Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff
By Robert Stieve
The first thing you need to know about this hike is that it might be the last one you ever do in the San Francisco Peaks. That's because it comes with just about everything, including scenery, solitude and sweat, and the next time you're planning an outing up there, you're going to wonder: Why would I hike anything but the Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop? It might be the perfect trail.
From the trailhead, the loop begins as a wide path through a grassy meadow surrounded by aspens, ponderosas, black bears (which you probably won't see) and elk (which you might). Then, before you know it, it arrives at a junction where the Bear Jaw Trail splits left and Abineau goes right. Either way will work. This listing runs clockwise, to the left.
Initially, the trail drops slightly, and then, about 25 minutes in, it crosses into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. This is where the uphill workout begins, and where Humphreys Peak makes its first appearance. Fifteen minutes later, you'll reach the ridge of Bear Jaw Canyon and get another look at the peaks. Just beyond that look, the trail passes a bizarre grove of "bowing" aspens. There are hundreds of them, maybe thousands, bent to one side by some force of nature.
Moving on, the trail passes through what is arguably the most beautiful aspen grove on Earth. (The hyperbole you're wondering about will disappear when you see the trees for yourself.) Linger a little. The next big landmark is the pipeline road that connects the two trails included in this loop. It's a narrow jeep road that climbs gradually into an ecosystem made up of Engelmann spruce, Douglas firs and more aspens. The aspens are everywhere.
Eventually, after 2 miles, you'll leave the forest and arrive at the high point of the hike. You'll know you're there when you see an intersection with the Abineau Trail, which cuts left for a short distance to Abineau Spring, and right to continue the loop. Before you go, though, you'll want to take off your backpack and take a look around.
The scene is dominated by views of the San Francisco Peaks to the south, but the look to the north is nice, too. Among other things, the Grand Canyon — some 90 miles away — appears as a wide gap in a broad plateau that stretches from the foot of the mountain to the horizon. Mother Nature likes to show off on this trail, and this is where she makes her boldest statement. Enjoy the views and the solitude you'll surely be experiencing — the north slope of the San Francisco Peaks doesn't get a lot of foot traffic.
Back on the trail, the downhill run kicks off with a mad scramble over a field of rocks the size of Oldsmobiles. The rocks are remnants of a massive avalanche that dramatically altered the landscape in 2005. It's a fascinating look at what can happen when a mountain shrugs its shoulders, but watch your step. The trail at this point is tricky, steep and sloppy, and it stays that way for about 20 minutes, until it drops back into the woods. From there, it winds for about 2 miles through Abineau Canyon, under a canopy of aspens and evergreens, back to where you started. But that's not the end. You'll be back on this loop again. As you'll see, Abineau-Bear Jaw might be the perfect trail, and it's the best way to explore the north slope of the San Francisco Peaks.
PHOTO: The hike offers a stunning view of the north slope of the San Francisco Peaks. | Tom Brownold
Length: 6.8-mile loop
Elevation: 8,536 to 10,284 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 35˚23.177', W 111˚40.601'
Directions: From downtown Flagstaff, drive north on U.S. Route 89 for 15.7 miles to Forest Road 420, which is directly across from the turnoff to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Turn left onto FR 420 and continue about a half-mile to Forest Road 552. Turn right onto FR 552 and continue 1 mile to Forest Road 418. Turn right onto FR 418 and continue 8.1 miles to Forest Road 9123J. Turn left onto FR 9123J and continue 0.5 miles to the trailhead.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes
USGS Maps: Humphreys Peak, White Horse Hills
Information: Flagstaff Ranger District, 928-526-0866 or www.fs.usda.gov/coconino