San Francisco Peaks
By Robert Stieve
If you’ve been thinking of hiking the Matterhorn, but only have enough gas money to get to Flagstaff, head to the Inner Basin. This scenic wonder in the San Francisco Peaks is Arizona’s own little version of the Alps, and the hike that takes you there is as good as it gets when autumn rolls around. It’s spectacular in the spring and summer, but fall is the best time of year for exploring what was once the inside of an ancient volcano. The amber explosion of the aspens is incredible.
The trail begins at Lockett Meadow, which is also home to one of the best campgrounds in the state. Are you noticing a theme here? Despite its popularity, everything about this area is picturesque and peaceful. It’s grassy and green, and if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you might even see one of the resident porcupines, elk or black bears, the latter of which have been known to stroll right through a group of picnickers without so much as a glance at their picnic baskets. Clearly, they don’t run with Yogi.
From the campground, the trail climbs gradually through a forest of ponderosa pines and aspens. Although John Hancock never hiked this trail or left his mark, many others have, including “Paco Lalastra Santaner,” who carved his name in an innocent aspen in November 1934.
The trees are covered with carvings, some old, some new, some are hard to tell. The common denominator is that every one of those knife-wielding numbskulls committed a crime. That includes you, “JC (8/16/09).” Don’t make the same mistake. Also, don’t become so preoccupied with reading the graffiti that you miss the bigger picture. Instead, see the forest and the trees.
Among the most impressive are the seven aspens you’ll see clumped together about 30 minutes into the hike. They’re off to the right, just past the gate you’ll pass through. A few minutes later, you’ll start to feel the forest open up a little, and you’ll come to a major intersection. To the left is the route to Schultz Pass Road; to the right is an access road to the Bear Jaw and Abineau trails. There’s also an old green shed here with a yellow Forest Service sign that reads: “Snow-Survey Shelter, Do Not Molest.” The shed is used by rangers who measure snowfall in the winter.
From this point, the Inner Basin is less than a half-mile away. But before you get there, you’ll pass a log pump house that shields a well that was drilled in 1971. Because the Inner Basin provides water for the city of Flagstaff, there are several pump houses in the area. This one goes down 485 feet.
Beyond the well, the trail merges with an old Jeep road that takes you the rest of the way. It’s wide enough that you and three of your closest friends could skip, side-by-side, à la Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. The wizard won’t be waiting at the end of the trail, but Mother Nature surely will. As you’ll see, there’s no place like the Inner Basin. With its lush meadows and the surrounding summits of the San Francisco Peaks, you’ll forget all about the Matterhorn.
Photo: Aspen groves are a highlight of the Inner Basin Trail. | Tom Bean
Length: 4 miles round-trip
Elevation: 8,600 to 9,400 feet
Directions: From Flagstaff, go north on U.S. Route 89 for 12 miles and, just past the Sunset Crater entrance, turn left onto Forest Road 420. Continue on the dirt road and follow the signs to Lockett Meadow Campground; the trailhead is well-marked.
Vehicle Requirements: None, accessible to all
Dogs Allowed: Yes, but dogs must be leashed, and they’re not allowed above the watershed cabin.
USGS Map: Humphreys Peak
Information: Peaks Ranger District, 928-526-0866 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino