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Outdoors: Adventures in aridity along the Arizona Trail
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Outdoors: Adventures in aridity along the Arizona Trail

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Let’s face it, not all of the 800-mile Arizona Trail is Instagram-worthy. No, not even the Flagstaff segments. Jewel that it is in these parts, the AZT is not all stately Ponderosa pines and quaking aspens and brisk alpine ascents.

By necessity and design, some of the trail that runs through greater Flagstaff must be prosaic and utilitarian, serving as a means to get to the really pretty parts.

Today, we feature one of those less-heralded but well-traveled sections of the AZT, serving as a big chunk of a 13-mile loop of southeast Flagstaff that also includes trails in the Campbell Mesa system.

Much as I’d like to say that the 8 miles of the AZT covered on this trek was stunningly memorable, journalistic integrity mandates I tell the truth.

In reality, the really interesting parts of this wider segment of the AZT — Picture Canyon Preserve to the north-west; Walnut Canyon overlooks to the south-west — aren’t covered here. Rather, these are the miles that lead to the good stuff.

It is, though, kind of small-minded to dismiss it out of hand. What you experience on the first four miles of the journey that starts at the AZT Trailhead on Forest Road 303 (Old Walnut Canyon Road) is a terrain in transition — and that can be fascinating in a way.

Pine-shaded forest, along a path that dips and curves (a mountain biker’s dream) slowly becomes less lush and more arid. By the time you cross over the paved road that leads to the Walnut Canyon National Monument, the AZT becomes desert. Gone are the pines, replaced by cactus. Not bad, just different. For the next 2.1 miles, it’s a straight shot on dusty (with occasional rocks) singletrack with little elevation gain.

Depending on your mind frame, it’s either boring or peaceful — maybe a bit of both. Definitely, though, you are exposed to the sun. You can really let your mind wander here, pretend you’re somewhere in the valley crossing the desert, sans saguaro. That fantasy persists until you get closer to the junction with Interstate 40 and the graffiti-laden culverts leading you to the other side.

Yes, it can be a buzzkill to hear the whoosh of big-rigs barreling by on the freeway and the clang and clatter of the railroad tracks. But this leads to a 3.5-mile section of the trail few comment upon online in their avid charting of all things AZT, so you press on.

North of I-40, the AZT runs roughly parallel to both the freeway and FR 791A (an alternative, by the way, for those who don’t like the rocky singletrack on this part). It’s scrub and sage and undulates through one or two dry washes, all leading to a trailhead right where Route 66 turns into the freeway on-ramp.

You know, because you always study the map beforehand, that you make a hard left here leading to a connector trail (technically part of the Flagstaff Loop Trail) that crosses under I-40 and, a half-mile on, leads to the Campbell Mesa trail system.

A handy sign next to a Loop icon instructs “Use Overpass.” Really? It looks as if, in that 0.2 of a mile of pavement, that you’re headed right onto the freeway. But if you look down at the peak of the overpass, you see a dirt path that runs parallel, so you can also take that. Be mindful, though: cross the railroad tracks with care.

Regardless of how you get there, the singletrack Loop trail shows up well before the freeway. From there, it’s a pleasant 4-mile jaunt, left on the Campbell Mesa Trail, then left on Walnut Meadows Loop back to FR 303. Both Campbell Mesa and Walnut Meadows is slightly downhill and smooth — shaded, as well, which, after traversing 12 miles by this point, is welcoming.

At FR 303, you have two options to finish. Both take slightly under a mile. You can cross the road to continue on the singletrack, then make a left back onto the AZT finish up. Or you can lope on back on the forest road itself. That’s the more popular option, it seems. On this morning, several professional runners were blazing past.

For those whose Flagstaff trail adventures mainly consist of frequenting the paths around Mount Elden or the San Francisco Peaks, occasionally heading south and east of town is a refreshing change of pace.

Though it’s not exactly challenging — you gain only 508 feet in elevation over 13 miles and the highest point is 6,849 feet — there’s something to be said for zoning out and not huffing and puffing over technical trails.

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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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