Traversing the Walnut Canyon trail in Wilson's footsteps

Traversing the Walnut Canyon trail in Wilson's footsteps

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Scoffing locals who eye-roll with impunity at flatlanders invading Flagstaff and (gasp, gasp) trying to acclimate on the trails probably will have a good laugh at me — a newcomer who lived in Central Washington, 1,200 feet elevation, for three years and, before that, spent a decade in the Sacramento Valley at 21 feet, if that.

Yet, as an avid trail runner in town here for all of five days, I had to start somewhere, so the Walnut Canyon via Sandys Canyon jaunt, an 8.2-mile out-and-back, seemed safe and somewhat fitting.

Safe, because the course is relatively flat, though at times rocky and technical, and barely reaches even the 7,000-foot mark.

Fitting, because as the newest Daily Sun reporter, I'd literally be following in the footsteps of legendary editor and outdoorsman Randy Wilson. Before his death on this date last summer, Randy made it a habit to return to Walnut Canyon each spring or early summer, not just to commune with the flora and the jutting, petrified sand dunes but to gauge the state of the environment in these fraught days of climate change.

If the moss hanging over his favorite cave was more gray than green, Randy noted it. If the tall grasses lining the path had turned prematurely brown, Randy lamented it. If the eponymous walnut trees were late to bloom or a few sickly ponderosa pines looked to be on their last roots, Randy was chagrined. If the caves survived the winter without being graffiti-marred, Randy cheered.

Gauging the state of the foliage was hardly Randy's only reason, I presume, for returning to Walnut Canyon year-after-year. As I was soon to discover, this trek qualifies as a sensory delight. The geologic goiter two miles in from the Sandys Canyon trailhead -- which experts call a petrified sand dune but that regular folks anthropomorphize into the spitting image for Jabba the Hutt -- is just one highlight.

On the canyon floor, there is the Hitchcockian sight and sound of ravens swooping and squawking from the canyon rim to perches on pines. There is the arboristic delight of traveling past aspen, oak, pine, willows and, of course, walnut trees in a diverse melange, not to mention the steep, striated walls of Coconino sandstone that never fail to leave a guy feeling insignificant when pondering the 250 million years or so that led to this formation. Then there are the caves, most of which are little more than hovels, save one deep, dark, forbidding one.

Hikers will feel compelled to linger and explore — though do not stray from the path, lest you disturb the delicate ecosystem of 400 plant species.

But because I am a trail runner, I also search for routes that present a challenge and provide a good workout. Walnut Canyon is not exactly a lung-buster compared to the more mountainous offerings — you gain just 1,091 feet in 8.2 miles, and you can add 380 more feet if you do a side trip up the 1.1-mile (one way) trail to Fisher Point — but it has its moments. And, remember, I'm new here and still acclimating. (How long, by the way, can I use that as an excuse for my disturbingly slow times?)

Previewing the course online, I found that a selling point is that it's relatively flat throughout, except for near the beginning, when a half-mile, 200-feet plunge down into Sandys Canyon greets you, featuring rock hopping and root swerving. Yeah, you've got to climb back up at the end, but so be it.

Once hitting the mile-long segment of the Arizona Trail, things flatten out and a wide, sandy path takes hold. Randy, in his yearly missives, gauged the health of the spring trail by noting the amount of animal tracks along this stretch. I saw few, though perhaps they were obscured by the scores of footprints that attests to the popularity of the hike. (Snarky aside: Who would wear Vans to go on hikes? The square sole footprints gave away this poseur.)

At the two-mile mark junction, veer right and get a first glimpse of the petrified sand dune, the beige blob standing out all the more because it's surrounded by lush trees and plants in the ever-narrowing canyon.

Maybe a tenth of a mile beyond that, with aspen leaves waving, you reach another junction bearing a sign that's both an enticement and warning. It reads, in part, "Beyond this point, Walnut Canyon narrows and canyon walls become steeper..."

Narrow, indeed. Veering slightly left from the sign, you enter a stretch on primo singletrack framed by lush foliage that distracts you from the occasionally rocky, root-embedded twisting, undulating path. The farther you go, the narrower and more lush it becomes. For a mile and a half (until the trail was enveloped by foliage), you will traverse dense brambles and emerge scratched and a tad bloody on legs and arms.

Early this segment is the cave with the overhanging moss that Randy would always look for. The moss on this morning was a brilliant dark green and hung a foot over the cave opening. Inside the cave, no graffiti was present.

I'd like to think Randy would be pleased.


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