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Outdoors: Ferns, not aspens, highlight the diverse Kachina Trail

Outdoors: Ferns, not aspens, highlight the diverse Kachina Trail

Kachina meadow

The large open meadow several miles into the Kachina Trail affords views of the Peaks above and of Flagstaff below.

Enough, already, with the aspens. Really, they are giving all other Flagstaff trees — the dependable old ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, stately types that don’t need color-changing gimmickry to be appreciated — inferiority complexes.

Yes, the aspens are pretty this time of year and all. But is that all anyone in the outdoors cares about in the fall — those white-trunked, golden-leafed beauties primping for their close-ups? Aspens have always seemed too needy, too starved for attention, always having to quake and wave their branches as if to say, Yoo-hoo, over here, wanna take a selfie with me?

kachina fern 1

The bracken ferns along the Kachina Trail sometimes grow as tall as 6 feet.

Take the Kachina Trail, for example. It ranks up there with the Humphreys Peak and Elden Lookout as Flagstaff’s most iconic, must-do trails. But if you go online these days looking for commentary on the Kachina, what you mostly get are breathless, frothy descriptions of the color-turning aspens.

• “… miles of shimmering Aspens surround the trail with their golden luster.” —

• “The aspen were just at their peak of fall color and the air was cool and crisp. Who could ask for anything more?” —

• “This is a great trail to see the aspens change to fall colors.” —

Not to be a contrarian, but the aspens rate only third, at best, on my list of highlights of the Kachina Trail, an 11-mile out-and-back that begins at the Snowbowl parking lot and traverses varied terrain and flora to its end at the intersection with the Weatherford Trail.

We really shouldn’t be craning our necks up to admire the trees at all on this trail. Rather, look down — or straight ahead. For about half the trail, which runs along the upper slopes of the Peaks, runners and hikers are greeted by carpets of bracken ferns, leaves like fingers spread wide, tugging on your sleeves as you pass on singletrack.

An early October trip to Kachina showed the ferns in full verdant bloom. Now, heading deeper into fall, they've faded to a paler shade of yellow, perhaps to match the aspens -- to be the Pips to the aspens' Gladys Knight.

kachina ferns 2

There's a trail here somewhere: Ferns overgrow the Kachina Trail in certain spots so much that you need to watch your step traversing the singletrack.

At places during my visit, the ferns grew so tall that they nearly enveloped you. I could barely see the top of the trucker’s hat of the guy loping ahead of me — and he looked to be about 6-foot. His golden Lab disappeared entirely, though you could discern his whereabouts by the rustling of leaves below.

The big advantage of ferns, over trees, on the Kachina is that you feel closer to nature. Sure, the trail, at times, weaves between the white-trunked aspens (stop it with the carving of initials; not cool, people) but it’s not a tactile pleasure as is communing with the ferns, So close are the fronds that they serve, much like brushes at a car wash, as a body scrub, removing trail dirt from your legs and massaging your arms and torso with the thoroughness of a TSA agents wielding wands.

One caution about the ferns: In early October, they risked overgrowing the trail, which can make footing tricky, given there are roots and rocks scattered along the singletrack that might not be visible.

Kachina fir

A mile into the Kachina Trail, a large Douglas fir envelopes the trail.

Ferns can be found throughout the Kachina Trail, but they dominate in sections of the grassy meadows, where the trees thin and trail users can gaze north up to the Peaks or south and down into Flagstaff. Like the ferns, the grassy meadows turn an amber hue in fall and flutter in the breeze.

Such openness is a welcome change from the first few miles of the trail, when you enter the Kachina Wilderness a half mile from the trailhead at the Snowbowl. Pines and firs shade the singletrack almost from the get-go, pleasant but somewhat claustrophobic after a while. But just when you’ve had enough of dodging roots and rocks, scrabbling over lichen-dusted boulders and hopping over downed trunks, the trails opens into an expansive vista. It’s not shaded, but that’s usually not a concern this time of year.

kachina ferns 2

There's a trail here somewhere: Ferns overgrow the Kachina Trail in certain spots so much that you need to watch your step traversing the singletrack.

This is not to say there aren’t highlights in the denser parts of Kachina.

About a mile in, set off by itself and rimmed by boulders, stands a hulking, looming Douglas fir, bulging with burls at the base. Peering up, its branches extend well over the trail, as if to show the few aspens poking out from ferns who’s the boss here.

Farther on along the steep, narrow slops, you turn a corner and encounter a cave burrowed into a large outcropping of lava rock. The Coconino National Forest description of the trail promises (or cautions?) that you might see black bears on the trail, so that might keep you from journeying into the cave’s inner recesses, which actually aren’t that inner. And, besides, bears are mostly found (if found at all) farther down into the meadows, berry hunting.

Because the Kachina Trail is an out-and-back — that is, unless you park a car at Freidlein Prairie Road, near the southern terminus, and do a car shuttle back to the Snowbowl — you get the pleasure of experiencing the diverse flora and geology of the Kachina once more.

Kachina cave

Early on, the Kachina Trail features a cave burrowed out of the overhanging lava rock.

It is only on the return trip that you realize it’s a pretty steep climb heading back from Weatherford (8,000 feet) to the Snowbowl (9,344 feet). Take some time along the way to stop and catch your breath and look around.

I hear there may be some pretty aspens to view.

Sam McManis can be reached at or (928) 556-2248.


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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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