Part 2

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.

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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Arizona Trail: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 4

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.

Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
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.

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 along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)

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. 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)
Cliff dwellings on the walls of Walnut Canyon 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)
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)

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?
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.
Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks (Agassiz and Schultz) from the rim at Walnut Canyon National Monument

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 2

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

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.

Cliff dwellings along Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument, (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Cliff dwellings along 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 along Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Cliff dwellings along 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 photo of Walnut Canyon from Island Trail in Walnut Canyon National Monument ((a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Unaccessible cliff dwellings along Island Trail in 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)
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)

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.

Arizona Trail, Day 19: Passage 35, Babbitt Ranch & 34, San Francisco Peaks (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 25)

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

(Note: If you enjoy this blog, please help support it by clicking separately on each post. Follow along for account of national park, public land, hiking, and cycling travels across the country!)

Heading down the trail from the central Ranch provides more of the same early on – great views of the Peaks, but little else. I stop for a break and water at Tub Ranch, the first water source since Lockwood Tank (where I hadn’t stopped) and then continue south.

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Crossing through Babbitt Ranch among hills of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, Arizona Trail
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San Francisco Peaks, including Humphreys Peak, highest in Arizona at 12633 ft, from the Arizona Trail
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The Arizona Trail winds through pinyon-juniper scrubland toward the San Francisco Peaks, including the highest in Arizona, Humphreys Peak at 12633 ft

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

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The Arizona Trail crosses ranchland toward the northern segment of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, cinder cones that are a legacy of the hotspot that created the iconic San Francisco Peaks. SP Crater is the leftmost (northernmost) in the image.
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The San Francisco Peaks tower above the Arizona Trail on the plateau to the north. From this angle, the blown-out northeastern side can start to be made out. The former San Francisco Mountain erupted in a lateral blast about 400,000 years ago, much like Mt St Helens. The mountain lost up to 6K ft in elevation in the eruption (meaning at one time it could have been the highest in the modern contiguous United States.)
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Rabbitbush blooms in front of the San Francisco Peaks and northern segment of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Arizona Trail, Passage 35.
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Virga, a desert phenomena where moisture precipitates from clouds but evaporates before reaching the ground. Also known as “jellyfish clouds.” Arizona Trail, Passage 35 (Babbitt Ranch)
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Virga and showers in the evening light over the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Arizona Trail, Passage 35 (Babbitt Ranch).
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Virga and showers over the northeastern San Francisco Volcanic Field in the afternoon light. Arizona Trail Passage 35.

Late afternoon finds me entering Passage 34, the San Francisco Peaks, and finally off the Ranch roads. The trailhead also marks the entry to the Coconino National Forest. Some trail angel left beer and candy at the resupply box here, much appreciated. The Peaks are just towering above at this point. I encounter Timmy, a friend of Boates from the Canyon, and we talk and hike together for a while. I leave first (for once) but he catches me speaking with some day trippers heading out and we hike together for much of the rest of the evening. Showers pass along with virga, a desert phenomenon where precipitation falls but evaporates before reaching the ground, comes in the evening, ultimately making for a spectacular sunset as we head into the thick of the northern San Francisco Volcanic Field. I leave him to climb Missouri Bill in the hopes of seeing the sunrise from the top. In the dark, clusters of lights become evident on the reservation to the west – Kayenta, Cameron, Tuba City. It’s that dark, individual towns can be identified with just a rudimentary knowledge of the area.

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Virga illuminating crepuscular solar rays as the Arizona Trail enters Passage 34, the San Francisco Peaks.
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Crepuscular rays on virga along Arizona Trail Passage 34, the San Francisco Peaks.
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Jackrabbit at dusk along the Arizona Trail (Passage 34, San Francisco Peaks)
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Jackrabbit at dusk along the Arizona Trail (Passage 34, San Francisco Peaks)

Water availability and access varies over this stretch.

Passage 35 (Babbitt Ranch)Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
Trail SurfaceGravel RoadDirt Road
Water Sources (Potential)Cedar Ranch (supply box)
Rabbit Canyon (unnamed tank)
Cedar Ranch (supply box)
East Cedar Tank
TrailheadsCedar RanchCedar Ranch
ATA-Rated DifficultyModerateModerate
Logistical info for stretch hiked today
Passage 35 (Babbitt Ranch)Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
Trail SurfaceMixed, mostly gravel roadMixed, dirt road and singletrack
Length24.5 miles35.3 miles
SeasonAll yearSpring-fall primarily
Potential Water SourcesCedar Ranch trailhead supply box
Rabbit Canyon
Tub Ranch water tank
Lockwood Tank
Cedar Ranch Trailhead supply box
East Cedar Tank
Kelly Tank
Alfa Fia Tank
Schultz Tank
TrailheadsCedar RanchCedar Ranch
ATA-Rated DifficultyModerateModerate
Logistical details for full length of all passages involved today (whether hiked today or not)
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Arizona Trail, Day 35 – Passage 29 (Happy Jack)

It is brutally cold this morning, making it hard to even move much before 11. I believe it was around 20 at 9:00. Packing is a slow process in these temperatures. But, I pick up a few things that might make future packings faster in these temperatures, like doing most of it inside the tent at first and having a solid plan in advance to minimize time spent debating with oneself in the cold. Once packed, I head east along the forest road until coming to a trail crossing. There is a problem; the trail crosses on both sides. Clearly I missed a turnoff in the twilight yesterday evening. In both my purist nature and out of curiosity to see just where I made a wrong turn, I take the trail to the right, and it winds through the ponderosas back to Shuff Tank. It is clearly new, so this must be part of the new reroute, which has gone around the road stretch that I walked to get to the junction earlier. Instead of following the road on the north side of the tank, the trail now follows a singletrack around the west and south sides of the tank, then crosses the road on the east.

Arizona Trail, Day 34 – Passage 30 (Mormon Lake), Day 3

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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Arizona Trail, Day 32 – Double Springs to Mormon Lake (Passage 30, Mormon Lake)

Heading south the trail passes an overlook of the ridges and of Mormon Lake itself, Arizona’s largest natural lake. It’s low (it often dries up under drought conditions to become Mormon Meadow) but the spring was wet enough that it hasn’t disappeared. It’s so windy that I’m almost blown off the overlook and my glasses ARE blown off (thankfully I catch them before they fall).

Arizona Trail, Day 31 – Anderson Mesa to Double Springs (Passages 30, 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.

Coronavirus and National Parks: All COVID-19 Impacts and Park Reopenings

Another period of big updates across the National Park System.

Here we will look at the status of all 500+ national parks and affiliates, see which have changed status or will soon, and look at the details of what is or is not currently available at each park.

Disclaimer: please observe all CDC recommendations for the safety of staff and visitors alike. They are there to help and serve you, please do them the courtesy of helping keep them safe.

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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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Arizona Trail Approach Day 8, Part 1 – Buckskin Gulch to the Arizona Trail (Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument)

Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Broke camp early in Buckskin Gulch this morning and headed out. I make better time than I expect, and encounter the Dragoos from Oklahoma about 1.5 mi from Wire Pass. I’m surprised that I’m that close to the Pass, since I hadn’t expected to make it for several miles. We have breakfast together and hike out, and find another large petroglyph panel at the junction between Wire Pass and Buckskin. After a tight squeeze through the Wire Pass narrows – I had to take my pack off and pass it through separately – and a water fill up and interesting conversation with Pete from Brockton, Massachusetts, they give me a lift over to the AZT.

Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
View up to surface from within Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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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.

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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.

Arizona Trail: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 4

Wrapping up at Walnut Canyon National Monument. After wrapping 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.

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.

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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 2

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.

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.

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Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain, Part 3 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 31)

Welcome back to Aspen’s Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico. I want to note that this hike was completed before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, but it has left me with quite a bit of time in quarantine to write up my experiences on the trail. Exiting the shadow of Elden Mountain, I … Continue reading Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain, Part 3 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 31)

Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain, Part 2 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 31)

The Arizona Trail wraps past golden oaks and aspens through Schultz Pass and innumerable drainages, then opens out to areas potentially impacted by the 1977 Radio Fire. Hiking on, the trail skirts Little Elden Mountain. Views of Elden Mountain open up, and I hike across 89 through a tunnel, entering the Painted Canyon Preserve. Sunset clouds glow in the sky as I hike south.

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Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 30)

The Arizona Trail wraps past golden oaks and aspens through Schultz Pass and innumerable drainages, then opens out to areas potentially impacted by the 1977 Radio Fire. Views of Elden Mountain open up, and I hike across US-89 through a tunnel, entering the Painted Canyon Preserve. Sunset clouds glow in the sky as I continue hiking south.

Arizona Trail, Day 23: Flagstaff Zero (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 30)

Today is going to be a busy off day. I start it with a stop at Macy’s European Coffeehouse, an awesome breakfast place in downtown Flagstaff. They make particularly great waffles, but given the hiker hunger that all thruhikers suffer from, I add a smoothie and a breakfast sandwich for good measure today. I always make a point to stop here when I’m in Flag.

Arizona Trail, Day 22: Flagstaff, Part 3 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 28)

The trail crosses to the flanks of Elden Mountain and continues to drop down toward Flagstaff. It crosses the Coconino National Forest border onto McMillan Mesa and into Buffalo Park, managed by Flagstaff. A wide rice grass meadow composes much of the park, crisscrossed with wide paths providing magnificent views of the San Francisco Peaks. Just magnificent, especially seen now in the late afternoon.

Arizona Trail Approach Day 8, Part 2 – Buckskin Gulch to the Arizona Trail (Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument)

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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

I make better time than I expect, and encounter the Dragoos from Oklahoma about 1.5 mi from Wire Pass. I’m surprised that I’m that close to the Pass, since I hadn’t expected to make it for several miles. We have breakfast together and hike out, and find another large petroglyph panel at the junction between Wire Pass and Buckskin. After a tight squeeze through the Wire Pass narrows – I had to take my pack off and pass it through separately – and a water fill up and interesting conversation with Pete from Brockton, Massachusetts, they give me a lift over to the AZT.

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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Arizona Trail, Day 22: Flagstaff, Part 2 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 28)

The gambel oaks are glorious with the light passing through the leaves, and the views of Elden Mountain – the other side of which was “apocalyptically burned” in the 1970s Radio Fire, according to my AZT guidebook – are spectacular. Mule deer graze among the rice grass and trees. The gambel oaks continue to look incredible. It’s amazing how as I progress south I seem to be seeing the progression of the foliage across different tree species as well as within the species. Makes for an ever changing and spectacular color display.

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Arizona Trail, Day 21, Part 2: Heart of the San Francisco Peaks (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 27)

The Arizona Trail continues through massive groves of mature aspen and across rice grass meadows below the San Francisco Peaks. Contouring around below Humphreys and Agassiz Peaks, the two highest in Arizona, the view of the Peaks themselves and the western San Francisco Volcanic Field, over to Kendrick Peak and Bill Williams Mountain near Williams, is wide-open and magnificent.

Arizona Trail, Day 21: Heart of the San Francisco Peaks (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 27)

As the trail ascends again to traverse the mountain flank, the ponderosas transition further to aspens and mixed conifer forest again. These seem to be slightly past peak in places, but many are still quite magnificent. The trail passes through mature forest and rice grass meadows as it contours along the lower slopes of the mountains below Humphreys and Agassiz Peaks, the two highest peaks in Arizona. The weather is perfect, and the aspen leaves glow in the high elevation light. I’ll let some of their beauty again speak for themselves here, before continuing on in the next entry.

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Arizona Trail, Day 18: Passage 35, Babbitt Ranch (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 24)

Well, I’ve officially found my least favorite part of the trail so far. The first 5 miles today from Moqui Stage Station to the border of the Kaibab National Forest are nice…and then the views disappear and a long roadwalk down a valley begins where one crosses into the Babbit Ranch Passage (Passage 35). The … Continue reading Arizona Trail, Day 18: Passage 35, Babbitt Ranch (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 24)

Arizona Trail, Day 17: Passage 36, Coconino Rim (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 23)

Today began with a continuation of the southward trek along the Coconino Rim. The rolling hike along the rim of the Coconino Plateau passes through a combination of ponderosas and, through the trees, views off the plateau toward the Navajo Nation. As the trail rises slowly back to the top of the rim and heads … Continue reading Arizona Trail, Day 17: Passage 36, Coconino Rim (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 23)

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Arizona Trail, Day 15: Passage 37, Grand Canyon South Rim (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Days 21)

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 … Continue reading Arizona Trail, Day 15: Passage 37, Grand Canyon South Rim (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Days 21)

The Arizona Trail Day 9 – Passage 39, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 16)

the trail reaches the Kaibab Bridge, or Black Bridge, over the Colorado River. A 440 ft suspension bridge, it is the crossing for all mule trips from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch, and along with the Silver Bridge downstream (visible from the Kaibab Bridge) it is one of only two crossings between the Navajo Bridge at Lee’s Ferry and Hoover Dam.

The river itself, unlike when I departed from Lee’s Ferry, is a deep brown today due to rain upstream. At such times, the river takes on its natural brown color, which in fact was what led to its name – “Rio Colorado,” meaning “colored river” or “red river” in Spanish. It’s refreshing to see it as it was seen for all of history before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. 

In stark contrast to the North Rim at around 8800 ft, the Colorado at Phantom is only around 2500 ft, or around the same elevation as Phoenix, so the weather it experiences is more akin to Central Arizona valleys than it is the rims of the Canyon. A hike through Grand Canyon crosses between 5-8 ecosystems, depending of where the precise boundaries are drawn, and can be like hiking from Mexico to Canada from an ecological perspective. Below the rim, one passes through the riparian zone along the river, the Lower Sonoran Desert, Upper Sonoran Desert. The North Rim features ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests, and the South Rim ponderosa pine and pinyon-juniper forest.

Passing through a brief tunnel on the south bank, the trail quickly ascends around 1500 ft to The Tipoff on the edge of the Tonto Platform, the rim of the Inner Canyon. During this climb, I am treated to some great views of river trips launching again after having lunch at Phantom Ranch. The trail crosses the Tonto Platform and begins to climb toward Skeleton Point, through sections of the South Kaibab with colorful names such as the “Red & Whites,” and with outstanding views of the formations and scale of the canyon.

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 … Continue reading The Arizona Trail, Day 8: Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon, Part 1 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Day 15)

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What is Wilderness?

Grand Canyon at sunrise close to park headquarters. The entire area below the Rim is designated wilderness, preserving this view in perpetuity.

As I enter the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, I think that it’s important to take a moment to discuss the concept of wilderness.

The 1964 Wilderness Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, states “a wilderness in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.“ It was signed on September 3rd, 1964 and gives Congress the authority to create wilderness areas within public lands where things that are associated with manmade civilization – such as mechanized transportation, developed campgrounds, etc. – are prohibited and the area is allowed to remain in as natural a state as possible. Currently, 757 areas encompassing 109.5 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico make up the National Wilderness Preservation System. (That may sound like a lot but it’s actually only about 5% of the total land area of the country.). 56% of national park land is designated wilderness; 18% of US Forest Service land; 22% of Fish and Wildlife Service land; and 2% of Bureau of Land Management land, including Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.

I often get asked, what is the difference between wilderness and a national park, for example? Some assume that since wilderness areas can be managed by agencies other than the Park Service, it is a lesser degree of protection, since those agencies have multipurpose missions, unlike the Park Service, which is charged with providing access to but always putting the resource first.

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In reality, in many ways, a wilderness area is an even higher designation of protection than a park. Parks have developed visitor services areas, for example, or tour roads to allow access to them – “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as the Yellowstone Act of 1872 famously stated. Wilderness areas have no such services, whether they are managed by the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management, although they may be affected more by land management policies on the areas surrounding them when they are managed by one agency than another. For example, it’s not recommended to drink even filtered water from the Paría River most of the time because it flows off lands to the north in Utah that are open to grazing by livestock. That wouldn’t generally happen if the river was flowing off national park land. (There are a few exceptions but generally speaking grazing stock is prohibited in national parks.)

Visiting a wilderness area can be an incredible experience. Relatively few people venture into them due to the lack of services. This can mean incredible opportunities for solitude and introspection. It can mean incredible views and a much deeper connection to the resource.

Yet, the privilege also comes with great responsibility. It’s essential to practice Leave No Trace principles in such areas, as they are often particularly fragile and people’s experiences more easily impacted than they are in urban or more conventional public land settings due to the different expectations they have for the experience. And often oversights are much harder to correct in wilderness areas.

For those who don’t know, the 7 principles of LNT outdoor ethics are:

1. Plan ahead and prepare

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Many soils in the Southwest are cryptobiotic, for example, and walking across them off trail can kill them. Off trail travel also promotes erosion of the natural landscape.

3. Dispose of waste properly

4. Leave what you find – “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

5. Minimize campfire impacts

6. Respect wildlife

7. Be considerate of other visitors

These are all important in any outdoors setting, of course, but are particularly so in wilderness.

In wrapping up here, I’m curious, for those who have spent time in a wilderness area, or thought about doing so – what does the concept of wilderness mean to you? What was your experience in such an area? Which did you choose and why? How was it similar to or different from your expectations? And what was one thing you did to leave it better for those who came to visit after you?

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The Arizona Trail, Day 7, Part II: Passage 39, Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, Part I (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 14)

To the south lies the San Francisco volcanic field, topped by the majestic San Francisco Peaks rising above. I’ll go into it in more detail as I approach them, but for now I’ll note that were it not for the canyon, the Peaks would be the most famous geological feature in Arizona. Humphreys Peak, the highest point, stands at 12,633 feet. The Arizona Trail will reach and wrap directly around their flank on the journey south. The city of Flagstaff lies immediately beyond, at the foot of the mountain on the south side. Through the trees one can make out the rim of the canyon, but the dominant view in the foreground is the aspen foliage mixed with spruce/fir and ponderosa forest. Grand Canyon National Park fills the foreground with aspen foliage mixed with spruce/fir and ponderosa forest. Heading back down the road, I head west on the AZT to the park entrance and then south through the aspens toward the Rim.

The Arizona Trail, Day 6: Passage 40, Kaibab Plateau South, Part I

I’m on the trail early. As I noted in an earlier entry, one of the perils of combining being a seasonal ranger and thruhiking in the offseason (or shoulder seasons) is that one must make oneself available for interviews in sometimes inconvenient times or places. I owe a park a return call at some point … Continue reading The Arizona Trail, Day 6: Passage 40, Kaibab Plateau South, Part I

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