Fremont Peak, part of the San Francisco Peaks, dominates the view from Schultz Tank near Flagstaff.
© Tom Bean
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Little Bear LoopFlagstaff has a lot of great hikes, including this one, which offers a parklike setting not far from downtown.
By Roger Naylor
SOME MOUNTAINS wear a mantle of adjectives as easily as they'd wear a cloudbank. Words like "soaring" and "majestic" cling to their mighty shoulders. Other mountains embody a more approachable persona, slouching toward the cosmos with shaggy charm. Put Flagstaff's Mount Elden in the second group.
Mount Elden anchors a prime location (right across the street from the mall) and sports a clustered network of trails, bestowing it with special status among Flagstaff residents. As mountains go, they don't come more accessible or inviting. Elden rises above the town like 9,299 feet of hooky bait, a perpetual temptation to blow off school, work or whatever to spend the afternoon on sun-splashed slopes.
The Little Bear Trail, one of the newer additions to the Mount Elden/Dry Lake Hills Trail System, provides a vivid introduction to high-country terrain. Combining this feisty canyon route with the Little Elden and Sunset trails creates an easily managed 8.5-mile loop, which is popular with hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.
Start on Little Elden Trail in a grassy meadow, streaked summer-to-frost with wildflowers. The trail ambles upward at a gentle tilt through a parklike setting of ponderosa pines and Gambel oaks. You'll pass the signed junction with Little Bear Trail, but continue straight ahead. Soon small groves of aspens and firs crowd the path. After about 3 miles you'll curve past Schultz Tank, a mere footprint of a pond, but rare in this porous volcanic landscape where water seeps but seldom collects.
Still, Schultz Tank, named for a prominent sheep rancher, makes a shimmery accent for the looming San Francisco Peaks in the background. Just beyond the tank, turn left onto Sunset Trail. Navigating broad meadows and elegant forest, Sunset climbs at a moderate pace. Snatches of peak panoramas frequently appear, framed by big timber. The perfume of warm pine wafts along these woods, like Heaven must smell on laundry day.
Don't be surprised if you're heckled by an Abert's squirrel or if you spot mule deer or elk grazing. This chunk of mountain teems with wildlife. And because you'll be hiking a trail named for a certain large mammal, one question will undoubtedly come to mind. The answer is yes. Black bears do reside in the area. Your chances of seeing one of the shy creatures remain exceedingly rare, but keep an eye peeled for tracks.
Where the route intersects with the Brookbank Trail, take a sharp left to stay on Sunset Trail. Soon you'll junction with Little Bear Trail and begin a descent along wide switchbacks through a forested canyon. Little Bear officially opened in 1998, constructed largely by volunteers. The angled swoop of the trail suggests that thrill-hungry mountain bikers had some input into the design.
Kudos to the spoke junkies. The Bear carves a graceful route down the canyon, even brushing by a section of oddly terraced basalt cliffs. Assorted shrubs and wildflowers spill from ledges and burst from crevices. Right beside them, claret cup cactuses thumb their spiny "noses" at high altitudes and winter chill.
This is one of the few spots on the mountain where firs outnumber the pines, thanks to a northern exposure and cool air channeled through the canyon. A few aspens mingle, as well, along with a scattering of Rocky Mountain maples, known for their gaudy autumn displays. Twice along the route, the forest falls away, providing dramatic vistas of Sunset Crater, bracketed by the soft pastels of the Painted Desert.
After 3.5 miles you'll end up back on Little Elden Trail. Turn right and mosey to your vehicle. You can use this quiet stretch to practice your sick-sounding phone voice. It's never too early to start planning your next hooky day atop Mount Elden.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Getting There: Drive 5 miles northeast of Flagstaff on U.S. Route 89 to Elden Springs Road (Forest Service Road 556) and turn left. Continue on this road approximately 2.5 miles to the Little Elden trailhead.
Length: Approximately 8.5-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 1,275 feet
Payoff: Scenic forest, wildlife and panoramic views
Travel Advisory: Stay on designated trails and minimize your impact by not trampling vegetation and by avoiding muddy areas. Dogs must be leashed
at all times. Hikers and mountain bikers should yield to equestrians, and mountain bikers should yield to hikers.
Additional Information: 928-526-0866 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino
Leave No Trace Ethics: