Buck MountainLadybugs are everywhere—tiny jeweled beetles clinging thick as plaster to trees, with more arriving. They number in the thousands at the end of the trail up 7,571-foot Buck Mountain in the Coconino National Forest, 37 miles southeast of Flagstaff. Buck Mountain Trail, actually a two-track service road, has a locked gate with an opening large enough for hikers to pass through. The easy-rated hike involves a 300-foot elevation gain over three-quarters of a mile up the road to the lookout. The lookout atop Buck Mountain is only one of two towers in Arizona made completely of wood. The other is East Pocket Lookout in Oak Creek Canyon north of Sedona. The nearby national forest offers many primitive campsites, and other area attractions include the easy drive to another fire lookout atop Indian Maiden Mountain. But be sure to include the hike up Buck Mountain as part of a summertime outing in Arizona's high country. The incredible views from the summit reveal the craggy San Francisco Peaks to the north. Maybe the ladybugs like the views, too.
Trail GuideLength: 1.5 miles, round-trip
Elevation: 7,250 to 7,571 feet
Directions: From Flagstaff, drive south on State Route 89A, which becomes Interstate 17, to Exit 339 (Forest HIghway 3). Travel southeast on FR 3 to Forest Road 229, about 5 miles south of Happy Jack. Turn right (west) on Forest Road 229; drive about 2 miles and turn left on 229B. Travel about .75 of a mile and turn left on the service road. Drive to the service road gate.
Information: Coconino National Forest, Mogollon Rim Ranger District, 928 477-2255; www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino.
Thumb ButteAbout 3,000 hikers amble up the slopes of Prescott's distinctive landmark, Thumb Butte, on a typical month, making it the Prescott National Forest's most popular hike. The 2-mile, 90-minute Thumb Butte Loop Trail is appealing — you can sample the 1.25 million-acre Prescott National Forest in central Arizona in the morning and still browse historic downtown Prescott's shops and restaurants in the afternoon. In the shade of towering ponderosa pine trees with a view of the dark basalt Thumb Butte, you'll follow the path south past scattered chaparral: Arizona white oak, mountain mahogany, manzanita and juniper. One of the trail's many interpretive signs explained that you can spot squirrels' nests high in the ponderosa pines: "They look like messy clumps of needles, but are actually carefully built homes with entrances, ceilings and inside linings of soft materials." Classified as a moderate trail, the path at times rises steeply past gambel oaks and scatterings of wildflowers, including brilliant yellow goldenrods and orange-red penstemons. After hiking south nearly a mile, the trail veersto the east. Less than a quarter of a mile later, you'll reach the junction to the Groom Creek Vista, which offers a spectacular bird's-eye view of a wide-open azure sky.
Trail GuideLength: 2-mile loop
Elevation: 5,700 to 6, 300 feet
Directions: From Phoenix, drive north on Interstate 17 approximately 62 miles and get off at Exit 262, State Route 69. Travel northwest about 34 miles and then follow the sign to Gurley Street, which passes through downtown Prescott. From downtown, travel west on Gurley Street, which becomes Thumb Butte Road. Continue on to the Thumb Butte picnic area, located about 3 miles from Prescott's courthouse.
Information: Prescott National Forest, Bradshaw Ranger District, 928-443-8000; www.fs.fed.us/r3/prescott.
Packard TrailFor more than a millennium, the 5-mile Packard Trail has meandered through sycamores, junipers and hillsides to deliver travelers near the doorstep of a Sinagua Indian mystery. The eight to 10-hour round-trip day hike starts 11 miles northwest of Tuzigoot National Monument, an ancient hilltop pueblo overlooking the Verde River where the Sinagua people grew corn, beans and squash between the 8th and 15th centuries. Packard Trail begins at a fork with the Parson Spring Trail downhill from a parking circle at the end of Forest Road 131 in the Prescott National Forest with a strenuous, 2.5-mile, 1,100-foot elevation gain as it climbs out of leafy, spring-fed Sycamore Creek at 3,600 feet elevation. The trail climbs through a grassy hillside to the juniper plateau at the 4,880-foot top of Packard Mesa. Packard Trail leaves the Sycamore Wilderness Area and merges with Forest Trail 63, a main hike and horse route, that leads north back into the wilderness area. Along Trail 63, about a quarter mile north of the Packard Trail junction, stands Sycamore Tank, where junipers yield to an open park crisscrossed with cattle trails. About 9 miles from the 63 trailhead, near an old ranch camp called Taylor Cabin, a large cave with a natural chimney may also have sheltered the Sinagua traveling between the Mogollon Rim high country and Tuzigoot.
Trail GuideLength: 5 miles, one-way
Elevation: 3,600 to 4,600 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Location: About 50 miles southwest of Flagstaff.
Directions: From Flagstaff, drive southwest on State Route 89A about 44 miles to Cottonwood. From Cottonwood, take Main Street northwest toward Clarkdale, following the signs to Tuzigoot National Monument. Turn right on Tuzigoot Road, cross the Verde River and take an immediate left on Sycamore Canyon Road (Forest Service Road 131). Follow the road approximately 10 miles to the vehicle turnaround and trailhead.
Travel Advisory: Carry a compass, trail map and topographical map. Hikers must carry 3 to 4 quarts of water, as water along the route is not safe to drink. Archaeological sites are protected under the law.
Information: Prescott National Forest, Chino Valley Ranger District, 928-777-2200; www.fs.fed.us/r3/prescott.
Sycamore SpringSycamore spring swells from a trickle to a stream beginning in a grove of old-growth sycamore trees before slipping into a shadowy slot canyon in the Arrastra Mountain Wilderness area northwest of Wickenburg in central Arizona. The state Department of Water Resources designates the spring as "unique water" because of the colony of plants that thrive there. The road in and the trail itself are strewn with crumbled granite and boulders, so hikers should wear stout hiking boots to protect their feet. Sycamores mark the spring just downstream from where the trail arrives in Peoples Canyon. The spring water is sweet to drink, but treat it before drinking, because cows use the waterhole as well. Plan a bird-watching safari in March and early April for sightings of migrating species. Or just enjoy the shade of the big sycamores and the soothing, tinkling music of the spring, in a wilderness place not that far away.
Trail GuideLength: 5 miles
Elevation: 3,500 feet
Directions: Turn west off U.S. Route 93 at Milepost 155, about 44 miles north of Wickenburg and 200 yards north of the intersection with State Route 97 to Bagdad. A high-clearance vehicle is required. At 3.2 miles, turn right and proceed to the second windmill. Park there or continue driving to the trailhead near signs marking the Arrastra Mountain Wilderness boundary. The spring is in Peoples Canyon, 1.3 miles from the trailhead.
Travel Advisory: Autumn, winter and early spring are the best times for a Sycamore Spring hike. Beware of summer flash floods.
Information: U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Kingman Field Office, 928-692-4400; www.az.blm.gov/rec/arrastra.htm.
Wilson CanyonCalling hikers toward red-rock spires and variegated cliffs, Wilson Canyon Trail meanders around fragrant Arizona cypress trees. The graceful trees add a sparkling scent of mint to this easy 1.5-mile trail. The trailhead, only about 2 miles from Sedona, lies in Oak Creek Canyon. A favorite time to hike Wilson Canyon is late winter. When high-elevation snows melt, the cold, clear water musically trickles down the canyon. Terraced waterfalls in the intimate sylvan world seem to appear around every bend. The trail parallels the canyon, crossing the unnamed stream several times. Piñon pine trees, one-seed junipers, hollyleaf buckthorns, yuccas and sugar sumacs grace the way. The walking proves easy, allowing plenty of opportunities to view the rock formations that shelter the tree-lined bowl. Lava-capped Wilson Mountain towers to the north. At 7,122 feet, it ranks as the highest point in all of Red Rock Country. To the west rise Shiprock and Wilson Notch, formations carved from the pale Coconino sandstone. Below stand several spires in the red-orange Schnebly Hill formation. Beyond 1.5 miles, the trail fades into the streambed. Turn around anywhere that feels satisfying. Perhaps, before heading back, take a moment to pause. Breathe in the primal energy of this sylvan canyon world, and save the memory for later.
Trail GuideLength: 1.5 miles, one-way
Elevation: 4,500 to 5,000 feet
Directions: From Flagstaff, travel south on State Route 89A. From Sedona, travel north on 89A, and cross Midgley Bridge, the silver structure spanning Wilson Canyon; then turn left into the parking area. Walk to the picnic shelters and begin the hike at the Wilson Canyon #49 sign.
Travel Advisory: Parking at trailheads or pullouts within Red Rock Country in the Coconino National Forest requires a Red Rock Pass. Passes may be purchased at Gateway Visitor Centers when entering Sedona, at automated stations at several trailheads, from local tourist stores or on the Internet.
Information: Coconino National Forest, Red Rock Ranger District, 928-282-4119; http://www.redrockcountry.org.
Boulder CanyonThe rough-hewn scenery of the Superstition Wilderness and its alluring legends always provide an intriguing setting for a hike. German prospector Jacob Waltz, nicknamed "the Dutchman," immortalized the Superstition Mountains with tales of his Lost Dutchman Mine. This legend drew a crowd of prospectors to the mountains in search of a phantom mine the Dutchman described as an 18-inch-thick vein of gold that lies in the shadow of Weavers Needle. The 7.3-mile-long Boulder Canyon Trail, which starts at La Barge Canyon on the northern edge of the Superstition Wilderness, won't take hikers to Waltz's legendary mine, but it will take them to a cluster of adits midway along the trail. The real treasures of the trail, however, show up in natural features. The most abundant are the extravagant panoramas along the path — some of the best in the wilderness. The views start at mile 1 on an overlook that gives a glimpse of the azure shimmer of Canyon Lake to the north and the tempestuous topography of the Superstitions to the south. The overlook makes a good turnaround point for a short hike. When the trail crosses La Barge Canyon's creekbed, it heads into an anomalous area of salmon-colored rock called Indian Paint Saddle. Relics from Indian Paint Mine stand on the top of the tiny saddle. Prospectors left their mark all around the area — hikers might find rusted equipment and prospect tunnels. The mine, at mile 3.4, makes a good turnaround point for a moderate day hike. From Indian Paint Mine, the trail drops into Boulder Canyon and heads south along the canyon floor. The trail ends at the Dutchman Trail in Marsh Valley.
Trail GuideLength: 7.3 miles, one-way
Elevation: 1,680 to 2,300 feet
Directions: From Phoenix, drive east on U.S. Route 60 to Idaho Road, Exit 196. Drive north on Idaho Road about 1 mile, and turn right onto State Route 88, also known as the Apache Trail. Drive 15.8 miles to the trailhead across from the Canyon Lake Marina. Park in the marina parking lot at signs marked "Trailhead Parking." The parking lot is closed from dusk to dawn.
Information: Tonto National Forest, Mesa Ranger District, 480-610-3300; www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
Pinnacle PeakThe Pinnacle Peak Trail in north Scottsdale, established in April 2002, offers a 1.75-mile (one way) hike through some of the most lush Sonoran Desert vegetation found anywhere close to a large city. Much of Pinnacle Peak Park is covered with large granite boulders that seem to cascade down each side of the peak. At the trail's apex, hikers can see Camelback Mountain to the southwest, Humboldt Mountain on the north, and the most dramatic view, Four Peaks, some 25 miles to the east. Near the trail parking lot, stands a visitors center that offers interpretive information, water and restrooms. Starting at an elevation of 2,570 feet, the trail passes by specimens of foothills paloverde trees, banana yuccas and saguaro cacti. Shortly, the trail switchbacks steeply up nearly 300 feet to Grandview Point, a good place to rest and take in the sights. The trail continues a bit to its high point of 2,889 feet and then descends a pass that looks down on multimillion-dollar homes. After another short climb, the trail drops to 2,366 feet at the western end. There is no exit from the park at this point, so turn around and go back up the trail, completing an invigorating 3.5-mile hike.
Trail GuideLength: 1.75 miles, one-way
Elevation: 2,570 to 2,889 feet to 2,366 feet
Directions: From north Phoenix, drive east on Dynamite Boulevard to Alma School Parkway and turn south for 1 mile.
Information: 480-312-0990; www.scottsdaleaz.gov/parks/pinnacle.
Lynx LakeThe 55-acre Lynx Lake lies approximately 4 miles east of Prescott in the Prescott National Forest. The 1.25-million-acre national forest lies in a mountainous section of central Arizona, wedged between forested plateaus to the north and cactus-laden desert to the south. Trail No. 311, a 2-mile loop around the lake, is fragrant with ponderosas and lush in texture. Berries dangle from manzanita bushes' maroon and silver entwined branches, alligator juniper trees wear reptilian bark and woolly mulleins' soft leaves feel like a fuzzy blanket. The trail loops to the south end of the lake, a popular picnicking and bank-fishing destination, and angles down to the mouth of Lynx Creek, which feeds the lake. Sometime's, it's possible to journey south along the east side of the lake, but it's closed to hikers from December 1 to June 15 if nesting bald eagles are hatching eggs.
Trail GuideLength: 2 miles
Elevation: 5,530 feet
Directions: From Phoenix, travel north on Interstate 17 and take the Cordes Junction exit. Turn left onto State Route 69 and drive west toward Prescott. Turn left onto Walker Road in Prescott and follow signs to the Lynx Lake boat ramp.
Travel Advisory: There's a $2 daily parking fee at each Lynx Lake Recreation Area site. One $2 payment allows parking at all Lynx Lake Recreation sites on the same day. For bird-watchers, bald eagles can best be viewed between November and June, and ospreys between March and July.
Information: Prescott National Forest, Bradshaw Ranger District, 928-443-8000 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/prescott.
Sterling Pass TrailSteep and demanding, the 2.4-mile-long Sterling Pass Trail marks a historic route up a beautiful side canyon of Oak Creek Canyon. The trail begins as a mad dash up a short, but steep, forested wall of Oak Creek Canyon. The path settles down to a more sensible climb as it heads to a slick-rock pour-off, contours its edge, then enters a captivating forest. The moist environment cradled between red rock walls, which rise several hundred feet, nurtures a timberland of hardwoods and giant ponderosa pines above a spread of bracken ferns. Though still on the uphill, the trail wends docilely through this pretty forest. By mile one, the path turns austere as it starts a steep, rugged climb out of the drainage. The trail becomes more demanding the higher it climbs, but the panoramic views become more exquisite. At Sterling Pass, hikers will have climbed almost 1,200 feet elevation in 1.7 miles. From there, hikers may return to the trailhead for a shorter day hike or continue on the trail. The path zigzags through the pines down the other side of the pass into Sterling Canyon, dropping 800 feet in three-fourths of a mile to the Vultee Arch Trail.
Trail GuideLength: 2.4 miles, one-way
Elevation: 4,840 to 6,000 feet
Directions: From the intersection of State Route 89A and State Route 179, go north on State 89A, and drive 6.2 miles to the trailhead on the west side of the road, 200 yards north of the Manzanita Campground.
Travel Advisory: A Red Rock Pass is required when parking on national forest lands for recreation in Red Rock Country. Purchase passes at the Gateway Visitor Centers, on the Internet and at a variety of local vendors and self-pay stations.
Information: Coconino National Forest, Red Rock Ranger District, 928-282-4119; www.redrockcountry.com.
Sixshooter TrailIt's not often you come across a trail with an identity crisis, but you're more likely to if you hike in the sky-island ranges. The Sixshooter Trail, just south of Globe in the Pinal Mountains, takes on a manic personality. Within its 6-mile length, the trail obsessively and steeply climbs almost 3,000 feet to transport you from a scrubby chaparral mix along raspy mountain slopes to quaking aspen trees at the trail's end near Ferndell Spring. The trail starts out exposed, without cover, among the chaparral mix of manzanita and scrub-oak bushes. By mile 2, the trail continues its nonstop climb under canopies of Gambel oak trees. Still climbing after about 4 miles, the trail pulls away from the canyon's crevice and stabilizes its personality as it enters pine-oak forest. Just a half-mile from the end, the trail veers off the road to the right and enters a forest of mixed conifers and aspen trees. The trail ends about a quarter-mile beyond Ferndell Spring at its junction with the Middle Trail.
Trail GuideLength: 6 miles
Elevation: 4,600 to 7,560 feet
Directions: Drive to the east edge of Globe on U.S. Route 60, and turn right (south) at Hill Street just past Milepost 251. Follow the brown and white signs 1.2 miles to the Pinal Mountain Recreation Area and turn right onto Icehouse Canyon Road, which is Forest Service Road 112; drive 1.8 miles to a stop sign and continue straight 2 miles to the end of the pavement. Drive 0.5 mile to the CCC Camp picnic area and the Sixshooter Canyon trailhead.
Information: Tonto National Forest, Globe Ranger District, 928-402-6200; www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
Towel CreekA cluster of southern Sinagua Indian ruins that once served as an outpost for prehistoric trade routes along the Verde River can be explored today along Towel Creek Trail, about 85 miles north of Phoenix, in the Coconino National Forest. The 700- to 900-year-old ruins, reachable by a 5.5-mile one-way day hike on Forest Trail 67 from Forest Road 708, southeast of the town of Camp Verde, are among several sites spaced along the river between Phoenix and the Mogollon Rim. Hiking in from FR 708 lets you keep your feet dry to the ruins — all accessible by an easy climb from the main trail. Watch for a yellow fence gate along Verde River Road, about 500 yards south of Needle Rock that marks the trailhead. Cross the wash, follow the old jeep road for 2.5 miles to Towel Tank, where nearly year-round water provides a haven for Gambel's quail. The trail from the tank to the ruins descends 1,000 feet in 2 miles over tipsy rocks and loose gravel.
Trail GuideLength: 5.5 miles, one-way
Elevation: 4,100 feet to 2,900 feet
Directions: From Interstate 17, take the General Crook Trail, State Route 260, into Camp Verde. Follow SR260 across the Verde for 7 miles, then turn south on the graveled FR 708 for 8.5 miles to Needle Rock. Parking is limited to a clearing east of the road just past Needle Rock. Don't block the ranch road on the west side.
Information: Coconino National Forest, Red Rock Ranger District, 928-282-4119; www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino.