My (perhaps) unhealthy fascination with colorful Old West trail names this time led me to Cottonwood and Dead Horse Ranch State Park.
But, here’s a twist: It wasn’t the park named after some deceased equine — there’s a story behind the naming, of course, and we’ll get to that in due time — itself that inspired my hour-long drive down Interstate 17, through lovely Cornville, and over to this sprawling recreational facility hugging the Verde River.
No, it was a certain trail within the park that piqued my interest.
Namely, Evil Hill.
Since calling Flagstaff home eight months ago, I’ve experienced my share of hills that would qualify as evil — or at least mildly satanic. The climb to the peaks via the Weatherford Trail is just one example. Yeah, I’m looking at you Elden Lookout Trail; you, too, Abineau/Bear Jaw Loop.
But rare is the place that will explicitly label a trail as being the embodiment of malevolence.
Dead Horse Ranch, apparently, went there. On its handy, multi-hued PDF of the entire trail system I found on the web (https://hikearizona.com/decoder.php?ZTN=1914), Evil Hill is marked as an appendage near the end (or beginning, I suppose) of the 3-mile-long Lower Raptor Trail, which is part of the 8-mile Lime Kiln Loop popular among mountain bikers, equestrians and those on foot.
It didn’t look overly daunting on the map, and further Googling to mountain bike sites showed Evil Hill weighing in at a 141-foot elevation gain in slightly under a mile. Meh. (Especially considering that, at an altitude of 3,300 feet, Cottonwood is much easier on the lungs than Flagstaff.)
Still, if someone had the temerity to name a trail “Evil Hill,” it must be worth checking out. Maybe it’s a hellish rock garden, a technical nightmare. Who knows? There was only one way to know for sure.
As with all loops, you can follow the route either clockwise or counter. Either way, you’re going to have to climb about 700 feet for the 8-mile jaunt. It all depends whether you want to get all the climbing out of the way in the first segment or spread out the pain in a longer, but more gradual, climb.
If, like me, you prefer the latter, go counter-clockwise. That means starting at the Lime Kiln Trail, which can be problematic.
The trailhead, alas, is not well marked, but a reasonable person can suss it out. After passing the park entrance ($7 fee per car), travel slightly less than a mile on the main road until you see the lagoons (looks more like a pond to me, but whatevs). There is parking next to the lagoon, where fishermen cast off (gratuitous aside: when I pulled up, a guy was just reeling in an eight-inch specimen). The trailhead is just to the north, behind you.
After crossing a bridge, the Lime Kiln Trail veers right and the climbing begins. Not too bad a climb, but long and with lots of limestone and steps to navigate. You can see the remains of the kiln for which the trail was named heading down to your left. The kiln was set up by G.M. “Mack” Willard in the late 1880s to extract lime for the mortar used to build many of Cottonwood’s buildings.
(Speaking of history and naming, let’s pause for that necessary digression about the Dead Horse moniker. OK, so, you can thank the children of Calvin “Cap” Ireys for the descriptive naming. According to state park literature, when Ireys asked his offspring which of two ranches the patriarch was looking to buy, the kids exclaimed, “The one with the dead horse.”)
And now, back to the trail. Lime Kiln Trail, which you can take 15 miles all the way to Red Rocks State Park if you so desire, runs slightly uphill for 2.1 miles to the Thumper Trail. I’d recommend taking a four-tenths of a mile detour on the Rattlesnake Wash Overlook Spur for lovely vista gazing of a canyon and, beyond the teeming metropolis of Cottonwood.
Back on the Lime Kiln, there’s more uphill until you reach the junction with the Thumper Trail, 2.2 miles of fun mountain bike-friendly singletrack. You undulate and twist along the way, and the footing is bike-tread smooth for most of the way. After crossing a couple of washes, more climbing ensues but nothing that will tax you much. After all, you have to save energy for the looming Evil Hill portion.
Thumper tops out at the top of a ridge — at 3,891 feet, it’s the highest point of the loop — and you make a left turn on the 3-mile Lower Raptor Hill Trail. Here’s where the downhill begins, at times steep.
After two miles of catching your breath and cruising, you start looking for the long-await intersection with the Evil Hill Trail — it's on the right, according to the trusty map. Once you go past a cattle gate and see the Lower Bones Trail junction, Evil Hill should be looming.
But it’s not. Back and forth I went on the last portion of the Lower Raptor to the Roadrunner campground trailhead, and I saw no signs for Evil Hill. No unsigned offshoots, either.
Getting my hopes up and then squashing them, well, now that’s evil. Plus, at that point, the trail ends and you’re still maybe about a mile from the Lime Kiln trailhead. I started plodding on the road, downhill for about 0.3 miles when I saw a side trail with a wooden post.
No, not Evil Hill. But the sign read “To Lime Kiln,” so at least the final mile was on soft and bucolic singletrack.
In the end, was I disappointed that I somehow missed Evil Hill? Nah. Plenty of those in Flagstaff.
Sam McManis can be reached at email@example.com or (928) 556-2248.