A good hike, in my book, ought to combine some local history, interesting flora and fauna, and dramatic scenery.
The Forces of Nature Trail at the southern base of Mount Elden has all that and more -- even though my post-hike research is a work in progress.
On a recent Saturday, I hiked the trail and learned about the Elden Homestead and the killing of John Elden Jr.
I got up close with a gnarled alligator juniper tree, a turkey vulture and a mountainside full of caves and lobe-like rocks with funky shapes.
And, climbing high up what is known as The Crevice, I discovered a mossy waterfall with a view over Flagstaff that wouldn't quit.
On most maps, the Forces of Nature Trail is a straight line hugging the lower contours of Mount Elden. But at least two signboards at trailheads show it as a mile-long loop, with sections named "Walk Through Time," "Spring" and "Wildlife Tree."
And at several spots along the trail, there are numbered, metal stakes that are meant to correspond with entries in a brochure available at national forest offices and the public library, according to the signboards.
But neither of those places had brochures, although Jack Welch, Flagstaff's leading promoter of walking trails, says he has a box of them inherited from the Coconino National Forest's Brian Poturalski. And there may be some more at the Willow Bend Environmental Center -- I'd love to hear from readers who know where to get them.
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The Forest Service set up the trail as part of the Mount Elden Environmental Study Area, which has been used by local students for field trips for decades. In just one mile, students are likely to see not only all that I listed above but also yucca plants giant ponderosa, horned lizards, cliff roses, gambel oaks, Abert squirrels and peregrine falcons.
The rocks at the base of the mountain seem to have oozed downhill -- which, as lava flows, is exactly what they did. Mount Elden is a lava dome, and lava emerged periodically from vents, then cooled into lobes, benches and spires. The true "forces" of nature are evident at nearly every step along the trail.
The old homestead of John Elden and his family, begun in the 1870s, is long gone. But the Forest Service has done a good job of providing two informative signs, one at the homesite and another at the grave of little John, who was killed by a stray shot from an irate mule driver denied permission to water his stock at the family's spring.
The spring still flows from rocks behind the homesite, and this past Saturday I decided to follow an informal trail above the spring that scales the giant cleft in the mountain known informally as The Crevice.
Because this side of the mountain faces due south, there were no traces of snow left in the rocks nor even any water flowing down the crack. Numerous caves dotted its sides, and soaring turkey vultures and ravens croaked overhead.
After about a half-hour of scrambling and some bouldering, the mud underfoot started getting moist, and soon I arrived at a series of dry pools ringed by giant ponderosas and spruce trees. At the last one that was climbable, water trickled down off a ledge five stories overhead, and lush, green moss clung to the cliff face.
This was the end of the line for an unskilled climber like me, although I could see a faint trail winding its way up a crack in the cliff. The view south through the opening in the crevice seemed to stretch all the way to Munds Park and beyond.
For a longer hike, the Forces of Nature Trail connects to Fat Man's Loop to the east and to the Pipeline Trail and Buffalo Park to the west. The trail often intersects with a maze of social paths used by local residents to jog and walk their dogs, but don't worry about getting lost -- when in doubt, just head downhill and away from Mount Elden. Civilization isn't far away.