Flagstaff Ranger District, Coconino National Forest
By Robert Stieve
Sycamore Canyon is the highlight of this hike, but the trail’s beauty goes deeper than that. The trees stand out, too. Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, Gambel oaks and alligator junipers are some of what you’ll see, along with natural springs, giant boulders and wildlife — black bears, mountain lions and ringtails roam the woods. It’s an alluring ecosystem that holds the distinction of being the oldest “wilderness” area in Arizona.
On September 3, 2014, the Wilderness Act celebrated its 50th anniversary. Before there were wilderness areas, there were primitive areas, which, in the words of Aldo Leopold, were defined as “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state ... big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip.” In 1935, Sycamore Canyon was given that protection and designated a primitive area, the state’s first. In 1984, it was expanded by 9,000 acres and named a wilderness area. Today, the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness protects 55,937 acres in and around the canyon, from its forested rim near Williams to its riparian mouth in the Verde Valley. The Kelsey-Dorsey Loop is in the upper half of this magnificent wilderness.
From the trailhead, which is located deep in the woods at the end of several dirt roads, the hike immediately crosses into the wilderness and begins a steep descent, past some impressive alligator junipers, to a set of switchbacks. You’ll see distant mountains to the south and a thick forest all around. It’s unlike other pine forests in Arizona, which tend to be either devoid of undergrowth or overgrown with it. This forest is somewhere in between.
At the outset, the trail is carpeted with pine needles, but it turns rocky after about 10 minutes. This is where you’ll start seeing the oaks and make a gradual downhill run to Kelsey Spring. As you’d expect, it’s surrounded by lush grasses. Listen for canyon wrens and hermit thrushes. To this point, the canyon hasn’t made an appearance, but it’s getting closer.
Continuing the loop — counterclockwise — you’ll come to one of the gnarliest gators in Arizona. They’re all twisted and bumpy, but this one is an extremist. Just beyond it, the trail crosses a side canyon, one of many in the area. If you love trees — hardwoods and softwoods — this might be your favorite part of the trail. If you love panoramas, your payoff is about two minutes away. That’s when you’ll get your first good glimpse of Sycamore Canyon. From there, it’s downhill to Babe’s Hole Spring, another lush exclamation point in an otherwise arid forest.
The elevation at the spring is 6,120 feet, the lowest point of the trail — the hike never actually goes into the canyon. Around the corner, you’ll intersect the Little Lo Trail. Keep left to stay on the loop, and keep your eyes peeled for a massive but dead ponderosa. Its circumference is about 20 feet, and there are others like it. The big trees have died of old age, and their graveyard marks the beginning of a gentle ascent. After 15 minutes of climbing, the trail arrives at a bench between the upper and lower rims of Sycamore Canyon. Where it levels off, there’s another big gator.
About an hour in, you’ll cross a field of boulders and slip out of the woods. To the right is the trail’s best view of the canyon. It’s OK to stand there and look awhile. When you’re ready, the trail continues through thickets of manzanitas, tall grasses and other chaparral vegetation. In places, the manzanita is so thick it clogs the trail. It doesn’t last long, though. Within 15 minutes, you’ll be back in the woods, and you’ll say goodbye to the canyon.
In the woods, the trees are mostly ponderosas, which range from pencil-thin to bridge pylons. Before long, you’ll intersect the Dorsey Trail. Veer left, and within 100 yards you’ll arrive at Dorsey Spring. The incline at this point is moderate, but it steepens as the trail climbs through a ravine to the upper rim of Sycamore Canyon. There, the forest is reduced to junipers and a few small ponderosas.
The rest of trail is a quick trip to the east, past an intersection with the Hog Hill Trail, and on to the Dorsey Trailhead. You’ll leave the wilderness there and use forest roads to complete the loop. Initially, you’ll hike a few hundred yards on a narrow jeep road to a second dirt road. Turn left and continue a few hundred yards more to Forest Road 538G, which you’ll recognize from the drive in. Hang a left and make your way back to the trailhead — the total trip on FR 538G is 1.4 miles. Although that last stretch isn’t a “continuous stretch preserved in its natural state,” it is a pleasant walk among the pines. And, who knows? You still might see a bear.
Photo: An overlook near Dorsey Spring offers an expansive view of Sycamore Canyon. | Tom Bean
Length: 7.3-mile loop
Elevation: 6,631 to 6,120 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 35˚04.465’, W 111˚55.795’
Directions: From the intersection of Milton Road and Historic Route 66 in Flagstaff, go west on Route 66 for 2 miles to Forest Road 231 (Woody Mountain Road). Turn left onto FR 231 and continue 13.9 miles to Forest Road 538. Turn right onto FR 538 and continue 5.4 miles to Forest Road 538G. Veer right onto FR 538G and continue 1.5 miles to an intersection with Forest Road 527A. Stay left on FR 538G and continue 0.3 miles to the trailhead.
Vehicle Requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes
USGS Map: Sycamore Point
Information: Flagstaff Ranger District, 928-526-0866 or www.fs.usda.gov/coconino