Scenery along the Mormon Mountain
Trail includes distant vistas of
the San Francisco Peaks.
© Tom Bean
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Mormon Mountain TrailAlong with views of Mormon Lake, this quiet hike features an old-growth forest of ponderosa pines and several meadows that will likely be awash with wildflowers.
By Robert Stieve
Ponderosa pines can get old. Not in the figurative sense of, "Eh, if I see one more ponderosa, I'm going to scream," but literally old. Some can live up to 500 years. Compared to bristlecone pines, that's nothing, but in Northern Arizona, it's impressive. That's why old-growth forests like the one surrounding the Mormon Lake Trail are so special.
Like all old and well-established forests, this one is made up of big trees, snags (large, standing dead trees), downed logs, clumps of younger trees, seedlings and small clearings. The snags in particular are vital to the survival of the forest because they provide habitat for birds and other small creatures, which then become food for the resident hawks, eagles, bears, coyotes and foxes. It's all part of a sophisticated ecosystem, and you'll get a firsthand look on this hike.
The quiet trail begins at the rear of the group-camp area at Dairy Springs Campground. For the first few minutes, the trail overlaps a self-guided nature trail in the campground. Before long, though, you'll come to a gate, beyond which is an intersection with the Arizona Trail. In case you're wondering, it's 28.4 miles from this point to Flagstaff, and the Arizona Trail as a whole is 819 miles from Utah to Mexico. But you're not taking the Arizona Trail. Not now, anyway. Instead, you're going straight.
After about 15 or 20 minutes, the forest of mixed conifers and oaks opens up briefly, offering your first glimpse of Mormon Lake, as well as the grassy flats and forest-covered hills that surround it. Depending on the time of year, and what the weather's been like, the lake may or may not have water in it. Either way, you'll get your bearings. You'll also see signs of elk, which use this trail to get wherever it is they're going. Yet another highlight as you move along is the abundance of wildflowers. Initially, you'll see a few flowers springing up among the trees, but when you hit the 60-minute mark of the hike, you'll come to a small grassy meadow that's often flooded with lupines and more.
Just beyond the meadow, the first aspen appears off to the right. There are a few others along the way, but this is primarily a ponderosa forest. By the way, you can tell the age of a ponderosa by its bark. For the first 120 to 150 years of its life, its bark is blackish. As it gets older, the bark changes to a yellowish-red color and forms the flat "plates" you're familiar with.
The trail stays much the same for the next half-hour, climbing gradually through the pines and occasional aspens. Then, after about an hour and a half, the underbrush thickens with grasses and shrubs. This is your best bet for seeing an elk. Heed the advice of Elmer Fudd and you might get lucky.
From there, it's a quick scamper to a large meadow that marks the end of the trail. At this point, you can either turn around and head back or follow Forest Road 648 to the 8,449-foot summit of Mormon Mountain. If you have the energy, you might as well go to the top. Among other things, it'll give you a little more time to appreciate the special nature of this old-growth forest.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: 6 miles round-trip
Elevation: 7,200 to 8,449 feet
Directions: From Flagstaff, go south on Forest Highway 3 for 20 miles to the intersection with Forest Road 90. Turn right (west) onto FR 90 and drive 3.5 miles to the Montezuma Lodge turnoff. Drive 0.6 miles to the trailhead. All roads are paved except the last 0.6 miles.
Vehicle Requirements: Accessible to all vehicles
Dogs Allowed: Yes, on a leash
USGS Map: Mormon Lake, Mormon Mountain
Information: Peaks/Mormon Lake Ranger Districts, 928-526-0866 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino
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