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Outdoors: A Mormon Lake loop worth the detour
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Outdoors: A Mormon Lake loop worth the detour

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So I found myself near Mormon Lake one recent morning — boring story, no need to share — and naturally I thought about squeezing in a run.

I knew a passage of the Arizona Trail runs through the pine-studded foothills, shaped like a scoliotic spine, according to maps I consulted. But was there a nice, reasonably short loop I could knock off before heading on my way?

More internet sleuthing sent me, as it often does, to the informative Arizona Hiking blog (arizonahiking.blogspot.com), where trail doyenne Mare Czinar waxed eloquent back in 2015 about a 4-mile (and change) loop setting out from Mormon Lake Lodge, the nexus of activity in the resort area.

In Mare I trust, so I scrawled the trail directions on a scrap of paper — Navajo Springs Trail, right on the Arizona Trail, right on Forest Road 90N, right on the Fakowie Trail, left on the Rocky Ridge Trail, back to Navajo Springs — and made the turn off of Lake Mary Road for the lodge.

The trailhead, as advertised, is sort of hidden behind the modest Mormon Lake Environment Education Center — featuring cool old tools and preserved (or re-created) buildings, such as a blacksmith shop — and near the log cabins that dot the area. Mare’s directions were spot on, telling readers that the trail starts after passing between “the pizzeria and the ‘National Bank,’” the quotation marks denoting the faux Old West facades.

What she didn’t highlight was the challenge of the Navajo Springs Trail. It was a killer, at least for me. Maybe because I was expecting a fun little jaunt, without exerting too much energy, but I wasn’t prepared for the mile-long trek to reach the AZT.

There are rocks on this trail. I’m talking big rocks, shards and boulders, loose scree that invites ankle-rolling. Navajo Springs is barely a trail for the first 0.4 of a mile, more like a series of boulder hopping. Normally, I’ve got no problem with navigating technical trails — slow and steady, finding firm purchase on rocks that you hope are stationary — but I wasn’t in the mood for such maneuvering on this morning; I wanted to cruise through a loop and be on my way.

But, no, you’ve got to work on that first mile on the Navajo Springs Trail. You gain 324 feet in elevation, not exactly easing into things.

Eventually, though, the Navajo Springs Trail smooths a bit, rocks giving way to dusty singletrack as you pass through stands of young aspen that are fenced off by the National Forest Service to promote regeneration of the saplings and keep ill-advised tourists from the heinous practice of carving their initials in the white trunks. It’s soothing to pass by the lovely aspens, even at a distance and even now, before colorful leafing.

Farther up Navajo Springs, near the spring itself, you still have rocks to contend with, but the ponderosa pines thicken and bathe the trail in blessed shade. The trail also flattens a bit, letting your heart rate return to a less alarming figure.

Just past the springs is the junction with the AZT, Passage 30. If you turn left, the section will take you to Happy Jack and, beyond. Our route is much less ambitious. You turn right and glide 1.2 miles on the well-signed AZT — you’ll gain another 75 feet in elevation, though it’s a much more pleasant lope than the Navajo Springs Trail — until reaching the first wide fire road, FR 90N. (Those seeking a longer route can continue on the AZT for an out-and-back; it’s a beautiful stretch that weaves through tree-lined creeks and gullies.)

Having endured the technical footing earlier, you are heartened to spend the next roughly 1 ½ miles on relatively smooth fire roads. It’s a little jarring, the 0.4 of a mile of extreme downhill on FR 90N, but once you reach the right turn onto the Fakowie Trail, the terrain levels off.

(One last aside: Don’t bother looking for a “Fakowie” sign; the path is marked FR 90J. In fact, there’s no sign for the “Rocky Ridge Trail” either; the fire road just kind of drifts to the right, then back down north toward the lake until it runs into the Navajo Springs Trail once more. No need to fret though, it’s nigh impossible to get lost.)

All that effort you exerted at the start is returned on the backside. You lose 401 feet of elevation on the way to the trailhead, the last bit giving you nice views of the marshy lake, not exactly overflowing with water this time of year, at least compared to sparkling Upper Lake Mary.

Alas, the pizzeria wasn’t yet open when I finished, and I didn’t have time (or, frankly, the inclination) to go on a horseback ride, though the gentleman helming the horse corral gave me a friendly wave. Mormon Lake is a fine place to linger — many campers were lining the shore’s edge, though not exactly social distancing — but it’s also a good place to stop for exercise on your way elsewhere.

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Feature Writer

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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