Excitement and (mis)adventure on the Arizona Trail

<i>Stan Bindell/NHO</i><br>
A small patch of Orange Sneezeweed (Hymenoxys hoopesii, formerly known as Helenium hoopesii).

<i>Stan Bindell/NHO</i><br> A small patch of Orange Sneezeweed (Hymenoxys hoopesii, formerly known as Helenium hoopesii).

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - What could be better than hiking with Arizona Highways Editor Robert Stieve? How about getting lost while hiking with Editor Stieve?

It wasn't lost like needing help after several hours or days off track. It was more a case of missing a turn, going the wrong way and coming back a tad to find the way back onto the trail. It just shows that even the best trailblazers will sometimes miss a trail.

This was the opening hike on a portion of the Arizona Trail that cuts across the San Francisco Peaks. About 20 hikers, including six folks from Arizona Highways, joined the hike to learn about the recently completed section of the Arizona Trail.

The hike begins about three-quarters of the way up Snowbowl Road or seven miles from the lower parking lot on the road.

The construction of this section of the Arizona Trail was no small endeavor as planning began in 2005. Construction of the trail began last summer with 295 volunteers participating.

This is just a glimpse of what it took to build the Arizona Trail, which stretches more than 800 miles from Coronado National Memorial which borders Mexico to the south, to Coyote Valley which borders Utah to the north. The Arizona Trail was the brainchild of Flagstaff teacher Dale Shewalter back in the 1990s.

The hike was billed as seven miles, but that's just the way in and the mileage depends on whose gps the reader wants to believe. My gps clocked 6.4 miles going in, but one of the forest rangers said it was 7.3 according to his gps. This hiker is betting that the forest ranger's gps is more accurate, so that meant a 14.6 mile hike and the lost mileage on the way out made the trip longer. Editor Stieve said the hike turned into at least 17 miles.

About half of the hikers had vehicles taken into the seven mile destination point and left from there. Regardless of the length of the hike, everyone was agreeing that the landscape made this hike well worthwhile.

Justin Laxley from Coconino National Forest talked to everyone about safety before the hike. Warning those from the Valley that if they have a shortness of breath that it can be due to the difference in altitude and they need to take a break.

"If there's lightning get away from the tallest person," Laxley joked.

On a more serious note, he said if lightning strikes, hunker down in the smaller trees and get as low to the ground as possible.

The trail starts with a good amount of aspens and pine tree cover, but about a quarter mile into the hike it opens up into a meadow. This area also offers a great panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. This is also where the hikers get the sense that everything on this hike is plush green. The hike begins at about 8,800 feet and climbs to a tad over 9,000 feet before dropping to 8,200 feet. Thus, there is more uphill coming out from the hike.

As the hiker moves on, the aspen trees become even more abundant along with ferns and flowers; the flowers included tons of lupines along with yellow chrysanthemums, wild irises and mariposa lilies.

This appeared to be one of Editor Stieve's favorite hikes.

"You entered into a lush terrain and it was that way throughout. A lot of times you start that way and then your just in pine trees, but this was just magical lush green. I'm sorry for the rest of the Arizona Trail," he said.

The sympathy comes for the rest of the Arizona Trail because, Editor Stieve said, it is so beautiful. He said it's the way Michael Jordan or Paul McCartney's kids feel: How can they match what their father has accomplished?

"For the summer, I can't imagine a more appealing spectacular hike," he said.

Editor Stieve said the San Francisco Peaks are usually the priority in beauty during a hike on them, but in this case the lush green area with the backdrop of aspens, panorama and flowers made the peaks secondary.

Editor Stieve noted that the splendor of the Arizona Trail has not gone unnoticed as President Barack Obama in March signed the Omnibus Public Lands Bill, which gave the Arizona Trail the designation as a scenic trail. It is only one of seven scenic trails in America putting it in the same elite group as the Appalachian, Sierra and Glacier Park trails.

"It's a huge testament to the landscape that you can make a beautiful trail all the way through the state. Not all states could do that," he said.

Editor Stieve pointed out that even the Appalachian Trail, as documented in the book "A Walk in the Woods," appears to be all in one life zone. The Arizona Trail is in six life zones as it travels from low dessert into the high mountains.

Editor Stieve is also awed by the volunteers who built the trail.

"I commend the volunteers for making this accessible to the rest of us. The trails don't build themselves," he said.

Editor Stieve said anyone can do a portion of the trail. He said aside from the altitude the trail is easy as anyone can walk just a small portion of the trail in order to enjoy its beauty.

"Couch potatoes can get into the wilderness without extending themselves," he said. "Anybody can walk in for 25 minutes and turn around. That would give them a good sense of the ferns."

The ferns were too much for Beverly Chambers, one of the volunteer coordinators, who sat down in the ferns to pose for a photo.

Carly Benford, another member of the Arizona Highways entourage, summarized how many felt if they came up from the Valley.

"I liked the beautiful mountain air. We don't get a lot of that in Phoenix," she said.

On the way out, it was a sign that read "Arizona Trail still under construction" that threw hikers off. Coming back and passing the final meadow with the panoramic view, one enters back into the forest. A little ways in is where this sign appeared. Everybody thought the trail was done so they took this trail to the right, which eventually came to a dead end. Returning to the sign, the trail picked up just to left.

Since this hiker was a little older and had a little less bounce to his step he had remained about a quarter mile back of the Arizona Highways entourage on the way back. The good part about being a little back is when the trailblazers take a misstep you can always catch them on the way back.

The Arizona Trail is supported by the Arizona Trail Association to maintain, promote and assist the use and protection of the Arizona Trail. Uses include equestrians, hiking, mountain biking, birding and other forms of outdoor recreation.

For more information, call (602) 252-4794, e-mail ata@aztrail.org or log onto www.aztrail.org.

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