North Kaibab Ranger District, Kaibab Plateau
By Robert Stieve
Raise your hand if you’ve ever hiked the Lookout Canyon Trail. If your hand stayed put, don’t feel like a failure. You’re not alone. Almost no one you know has ever hiked it, either. Of all the distant trails in Arizona, this is among the most remote. There are a couple of reasons for that: One, it’s located on the Kaibab Plateau, which is a long haul from just about everywhere; and two, the trailhead is down a long dirt road, about 15 miles from the only paved “highway” on the plateau. The dirt road is Forest Road 22. It’s well-graded, and it’s arguably one of the most scenic drives in Arizona. Consider that a bonus. Not that you’ll need one. This hike is a beauty.
From the log fence at the trailhead, a wide path runs straight north through an open forest of aspens and ponderosas. Almost immediately, you’ll sense a canyon off to the right. You can’t see it, but you’ll be in it later on. Trail 121, like Trail 122 — its parallel path to the east — culminates in the canyon, where it intersects with Trail 120. All three trails are named “Lookout Canyon,” which can be confusing on a map, but once you’re on the ground, the routes are well-marked by fiberglass trail signs.
Continuing north on 121, you’ll arrive at an area where the U.S. Forest Service has thinned the pines, allowing groves of aspens to shoot up. Thick clusters of bright-green grass have taken advantage of the open sky, as well. They’re unusual-looking, like a colony of Dr. Seuss characters buried in the dirt to the tops of their ears.
Just beyond the spiky clumps of green, the trail veers northwest. It’s easy to follow and easy on the endurance scale — even William Howard Taft could have done this trail. More hints of the canyon appear off to the right. And then, about 30 minutes in, a canyon shows up on the left, too. On this stretch, the trail extends onto a peninsula of sorts, where wildflowers — purple, yellow and orange — segue into a small meadow. The trail is less defined in the meadow, and it’s sprinkled with thistles. Keep that in mind if you’re wearing shorts or a hiking skirt.
Once you’re past the thistles, the route begins its descent into the canyon. Within a few minutes, it zigs 90 degrees to the left, counterintuitively away from the canyon, and then left again. The sharp turns are the trail’s only two switchbacks. The rest of the route is a long, gradual decline, one that’s almost imperceptible on the way down but is surprisingly noticeable on the way up.
In addition to the elevation drop, this part of the trail offers a nice view of the canyon. It’s the first real look at where you’re headed. Meantime, you’ll pass a brown-and-white sign with an illustration of a deer on it. It looks like something you might see on an interpretive trail in an urban park. Although there’s a healthy population of mule deer in these woods, along with turkeys, mountain bluebirds and Kaibab squirrels, there’s no explanation for the sign. Not even the folks at the North Kaibab Ranger District had an answer. Whatever its primary purpose may have been, the sign now signals the home stretch of this hike.
The trail ends a few hundred yards beyond the mysterious deer, at an intersection with Trail 120. That route runs the length of the canyon, which is long, narrow, lush and green, and is surrounded by a thick forest of ponderosa pines, spruce, firs and aspens. The canyon bottom is a good place to take off your pack and enjoy the solitude you’ll surely be experiencing. As you know, you won’t see anyone you know down there. Or anyone else, for that matter. Consider that a bonus. Now you can raise your hand.
Photo: Ponderosa pines and aspens are a common sight along Lookout Canyon Trail 121. | Shane McDermott
Length: 5 miles round-trip
Elevation: 8,152 to 7,621 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 36˚29.691’, W 112˚17.876’
Directions: From Jacob Lake, go south on State Route 67 for 26 miles to Forest Road 22. Turn right onto FR 22 and continue for 13.4 miles to Forest Road 6033. Turn right onto FR 6033 and continue 100 yards to the trailhead.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes
USGS Maps: Big Springs, Timp Point
Information: North Kaibab Ranger District, 928-643-7395 or www.fs.usda.gov/kaibab