The short hike into Red Mountain's natural amphitheater reveals impressive views of the cinder cone's hoodoos.
© Christine Keith
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Red Mountain TrailThis short hike offers panoramic views of the San Francisco Peaks, a great lesson in geology and a rare look inside an ancient volcano.
By Robert Stieve
The old double-decker buses in London, the square in Moscow, the Coke can, Bonnie Raitt's hair, the little girl who was stalked by the Big Bad Wolf … a lot of icons in this world are red, but in Arizona, red is an adjective that usually describes scenic rock formations, especially in the Grand Canyon, Sedona and Monument Valley. Not as famous, but impressive nonetheless, is Red Mountain, which sits about 25 miles northwest of Flagstaff.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Red Mountain is one of several hundred cinder cones within a large volcanic field that stretches from Williams to the canyon of the Little Colorado River. The centerpiece of this hike is Red Mountain, which erupted about 740,000 years ago. By comparison, Sunset Crater, the well-known volcano just north of Flagstaff, erupted around A.D. 1050. This one is much older, but that's not what makes it unique. What's unusual about Red Mountain, which rises 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, is that its internal structure is exposed — like a massive geode that's been cracked in half. This one-of-a-kind trail takes you into that core, an area known as the amphitheater.
The trailhead is located just off U.S. Route 180, the highway most people take when heading to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff. Few passersby, however, ever stop. And that's too bad, because this short hike offers not only scenery, but also a great lesson in geology. Plus, the trail is rated easy, so just about anybody in the car can do it.
It begins with a gradual uphill climb through a field of scattered junipers and piñon pines. For the most part, you'll be surrounded by open country, which allows for some wonderful panoramic views of the San Francisco Peaks to the northeast, as well as Red Mountain right in front of you. By the way, in addition to being easy, it's impossible to get lost on this trail. Even Mr. Magoo could find his way.
The last half-mile of the hike follows a normally dry streambed. If you look down at the sand, you'll see thousands, even millions, of black shiny granules, some of which are as big as golf balls. These granules are often mistaken for "Apache tears," which are composed of obsidian, the volcanic glass that was highly valued by ancient cultures for crafting arrowheads, knives, scrapers and other tools. But don't be fooled. What you're actually seeing are the crystals of minerals (pyroxene and amphibole) eroded from the volcano. Once you get into the amphitheater, take a closer look at the walls and you'll see more of these minerals embedded in the cinders. Eventually, they'll be plucked out by water and wind erosion.
Meantime, they're among the many things to explore inside the amphitheater, along with the erosional pillars known as "hoodoos" — they're similar to what you see in Bryce Canyon National Park. As you look around, remind yourself that you're actually standing inside an ancient volcano. It's a rare opportunity. An experience at least as impressive as standing in Red Square or next to Bonnie Raitt.
Trail Guideclick to expand/contract
Length: 2.5 miles round-trip
Elevation: 6,745 to 7,200 feet
Directions: From Flagstaff, drive northwest on U.S. Route 180 for approximately 25 miles to a dirt road at Milepost 247 (look for the Forest Service sign that marks the Red Mountain Trail). Turn left onto the dirt road and drive about a quarter-mile to the trailhead.
Vehicle Requirements: None
USGS Map: Flagstaff, Ebert Mountain
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