Want to start an argument among local trail runners and hikers, get their heart rates zooming as if they've just sprinted up Humphreys Peak?
Ask them which section of the Arizona Trail, the segments wending their way through Flagstaff and environs, is the best.
By best, we mean the most enjoyable experience for trail users. Challenging, yet reasonably navigable. Vertical, yet not hands-on-knees steep. Verdant and tree-lined, yet diverse enough in foliage and geologic makeup to keep one engaged.
Let us, then, offer up an opinion.
Our choice is a 6.2-mile stretch of the Arizona Trail that starts at Aspen Corner on the way up to the Snowbowl and ends at the intersection of Forest Road 418. We chose this part — officially called Segment 34c — because it may be the most accessible segment of the AZT around Flagstaff without being, well, boring.
The trail is almost all tamped-down singletrack, devoid of pesky rock gardens but containing just enough roots and rocks to keep you on your toes. It is certainly not pancake-flat, but the 740-foot elevation gain spread over six miles doesn’t strain your lung capacity too much. There also is a diversion, a side trail about 3.5 miles into the run that takes you about a half-mile to Bismarck Lake.
But what separates this stretch from the rest what you’ll see along the way? Diversity.
Aspens at Aspen Corner, of course. Groves of ponderosa pine. Vast swathes of alpine meadows tucked between stands of trees. Panoramic views of the San Francisco Peaks to the northeast, retaining even now some autumn color along the lower slopes, and the Hart Prairie valley and Fern Mountain to the west. And as you head north toward Forest Road 418, the landscape opens up even as it skirts the border of the Kachina Wilderness, making you feel as if you are simultaneously deep in the woods yet still part of civilization.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: Other Flagstaff segments of the Arizona Trail boast similar profiles. And that’s accurate, to a degree.
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There are beautiful open grasslands, for instance, on Segment 30e along Anderson Mesa, running parallel to Upper Lake Mary. But there’s a certain sameness to the trek that detracts from its beauty. Likewise, Segment 31a heading to Walnut Canyon and then up and over Fisher Point has geologic views and a variety of terrain, but it’s too close to town, to traffic noise and housing developments, to keep up the fantasy that you’re alone in the wilderness.
Likewise, Segment 34a, a 7-mile winding joy ride through meadows and pines just above Schultz Creek is definitely not to be missed, but the many intersecting paths and heavy use by mountain bikers sometimes makes you feel you’re negotiating rush-hour traffic. Its neighbor, Segment 34b, is slightly less traveled but it is steeper (1,340 foot elevation gain over 5 miles) and more technical than the stretch that begins at Aspen Corner. (Those seeking a long day in nature might consider parking farther down on Snowbowl Road, where the road crosses the AZT, then climbing up to Aspen Corner and hooking up on 34c for a 23-mile out-and-back jaunt.)
Feel free to argue the virtues and detriments of each choice.
We acknowledge the Aspen Corner segment is not an ideal trail, but then, what trail is? Unless you set off before 9 a.m. on weekends, you’re liable to find parking difficult on the Aspen Corner pullout. Later in the morning, too, runners and hikers will be sharing the trail with mountain bikers who take advantage of the relatively flat terrain to go bombing past you with only cursory, last-minute “on your left” warnings.
Another minor disappointment about Segment 34c — hardly worth mentioning, but we'll do so anyway — is that the detour to Bismarck Lake, even in early November, is not exactly Instagram-worthy except to the most dedicated limnologists among us. Essentially, there is no Bismarck Lake, just the slightest depression in the amber waving fields. OK, a mud puddle or two, as well. We know they are called “seasonal lakes,” so maybe a productive winter will fill up Bismarck’s reverses come spring.
One other note about parking at Aspen Corner to access Segment 34c: It’s a tad tricky to find where the AZT starts. From the parking lot, head north and slightly west on a rocky trail that descends for 0.25 miles. From there, at a four-way intersection, you’ll see the AZT sign. Go right on the AZT north. Turning left means trekking back to where the AZT gets close to Highway 180. Going straight means heading deep into Hart Prairie.
After that, though, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. The only other path before the Bismarck cutoff is the Aspen Loop heading up to the Snowbowl, but the AZT signage is obvious.
But these are mere quibbles. If you have only one chance to traverse a stretch of the lauded AZT — and we certainly hope you make the time to explore more of it — this should be your go-to path.