An escape into Arizona’s thin air

The San Franciscos as seen from U.S. 180 that leads to Grand Canyon.
The San Franciscos as seen from U.S. 180 that leads to Grand Canyon.

After a long string of days with triple digit temps in Phoenix, we needed a break.  While many Arizonans flee to San Diego’s Mission Beach and other cool California destinations, just as many or more head for the state’s moderate climes around Flagstaff, along the Mogollon Rim and in the White Mountains.  We chose Flag.  It’s closer and higher with more to do. But, yes, less of a backwoods adventure.

Many believe Arizona is nothing more than a flat desert with cactus.  But they are wrong.  Flagstaff rests at almost 7,000 feet elevation.  The forested San Francisco Peaks on the north side of town offer a beautiful backdrop.  They include Humphreys Peak, at 12,463, the state’s highest point.

Towering aspen offer a foliage treat in October.
Towering aspen offer a foliage treat in October.

Our trip was a bit of an extravagance.  Even the one night was costly.  The city’s lodging places are in high demand year round.  This is particularly true with the nicer motels that have free wi-fi, pools and exercise rooms.  In the summer there is hiking, backpacking and climbing, and in the winter skiing at Snow Bowl and snow-shoeing among the flatlands areas of Ponderosa pine.  We took a room on the third floor of the large Courtyard Marriott near the point where two Interstates, 40 and 17, cross.  Price, $140.  Gulp.

We arrived late on a Sunday evening.  Finding a place to stay on the weekends can be difficult, but for a Sunday to Monday visit, no problem.  Most of the Phoenix visitors had fled back down “the hill” — a two-hour drive and a drop in elevation of almost 6,000 feet.

One of many wildflower varieties in Thorpe Park.
One of many wildflower varieties in Thorpe Park.

On our first evening we looked for something easy to hike.  Nebra has a strained calf and did not want to do elevation.  And I was not up to par either, perhaps feeling the effects of the higher elevation.  We discovered Thorpe Park on Flag’s west side, and set out on our jaunt from a paved parking lot near some busy tennis courts.

The trail was actually a dirt road that sliced into a pine forest between a 18 holes of a disc-golf course, the biggest danger we ran into.  Walking along, suddenly a blue object skittered across the trail in front of us.  No reason for alarm.  Just a frisbee that over-shot a disc-golf basket.  Onward we went.

Mexican Hat also seen in Thorpe Park.
Mexican Hat also seen in Thorpe Park.

It soon became obvious that wildflower season was in full-blown stage.  On our walk of a mile an a half we came by at least 20 different varieties.  Reds, yellows, whites, blues, purples, you name it, all the colors were there.  Very nice visual outing.

The next day we drove into the real mountains and found by accident a trail that was recently mentioned in The Arizona Republic.  The Viet Springs Trail aka the Lamar Haines Loop meanders through a forest of Ponderosa, aspen and a smattering of fir at 8,600 feet el.  It was a flattish trail amid high grass, only 300 feet in elevation gain, with temps in the 70s.  Although the path is said to pass two old cabins, we saw neither, just an old dam at what is known as the Lower Pond and a plaque of Lamar Haines, a local conservationist.  We found the trail busy.  There were a dozen hikers or more, mostly with children, some with dogs.  And again, co-star of the day along with the towering, white barked aspen, the patches of wildflowers.

Wildflower FieldSuch a gorgeous place, although the San Franciscos are dry like the rest of the West.  The Lower Pond had no water at all backed up behind an ancient rock dam.

After a late-lunch on the patio at the humming Lumberyard Brewery on the edge of the large campus of Northern Arizona University, it was downhill again into the hell of Phoenix summer.

But after only a day in the thin air, our return to the lowlands somehow did not seem so bad.

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