And so it begins. It’s that time of year when the leaf-peeping hordes will descend — or, rather, ascend — in a conga line of cars leading up, up, up to Lockett Meadow and the Instagram-worthy aspen groves along the Inner Basin Trail.
By all means, make the sojourn. Don’t let me dissuade you. But you’re going to have to come to terms with jam-packed trailhead parking, a freeway-at-rush-hour type of crowd on the singletrack trail itself, people brandishing selfie-sticks stopping dead in their tracks to get that perfect angled gold-leafed picture.
May I humbly suggest an alternative hike that will yield the same aspen-quaking results but not the frustration of crowds that makes you mumble Sartre’s famous dictum, “Hell is other people,” under your breath?
It’s the Abineau-Bear Jaw Trail Loop.
What, you were expecting some secret, out-of-the-way trail known only to locals and considered too much effort by those weekend tourists up from the Valley?
No, most people are aware of Abineau-Bear Jaw Trail Loop (with Water Line Road serving as the connector), a 7-mile trek that circles the north side of the San Francisco peaks, just a scant two or three miles above the vaunted aspen section of the Inner Basin Trail.
It’s featured on all the maps. The Coconino National Forest ranger station puts its flier front and center. No less an arbiter of outdoors culture than Arizona Highways magazine proclaims that a certain stretch of trail on the Bear Jaw boasts “the most beautiful aspen grove on Earth.”
So why in the fall (not to mention late spring and all summer) is the Abineau-Bear Jaw so little used compared to the Inner Basin?
Just a theory, but it could be because the loop is steep, rocky and unforgiving. Simply put, it’s freakin’ hard — and too much effort for most.
But hardy Flagstaffians, they know the charms of the Abineau-Bear Jaw outweigh the difficulties. They aren’t afraid of the black-diamond icon (denoting “strenuous”) on all the maps. Imagine how superior you will feel to those Inner Basin motorists being stopped on the dusty fire road by backups and workers in reflective vests directing traffic. Though the trailhead parking at Abineau-Bear Jaw is not as expansive as at Lockett Meadow, I’ve never seen the lot full — even on a picture-perfect September weekend afternoon.
It actually takes less time to get to the Abineau-Bear Jaw trailhead than to Lockett Meadow, especially if you take the Highway 180 route west of town (see information box), and the dirt roads heading in (Forest Road 418 and 9123J) are smoother than the pothole-strewn road to Lockett Meadow.
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Once on the trail, you ramble slightly about a half-mile through a lush meadow partially shaded by ponderosa pines and scattered aspens, giving you a taste of what’s to come. When you get to the junction at the border of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, you have the option of turning left (clockwise) onto the Bear Jaw Trail or right (counterclockwise) onto the Abineau.
My first time making this choice, I thumbed through sign-in notebook to see which way users before me had gone. Most chose the Abineau first, so, being a natural contrarian, I picked Bear Jaw. Actually, I peered up both trails from the split and saw that Bear Jaw’s path was smoother (Abineau, from that vantage point, looked boulder-and-branch strewn.)
I believe I made the right choice, if only because most of the really pretty aspen groves are on the Bear Jaw, the first 2.7 miles of the run.
Unlike the Inner Basin aspen groves, which follows along gentle switchbacks with roots but no major footing woes, the Bear Jaw segment is an obstacle course of boulders and jagged rocks that resembles, well, a bear's jaw. It’s good, in a way, that the technical aspect of the trail forces people to go slower — better to appreciate the white-trunked, multi-hued leafed aspens swaying in the light breeze.
You’ve mostly left the aspen groves behind by the time the Bear Jaw Trail ends, at 9,700 foot elevation. The final uphill push is the stuff of hands-on-knees scrambling over boulders.
It’s a nice break when you arrive at Water Line Road, the smooth (by comparison) fire road you traverse for two miles to get to the head of the Abineau Trail. The directional sign there states it is 2.8 miles to the Inner Basin Trail, where the “famous aspens” await, but, really, you don’t need to make the detour. Bear Jaw’s aspens are wondrous enough.
The major downside for taking Bear Jaw first is that the entire two miles on Water Line Road are uphill. But it’s tree-lined and for all but the late afternoon, mostly shaded. The miles go quickly, and the sights as you near the Abineau Trail bespeak expansive alpine views in every direction.
Look north and you see the yawning gap in the plateau that is the Grand Canyon. Crane your neck upward and to the south and Humphreys Peak looms. Gaze down and, well, you see with awe and trepidation the steep rocky, fallen-tree path you must descend to complete the loop.
But it’s downhill, right? Easy.
The canyon involves much rock hopping and there seems more downed trees than vertical ones, especially during the early stages of the downhill. That’s because of a significant avalanche that, essentially, scraped the canyon clean in 2005. Though 14 years have passed, the scars are still evident. Here’s how the Arizona Daily Sun described the carnage at the time: “Spruces more than 50 feet tall were tossed around like toothpicks in a river, some of the biggest limbed from top to bottom in a matter of minutes.”
From a Force-of-Mother-Nature perspective, the Abineau Trail is impressive. But it’s the aspens along the Bear Jaw — and the avoidance of tail tourists — that make Arizona Highways wonder, “It might be the perfect trail.”