About three years ago, I discovered Old Caves Crater on a whim. I had spread out my Emmitt Barks Flagstaff Trails Map and I looked for a fairly short uphill hike to take between my required weekend activities and chores. I spotted Old Caves Crater and its trail on the map.
I had heard of it, but tended to forget it was there. It lies outside of the trails of the San Francisco Peaks, and it is not part of the main line of urban trails or the ones on and around Mount Elden. Old Caves Crater itself rises above Doney Park almost at its center — an island in the residential landscape that covers the flatlands north and east of Flagstaff.
The crater formed as a cinder cone that built up in recent geologic years as part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The Coconino National Forest trail starts off Silver Saddle Road several hundred yards south of the crater's base. I began the hike on the crushed volcanic cinders of the trail, which moved through new- growth ponderosa pines. Although the trail has a 500-foot elevation gain along its 1.3 miles, the trail begins flat. That doesn't last long.
On that first hike, I flared my nostrils and I took in the vanilla smell of the pines. Although I moved uphill, I hiked out of the ponderosa pines and into a pinyon-juniper forest, the reverse of the usual. Ancient and twisted alligator junipers hunkered along the trail. They are one of my favorite trees, so I took time to study their studded bark and sensual curves.
Before I had a chance to pick up a better pace, I reached a T in the trail near the top of the crater. To the left was the summit. To the right was the side trail to the caves. I went right and followed the side trail a few hundred feet to the end. I stood at a 270-degree viewpoint, with most of Doney Park to the east and south and Elden and the Peaks to the southwest and west. As I ventured to the edge, I looked out and not down — until I caught a glance of a gaping mouth in the earth. I noticed the openings all around, the remains of a lava tube.
Without hesitation, I dropped down inside of one. I had heard of these pit caves. They are part of a living complex once occupied by ancient Sinaguans about 800 years ago. The Sinagua people carved out small portals in the basalt supposedly to create storage rooms.
I pulled myself through some of the small passageways. On the first attempt, I bashed my knee on a chunk of lava rock as I tried to enter one of the rooms. Then, I fell to one side and stirred up the fine volcanic dust on the room's floor. Above me, the sunbeams caught the dust as it danced and swirled. Against my better judgment, I continued to explore. I squirmed into another room, but I scuffed my hands and thumped my head and I tried to straighten my body.
Luckily, I did not have to return the same way. Another, larger opening led back in the direction I came. I sat and I took in the space. Light glowed from other rooms. In the cave, a primitive sense took over. I could pretend that civilization did not surround this crater summit. I could connect with ancestors who considered this kind of space shelter, a perfect home.
With all of the hikes I have made to Old Caves, I enter the rooms, only to surface to linger and soak in the view while I nose around for pottery sherds. Many of them litter the land around the ruin.
I walk around the perimeter and daydream of the time this once served as someone's home. The choice appeared strategic. I squinted my eyes and tried to imagine bison and elk herds. I thought of the closest civilization 800 years ago - Wupatki to the north, a few days walk.
I begin my trek back to the trailhead — but with knowledge of a place to escape not far from the modern day fringes.
If You Go …
Take Highway 89 northbound. About three miles north of the Flagstaff Mall, make a right onto Silver Saddle Road. Go about a mile and the trailhead and parking is on the left.
Information: Peaks Ranger District (928) 526-0866 or visit www.fs.fed.us/r3/Coconino.