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Rocking and rolling on the southern slopes of the peaks
OUTDOORS

Rocking and rolling on the southern slopes of the peaks

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If there is a single jagged rock jutting up on a dusty path, my feet will somehow find it. If there's an exposed root, a lone gnarled bit of bark running across a trail, I will trip over it. And if there's a steep and twisting downhill, no matter how well-groomed the trail might be, there's a decent chance I will face-plant at some juncture.

Call me a trail-running klutz, despite decades of experience on what experts like to call "technical" trails, ones replete with rock gardens and steep descents and other hazards that might draw blood and leave scars.

So you might think that, being a sensible person, I would stay with the safer, more sedate routes that Flagstaff offers. Stay on the FUTS, for instance.

Nah. Where's the fun in that?

The other day, while poring over the indispensable "Flagstaff Trails Map," produced by Emmitt Barks Cartography, looking to piece together a loop that explored the lower slopes of the San Francisco Peaks, my eye immediately went to a single-track that begins at Snowbowl Road — the Rocky Moto Trail.

Now, if I didn't have a masochistic streak, I would have seen that R-word,  "rocky," and looked for another option. That's especially true, considering that Rocky Moto is open to motorcycles and e-bikes, anathema to trail-running purists. But something in my knotted psyche makes me seek out quasi-challenging trails, and my experience traversing other motorized trails taught me that you can get in a morning run before the motorcyclists even wake up, let alone rev up.

Besides, how rocky could the Rocky Moto be, given that maps and online hiking and mountain biking guides rated it as blue (moderate) rather than black (difficult)?

My plan was to complete an 11-mile semi-loop starting at the western terminus of the Rocky Moto Trail, making a northern turn onto the switchback-laden uphill of a portion of the Secret Trail, then descending on the Moto (sans rocks, or so I presumed) Trail, then cruising for about 3  miles back to the trailhead along the Arizona Trail (34A), which runs parallel to Rocky Moto before intersecting with it.

Because I am a lifelong flatlander trying to acclimate to high-elevation living — working on the gradual-turning-up-the-heat-in-the-lobster-pot premise — I was drawn to this route because the high point would be only 8,400 feet, easily runnable.

There are two places from which to start, both off Snowbowl Road, near  the intersection with Highway 180 (West Fort Valley Road). You can make a right on Forest Service Rod 164B and park at a dirt turnout across from a connector trail to the Rocky Moto. Or, you can head up Snowbowl Road a quarter mile and park on a steep cambered shoulder with a faint, vegetative-covered trail and a brown trail post as your only clue that you're in the right spot.

I recommend the former, and not just for the sake of your car. The connector trail to Rocky Moto is hardly rocky at all; rather, it's a dusty, flat path slightly less than a half a mile. In fact, even after you make the right turn onto the Rocky Moto Trail proper, it's not treacherous as you ramble to the junction with the Arizona Trail about a mile into it.

Pshaw, I'm thinking. This is nothing. Not even the slightest stumble so far.

Stopping at the junction of the Rocky Moto and Arizona trails, you can start to see differences in terrain. To the right, the Arizona Trail is a flatter and smoother singletrack, not exactly the crushed granite you'll find on the FUTS, but gentler. To the left, on the Rocky Moto, rocks are strewn. Most, granted, are smoothed over from erosion and bike tires, but they are omnipresent.

Well, I asked for it, so I plunge ahead on Rocky Moto. I remind myself of a trail runner's advice to lift one's knees, especially on the trailing leg, to avoid tripping and to always look about four feet ahead on the trail to prepare for any major extrusions. So as Rocky Moto progresses with turns every 10 feet or so, my shoes' rock plates absorb major boulder scuffing.

But I'm torn between keeping an eye on the ground beneath my feet and looking up to enjoy the tall pines and grassy meadow with lupine in bloom. Two miles in, the rocks get more plentiful, anchored on each side by large (5-feet tall and wide) boulders with lichen clinging like barnacles.

And then it happens: my first ankle-roll. But I stay upright, hopping a bit as the pain subsides. I make it through Rocky Moto without further incident and make a left turn onto the Secret Trail for a 2.2-mile stretch that includes switchbacks and climbing. It is the highlight of the run: trees, boulders, lush vegetation and relatively rock-free footing. I wonder why it's called the "Secret" Trail, though, because the imprints of bike tires and shoe soles attests to its popularity.

You're almost sad to leave the Secret Trail at the junction with the Moto Trail (what regulars call the "upper" Moto). It's a steep 1.5-mile downhill with hairpin turns and lots of boulder hopping. Another ankle roll happens on this steep descent, but I stay upright throughout.

By the time the trail flattens and reaches its junction with the Arizona Trail, I figure this will be one of the few quasi-technical runs in which I do not draw blood. My presumption turned out to be my downfall — a literal fall. You are tempted to pick up the pace and lengthen your stride heading back, after the choppy, slow going on the Moto descent. That's what I do  and, just like that, down I go.

Bloody hands and elbow. Nothing major. Merely flesh wounds.

I am certain, as I get deeper and higher into Flagstaff's trail system in coming weeks, there will be tougher technical treks afoot. I will be ready, even though I've yet to reach my insurance deductible.

Sam McManis can be reached at smcmanis@azdailysun.com or (928) 556-2248.

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

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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