The San Francisco Peaks rise above fall-colored aspen trees. The peaks are sacred to several Native American tribes.
© Tom Bean
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Hart Prairie RoadOf all the scenic drives in this issue — and there are some beauties — this one might be the most picturesque.
By Leah Duran
Aspens are the essence of fall in Arizona. If you're not of that opinion, you might change your mind after driving along Hart Prairie Road (Forest Road 151). This 10-mile scenic stretch is an easy addition to a day in Flagstaff or a worthwhile diversion on the way to the Grand Canyon. The journey into golden splendor begins approximately 10 miles north of town, just off U.S. Route 180.
A medley of yellow-tipped mullein, purple thistles and lavender asters offers the first splashes of color beneath an awning of ponderosa pines. As the dirt road crests the hill after 1 mile, you won't miss the first glimpse of aspens, neon beacons shining through a sea of pines on the right. These saplings herald a small taste of the treasures to come.
Add a half-mile along a road that curves like a river, and the pines part to reveal open skies and meadows accented by the San Francisco Peaks. When the Grateful Dead wrote Fire on the Mountain, the band's inspiration could have been Humphreys Peak. With bright plumes of aspens flanking its sides, the mountain appears swathed in a vibrant flame.
Intimate views — close enough to see carvings of names and hearts marring the trees' white bark — first appear around 3 miles. The air might be chilly, but it's worth rolling your window down to view autumn's brilliant colors, as orange leaves mingle with green grasses and auburn ferns. Pass over a cattle guard, and clumps of aspens dominate fields to the left as the road reaches a plateau.
When the scenery morphs into meadows, look for songbirds like swallows and flycatchers near Hart Prairie Preserve, a former homestead. From 1892 to 1901, stagecoaches taking visitors from Flagstaff to the South Rim stopped here for rest and refreshments. Now, herds of elk and deer frequent the area. The Nature Conservancy offers guided tours of the preserve until early October.
Barbed wire and wooden fences farther along mark private property; be alert to runners, walkers and ATV riders sharing the occasionally rutted and rocky road. At 6 miles, FR 151 intersects Bismarck Lake Road (Forest Road 627). For those wanting to hike, this detour leads to a trailhead in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness.
Nature showcases her own magical version of the yellow brick road as aspen leaves line the way forward. More still swirl downward at the slightest breeze and create a melody of soft bells. Those that don't reach the ground cling like ornaments to the needles of subalpine fir. Wait to pull over and take pictures when the road widens to fit two cars at 7 miles.
Ghostly spires of charred pines are jagged tombstones giving way to aspens, early successional species that thrive after natural disturbances. Glide smoothly along gently rolling roads as you bid farewell to the last sprinklings of fall foliage.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 10 miles one way
Directions: From Flagstaff, drive west on U.S. Route 180 for approximately 10 miles, and turn right onto Hart Prairie Road (Forest Road 151), which is just before Mile Marker 226. Continue on FR 151 for approximately 8 miles to the intersection of Forest Road 418, veer left to stay on FR 151, and continue approximately 2 miles to U.S. 180.
Vehicle Requirements: Although the dirt road is rutted and rocky in some places, it is accessible to all vehicles. As with most back roads, however, a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don't travel alone and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Flagstaff Ranger District, 928-774-1147 or www.fs.usda.gov/coconino
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.