Inner Basin Trail

Photo: Aspens guard a hillside in the San Francisco Peaks, the setting for the Inner Basin Trail. | Shane McDermott
Kachina Peaks Wilderness, Flagstaff
By Robert Stieve

Scenery, solitude, degree of difficulty ... there are many variables to consider when rating a trail. There’s no formula, though, for adding them up and determining “the best.” Like movies and steakhouses and NFL MVPs, there’s no way to objectively proclaim a superlative. Value is subjective. That said, the Inner Basin Trail ranks right up there, despite its obvious demerits: It’s crowded and it’s not especially difficult. What makes it great is the scenery. The Inner Basin 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, too, but fall is the best time of year for exploring what was once the inside of an ancient volcano.

The hike begins at Lockett Meadow, which is also home to one of the best campgrounds in the state — the 17 sites are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and if you’re lucky enough to stake a claim, you’ll be the envy of everyone who owns a tent. 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.

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 hard to tell. The common denominator is that every one of those knife-wielding miscreants 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 through which you’ll pass. 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, which, when combined, add up to what’s arguably the best route on the north slope of the San Francisco Peaks. There’s also an old green shed at the junction, and on it is 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 to an intersection with the Weatherford Trail. Although the route is just under 2 miles from the campground to the turnaround, the trail climbs nearly a thousand feet in that span, and at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet, you might be feeling the effects. Whatever your heart rate, you should plan on sticking around for a while. To enjoy the views. 

The surrounding San Francisco Peaks used to be one great volcano, until it was shattered by an explosion a few million years ago. Today, the mountain is subdivided and the caldera is quiet. 

“Payoff” is another variable when rating a trail. With the exception of Keet Seel, or maybe a few routes in the Grand Canyon, the denouement of the Inner Basin Trail is hard to beat. It might even be enough to make you think: This is the best trail in Arizona.

Trail Guide

Length: 3.9 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 8,567 to 9,403 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 35˚21.464', W 111˚37.118'
Directions: From Flagstaff, go north on U.S. Route 89 for 12 miles to Forest Road 552, which is across from the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument entrance. Turn left onto FR 552 and follow the signs to Lockett Meadow Campground. The trailhead is well marked.
Vehicle Requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash), but only below the watershed cabin.
Horses Allowed: No
USGS Maps: Humphreys Peak, Sunset Crater West
Information: Flagstaff Ranger District, 928-526-0866 or