Golden aspens decorate the Inner
Basin's Lockett Meadow, below
San Francisco Peaks.
© Chuck Lawsene
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Editor's Note click to expand
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Weatherford TrailPines, aspens, meadows, mountains ... the only thing this trail doesn’t have is crowds of people.
By Robert Stieve
It's hard to imagine driving a Model T up the slopes of Fremont Peak, but that's what John Weatherford had in mind in the 1920s when he constructed an eponymous toll road to the upper reaches of the San Francisco Peaks. It was an ambitious undertaking that was ultimately undermined by the Great Depression. Fortunately, he had better luck with his hotel in Flagstaff. Today, the Hotel Weatherford (he liked his name) is still one of the best places to stay, and his toll road, as it turns out, has turned into one of the best trails in Arizona.
The easy-to-follow route, which no longer resembles a road, begins at Schultz Tank and climbs gradually through an open grove of ponderosas to the intersection with the Kachina Trail. When you get there, look around. Although the trail is rated moderate for difficulty, it's rated extreme for beauty. The pines, the aspens, the meadows, the mountains ... no wonder Weatherford chose this route. It looks like something you'd see on the cover of a John Denver album.
Continuing uphill, the trail enters the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. From this point, it's about 4 miles to Doyle Saddle, which is named for Alan Doyle, a hunting guide who had a camp in the peaks in the late 19th century. The saddle makes an ideal turnaround point, but don't rush to get there. The scenery only gets better as you climb toward the sky.
Just past the wilderness boundary, you'll skirt the ridge of a shaded canyon on your right. As you look across to the opposite slope, you'll see a kaleidoscope of greens. The colors of the trees are stunning. And so are the stately aspens you'll encounter along the trail. Sadly, hundreds of reprobates have carved their initials into the trees. Some of the etchings are recent, and some date back decades to the Basque sheepherders who worked the area. If you get an undisciplined urge, remember, you're not a Basque sheepherder. You're a hiker. They were bored. You won't be. Leave the trees alone.
Moving on, the trail becomes a series of gradual switchbacks and the vegetation changes from ponderosas and aspens to alpine species including corkbark fir and Englemann spruce. It's there that you might see bears (not likely), turkeys, blue grouse and Clark's nutcrackers, a type of jay. The best encounter, however, will be made with your ears, not your eyes — listen for the bugling of bull elk this month as they lumber through the woods in search of willing partners.
Wildlife notwithstanding, you'll eventually get to a point where the forest opens up and views of the peaks steal the show. There's one place in particular, just before you make the turn into the final switchback, where you'll want to turn around. "Holy moly" is what you'll whisper.
From there, it's a quick hop to the top. If it isn't stormy, settle in and enjoy the views. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Oak Creek Canyon. And this time of year, the leaves should be changing color, making the Inner Basin even more beautiful than normal. And best of all, it's free. Despite John Weatherford's best-laid plans.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: 14.8 miles round-trip (to Doyle Saddle)
Elevation: 8,020 to 11,354 feet
Directions: From Flagstaff, drive 2 miles north on U.S. Route 180 to Forest Road 420 (Schultz Pass Road). Continue on FR 420 past the end of the pavement for approximately 5.5 miles to the trailhead, which is on the right (south) side of the road. FR 420 is closed in the winter because of snow.
Information: 928-526-0866 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino
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