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

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

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. There’s more evidence of bear scat, but still no evidence of a bear itself. Pine Spring and Red Rock Spring are passed, and the trail rounds the point, providing a view down into Pine. Hardscrabble Mesa rises behind to the south. The trail begins a steady descent to the Pine Trailhead, from where it is a couple mile walk into the town of Pine itself. After several weeks since Flagstaff, I head straight for That Brewery, which my friend at the Canyon recommended to me. It’s time to get some real food. They also let us thruhikers camp on their volleyball court, as it turns out, which is a big help. I’ll be taking a zero here tomorrow in order to pick up a resupply box.

Water Sources: East Verde River, West Webber Creek,

Trailheads: Col. Devin Trailhead, Washington Park Trailhead, Geronimo Trailhead, Pine Trailhead

Historical artifacts
Historical artifacts
AZT among ironwood astride Milk Ranch Point
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South panorama from AZT on Milk Ranch Point. Mazatzal Mountains at right.
Bear scat
Mogollon Rim
Mazatzal Mountains
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Hardscrabble Mesa and Mogollon Rim
Pine Valley, including Hardscrabble Mesa (left) and Mogollon Rim (right)
Mogollon Rim & Cacti
Walnut tree
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Arizona Trail, Passage 27: Highline

Water Sources (Southbound order)
East Verde River
Chase Creek tributary
Chase Creek
North Sycamore Creek
Bray Creek
Bear Spring
Weber Creek
Pine Spring
Red Rock Spring

Camp Spots: Various, particularly around springs and also a number in open areas with fantastic views of and south from Mogollon Rim

Trailheads: Col. Devin Trail, Washington Park Trailhead, Geronimo Trailhead, Pine Trailhead

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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.

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.

Fossil Creek 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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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

Welcome back to Aspen’s Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail as part of a 900 mile hike across Utah and Arizona to Mexico.

I’m on the trail by mid morning after unfortunately misplacing a tent stake that costs me some time. No more extra stakes now. I encounter two dayhikers and talk about my time on the trail with them. The trail exits ponderosa forest as it crests Anderson Mesa and then enters PJ scrub with some ponderosa mixed in.

The volcanic rocks from north of the Peaks has returned and covers nearly the entire top of the Mesa – looking at a geologic map of the area, my initial thought of basalt appears to be correct.

Gambel oaks in fall foliage
Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
Coconino National Forest
Arizona Trail through ponderosas on Anderson Mesa
AZT Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Geologic Map of Arizona – South of Flagstaff; pin indicates my rough position at the start of the day, and the remainder traversed through the same geologic region.
Basalt rocks on Anderson Mesa
Arizona Trail Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest

The trail passes numerous small lakes that serve as important waterfowl habitat and are managed as livestock exclosures. I spot a big tarantula – no doubt this time, unlike the one that I saw back on Passage 39 at Grand Canyon – on the trail just south of Marshall Lake where I pass from Passage 31 to Passage 30, Mormon Lake.

Arizona Trail sign entering Passage 30, Mormon Lake
Coconino National Forest
Marshall Lake, one of a number of natural wetlands along the Arizona Trail atop Anderson Mesa
AZT Passage 30, Coconino National Forest
Tarantula crossing Arizona Trail, Passage 30 (Mormon Lake)
Coconino National Forest
Basalt outcrop on Anderson Mesa
Arizona Trail, Passage 30 (Mormon Lake)
Coconino National Forest
Basalt outcrop on Anderson Mesa
Arizona Trail, Passage 30 (Mormon Lake)
Coconino National Forest

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. Hoping to make it to Mormon Lake tomorrow, I decided not to set up the tent tonight to have extra time in the morning. We shall see if that pays off.

Arizona Trail crossing Anderson Mesa through pinyon-juniper scrub
AZT Passage 30 (Mormon Lake), Coconino National Forest
Price Lake along the Arizona Trail (CONFIRM)
Glimpse of Lowell Observatory’s NPOI through the pinyon-juniper scrub
Arizona Trail, Passage 30, Coconino National Forest
San Francisco Peaks rise above Price Lake and Anderson Mesa
Arizona Trail, Passage 30 (Mormon Lake), Coconino National Forest
San Francisco Peaks from Arizona Trail at Price Lake on Anderson Mesa
AZT Passage 30, Mormon Lake, Coconino National Forest
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San Francisco Peaks rising over pinyon/juniper and Lowell Observatory’s NPOI on Anderson Mesa
Arizona Trail, Passage 30 (Mormon Lake)
Coconino National Forest
Lowell Observatory’s NPOI
Lowell Observatory’s Navy Performance Optical Interferometer
Lake Mary valley overlook, Walnut Creek below, Upper Lake Mary at left and Mormon Mountain behind
Coconino National Forest
Wildflowers growing out of basalt on Anderson Mesa
Coconino National Forest
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Arizona Trail milepost on Anderson Mesa
243+ miles down, 558 to go!
Pinyon/juniper landscape on Anderson Mesa in evening along AZT
Coconino National Forest
Arizona Trail Passage 30,
Sunset over Horse Lake, Mormon Mountain behind
Arizona Trail, Passage 30
Coconino National Forest
Sunset over Horse Lake, Monmon Mountain at left
Arizona Trail, Passage 30
Coconino National Forest
Twilight on the Arizona Trail at Horse Lake
Belt of Venus and Umbra rising in sky
AZT Passage 30, Coconino National Forest
Today’s route map

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

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
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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,

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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?

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).

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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.

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, Day 29 – Flagstaff to Anderson Mesa

Coconino Sandstone walls in upper Walnut Canyon, Coconino National Forest (Arizona Trail Passage 31, 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, which I wrote about in my last post as one of the best breakfast places in Flagstaff. The weather is going to cool off again in the next few days, dipping down into the 20s overnight.

We encounter Neil Bob, another SOBO thruhiker from Seattle. He’s staying in town the next few days recovering from some IT band soreness. Oscar drops me and my 75(!) lb pack off near the Trailhead and we say goodbye. I hike down the access trail and rejoin the main Arizona Trail, then start south again.

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Arizona Trail in Upper Walnut Canyon, Coconino National Forest (Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Coconino Sandstone walls in upper Walnut Canyon, Coconino National Forest (Arizona Trail Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)

The trail passes through Walnut Canyon, beneath towering cliffs of Coconino Sandstone tinted gray and pink and highlighted with green ponderosa pines. Finally it climbs out and passes through a reroute in a burn area. It looks like the original trail here has been intentionally covered with logs on at least one end, and the reroute is marked with flags, so I’m guessing the reroute is permanent. Just shy of Marshall Mesa Tank I run out of daylight and stop for the night. Tomorrow will start the trek across Anderson Mesa toward Mormon Lake.

Fall on the slopes of Walnut Canyon, Coconino National Forest (Arizona Trail Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
San Francisco Peaks from the Arizona Trail climbing out of Walnut Canyon, Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oaks in fall on the rim of Walnut Canyon, Coconino National Forest (Arizona Trail Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Arizona Trail in Coconino National Forest, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oaks, Coconino National Forest (Arizona Trail, Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oaks, Coconino National Forest (Arizona Trail, Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oaks, Coconino National Forest (Arizona Trail, Passage 31, 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 Thruhike, Day 27 – Passages 31 (Walnut Canyon) and 33 (Flagstaff South)

Relieve video for today

Day 33 of this hike that started in Arizona and has passed through the canyon country of southern Utah and high plateaus of northern Arizona to reach this point. At the end of today I will be about 1/3 done. I slept well last night on a bed of pine needles near the trail. Early start this morning. The trail continues to follow the rim west and south, through the ponderosas and oaks glowing in the morning night.

Gambel oaks along the Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
The Arizona Trail passes through ponderosas and gambel oaks in Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oaks along the Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
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Upcanyon view of Walnut Canyon from the Arizona Trail east of Fisher Point, Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oaks, juniper and ponderosas along the Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oaks along the Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Walnut Canyon, upcanyon view. Arizona Trail Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon).
West view from Fisher Point, near the upper mouth of Walnut Canyon. Arizona Trail Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
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It then eventually passes Fisher Point and drops off the rim to the bottom of Walnut Canyon.

Descending through the ponderosas into Walnut Canyon from Fisher Point, Coconino National Forest. Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
Descending through the ponderosas into Walnut Canyon from Fisher Point, Coconino National Forest. Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
Descending through the ponderosas into Walnut Canyon from Fisher Point, Coconino National Forest. Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
Looking back up at Fisher Point and the walls of Walnut Canyon, Coconino National Forest. Arizona Trail Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
View of Elden Mountain from Passage 33 (Flagstaff). Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest
Glorious weather hiking through the pines toward Flagstaff on Passage 33. Arizona Trail, Coconino National Forest.
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After maybe a half mile or so in the canyon, the trail comes to a junction. The AZT itself continues straight toward Anderson Mesa, following the Canyon. The route into Flagstaff turns right and heads north. I will be heading straight in a day or so, but for now I have a few more things to take care of in town, and some things to pick up that I did not need over the last few days. So I take the right, up a broad side canyon with occasional pines and cliffs rising above. The trail eventually connects to the Flagstaff Urban Trail System, and I slowly encounter more people as it nears town. It crosses back under Interstate 40, and emerges near the REI. It is about midday when I reach this point. I pick up something to drink at the mall, then head there to start my resupply before grabbing some dinner with my friend and repacking before continuing south.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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, 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.

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

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.

Peaking gambel oaks in the filtered forest light. Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Peaking gambel oaks in the filtered forest light. Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Peaking gambel oaks in the filtered forest light. Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest

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. I filled up on water at the visitor center for the National Monument, so I should have enough to get me back into Flagstaff. 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.

After the late start due to the magnificent cliff dwellings at the monument, I dont quite make it as far as I would like to before evening rolls around. I make camp near the trail on a bed of pine needles and crash for the night. Tomorrow I will be back in Flagstaff.

View up Walnut Canyon from the Arizona Trail skirting the rim. Passage 31, Walnut Canyon, Coconino National Forest
A peek into Walnut Canyon from the rim at the second spur overlook. Arizona Trail Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Peaking gambel oaks in the filtered forest light. Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green juniper and ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes gambel oaks in fall foliage amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Gambel oaks and juniper stand beside the Arizona Trail in Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon) on the Coconino National Forest
Gambel oaks and juniper stand beside the Arizona Trail in Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon) on the Coconino National Forest
Gambel oaks and juniper stand beside the Arizona Trail in Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon) on the Coconino National Forest
A peek into Walnut Canyon from the rim. Arizona Trail Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Peeking down Walnut Canyon from the rim. Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks rise to the north on the left. Arizona Trail Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Walnut Canyon Panorama from
Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks from the Arizona Trail along the rim of Walnut Canyon in the Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Panorama of the San Francisco Peaks and Walnut Canyon from the second spur overlook in Coconino National Forest (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Evening light ices the rim of Walnut Canyon as viewed from the second spur overlook along the Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
Downcanyon view through dense ponderosa forest from the second spur overlook on the Arizona Trail (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon) in the Coconino National Forest. This is part of the largest intact stand of ponderosa pines in the world – and from here, it is not hard to see why.
Evening light illuminates the gambel oaks, ponderosa and juniper found on lower and south-facing portions of the rim of Walnut Canyon as the Arizona Trail heads south and west through the Coconino National Forest. (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Evening light illuminates the gambel oaks, ponderosa and juniper found on lower and south-facing portions of the rim of Walnut Canyon as the Arizona Trail heads south and west through the Coconino National Forest. (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Evening light illuminates the gambel oaks on the rim of Walnut Canyon as the Arizona Trail heads south and west through the Coconino National Forest. (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Evening light illuminates the gambel oaks on the rim of Walnut Canyon as the Arizona Trail heads south and west through the Coconino National Forest. (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Evening light illuminates the gambel oaks on the rim of Walnut Canyon as the Arizona Trail heads south and west through the Coconino National Forest. (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)
Evening light illuminates the gambel oaks on the rim of Walnut Canyon as the Arizona Trail heads south and west through the Coconino National Forest. (AZT Passage 31, Walnut Canyon)

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

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.

The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest

I get back to where I camped and pick up a few things I had left there while I was at Walnut Canyon National Monument. 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. I filled up on water at the visitor center for the National Monument, so I should have enough to get me back into Flagstaff. 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.

A peek into Walnut Canyon from the rim. Arizona Trail Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
View back down Walnut Canyon from the Arizona Trail skirting the rim on Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks and toomey’s century plants – characteristic of a south-facing slope at this elevation – amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes stands of mature ponderosa, with their classic reddish-tinted bark. I can almost smell their butterscotch aroma in the picture….(Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest)
The Arizona Trail passes stands of mature ponderosa in a classic northern Arizona drainage, with their classic reddish-tinted bark. I can almost smell their butterscotch aroma in the picture….(Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest)
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest
The Arizona Trail passes peaking gambel oaks amid green ponderosa in the filtered forest light. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Coconino National Forest

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 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 25: Passages 32/31, Elden Mountain and Walnut Canyon (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 32)

After spending the night at the excellent Grand Canyon International Hostel, I indulge in an excellent breakfast at Tourist House (excellent breakfast burritos) and the Old Towne Creperie in Flagstaff. Delicious, all. One of the truly enjoyable things about thruhiking, indulging a bit with the knowledge that you’ll burn off the calories pretty quick on the trail.

I catch an Uber back to Picture Canyon around midday and hike and wander around the loop through the Preserve before rejoining the Arizona Trail. There are some great archeological sites as well as many petroglyphs throughout the area; Flagstaff’s only waterfall, on the Rio de Flag; and a historic railroad trestle.

The signage in the area is great, helping to understand this historic site. The Waterbird petroglyphs feature numerous symbols, including a bird-shaped one commonly referred to as “waterbird,” but which could be a crane or great blue heron, which may have been more common when the petroglyph creators, the Northern Sinaqua, lived in the region. It remains a clan symbol for their descendants, the Hopi and Zuni.

Zig zag petroglyphs are believed to represent lightning by Hopi and Zuni; other tribes believe them to possibly be water-related. Some interpret them as mountains.

Images of the sun and moon have many variations but may represent specific celestial events. They may also suggest the presence of the Yavapai, the People of the Sun.

Human shaped figures have various interpretations as well. One specific case is detailed in the photos below. Some appear to have tails, which according to the signage the Zuni believe represents their emergence from the underworld.

Four legged animals resemble bighorn sheep and may represent animal migrations, while spiral images have a variety of interpretations, including migration routes, water hole locations, coiled snakes, or whirlwinds. Some interpret them to symbolize and represent the path of the sun. The only relative certainty is that they represent some kind of motion.

Simple linear figures, likewise, can represent many different things – streams, maps, migration routes, and are simultaneously the figures hardest to interpret and those that provide the most room for imagination in interpretation.

Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve. The human figure on the left may represent Masaw, the Hopi earth guardian. According to the signage at the site, his location near a migration symbol may represent the migration of Hopi and Zuni into this world.
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Waterbird Petroglyphs, Picture Canyon Preserve
Pithouse archeological site along Don Weaver Trail, Picture Canyon Preserve
View down Picture Canyon toward Turkey Hills, Don Weaver Trail
Petroglyphs at Petroglyph Overlook along Don Weaver Trail, Picture Canyon Preserve
Historic railroad ties, Picture Canyon Preserve
Flagstaff’s only waterfall, Picture Canyon Preserve

Continuing east on the AZT, the pines drop away completely and pinyon/juniper replaces them. Train after train passes, then the trail takes a hard right and passes under the BNSF tracks and then I-40.

View of Elden Mountain (left), Little Elden Mountain (center), and the San Francisco Peaks (right) from the Arizona Trail in the Coconino National Forest east of Picture Canyon Preserve. Passage 32, Elden Mountain
Wildcat Hill covered with pinyon & juniper in Coconino National Forest along the Arizona Trail, Passage 32 (Elden Mountain)
Rabbitbrush blooms among isolated ponderosas as the landscape transitions to pinyon/juniper woodland. Arizona Trail Passage 32 (Elden Mountain)
Classic pinyon/juniper woodland along the Arizona Trail, Passage 32 (Elden Mountain)
Crossing under I-40 on the Arizona Trail. Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
View back toward Elden and Little Elden Mountains, the San Francisco Peaks and (far right) Turkey Hills along the Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)

I barely miss the time cutoff for Walnut Canyon National Monument, so I’ll have to camp in the vicinity and hit that in the AM. The trail crosses the entrance road, entering passage 30 and then begins to ascend into pines again, and the late afternoon light on the changing oaks and pines is gorgeous. I make camp near the Old Walnut Canyon Rd and opt to stay here for the night. Going to have to push my second full resupply/zero day in Flag to Tuesday instead of Monday.

Ponderosas start to reappear in greater numbers on the south side of I-40 on the Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
Ponderosas mix with pinyon-juniper woodland in evening light along Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oak in evening light along the Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)
Gambel oak and ponderosa pines in evening light along the Arizona Trail, Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon)

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.