Old Man Winter’s Nicer Uncle Sol has bestowed a gift upon us this first week of March. Rather than the normal highs in the upper 40s, today in 7000’ Flagstaff, Arizona, we have been promised 70F. Driving north from Tucson, we have plans to hike in Flagstaff 260 miles away today and then tomorrow – the Granddaddy of them all- The Grand Canyon.
Waking early in the pitch black of the desert before rush hours, we head north on I-10 past Picacho Peak, Casa Grande, and Florence. Arriving in the Phoenix Metro morning rush hours, we have the highway gods smiling on us! There is an HOV lane! While we cruise along at 65 mph, traffic to our right is crawling along at 15 mph. Feeling like lottery winners, we are soon past congested Tempe and on through Phoenix itself.
Taking I-17 north on another beloved HOV lane without even a hiccup, we soon are tooling into the parched landscape past Black Canyon City and Verde Valley.
Arriving at our Hotel Aspen Inn Suites in Flagtown this off-season Wednesday, we check in early, hoping that we are in time for the motel breakfast. The clerk smiles and says we are. With 15 minutes to spare, we slip in for huevos rancheros and home fries drenched in salsa complemented by homemade biscuits! A road trip trifecta.
Nearby Buffalo Park is a 215 acre open space within the city limits of Flagstaff with a two mile walking/running loop. With views of the 12,000’+ San Francisco Peaks as a backdrop, this park is ideal for moms and dads pushing strollers as well as friends out for a mid-day walk and talk.
A little after the noon hour, we bisect Buffalo Park on the Arizona Trail. Within a half mile we are at the entrance to the Coconino National Forest and its system of trails. For the most part, the trail has little variation in elevation as we wander through pinon pines and scrub brush of this high desert below the mountains.
Highly popular with mountain bikers high above the city, our trails will lead us to the Duck Pond 3.7 miles away. The Arizona Trail (technically the Arizona National Scenic Trail) is a continuous 800+ mile trail through Arizona from bottom to top, from Mexico to Utah. As part of the 6,875 mile Great Western Loop, which includes the 2900 mile Pacific Crest Trail, the Arizona Trail links deserts, mountains, and canyons.
Winding past the junction of the Rocky Ridge Trail, we hike along the foothills of the mountains. And then, for no explicable reason, the trail dumps us on a paved road. Doubling back to see where we may have lost the trail, we come up empty. Stumped, we return to the road hoping we’ll pick the trail’s scent.
After a quarter mile it just doesn’t seem right to be walking on this tarred semi-suburban road; so we make a sharp right and just start bushwhacking up the hill to where we think our trail should be. Soon I spot mountain bikers above us; stomping over logs, we step around scrub brush in search of that trail.
At a vista overlooking mountainside homes in Flagstaff, we come upon the aforementioned mountain bikers taking a break. Asking, Where are we? they respond, The Ridge Trail. We think, How could we lose as major a trail as the Arizona Trail? We are not rookie hikers. Perhaps we need to reassess.
Abandoning any thought of reaching Duck Pond, we trek back to the Buffalo Park trailhead having had enough of our misguided wandering. Skirting the face of the mountain, we come to a junction that identifies the Rocky Ridge Trail as one in the same with the Arizona Trail. Perplexed, we just want to head for our rental car at the trailhead and call it a day.
Since we have been on this trail just an hour ago, we put our heads down and motor on. Soon we are hiking higher and higher on a trail that is increasingly foreign to us. Once more we double back looking for our original trail.
Growing weary, we are frustrated with the poor signage, but notice a gully that looks familiar. At a previously passed “0.9 mile to Buffalo Park” sign, we feel confident that we can follow this trail back.
And then we are not.
We have no idea where we went wrong, but wrong is where we went. None of the trails look familiar, but we figure following the base of the mountain can’t get us too far off-track. Seeing two women walking dogs in the distance, we step up our pace but never catch up with them to ask where the hell we are. Unaware that we are pushing west and north of where we should be, we still never feel “lost lost;” just lost.
At last we see a small barn in the distance and beeline for it, believing it must lead us to some city streets of Flagstaff. Spotting an idling tow truck, we approach and ask of the whereabouts of Buffalo Park. The helpful young man with his girlfriend on the front bench seat says that we are just 6 to 7 minutes away… by car! He guesses we are an hour or two away by foot. What he doesn’t do is offer to squeeze us into the front seat and take us there.
Checking WAZE, our GPS navigational system on my iPhone, we learn we are 1.7 miles away from the Buffalo Park trailhead. With nothing else to do but to put one weary foot in front of the other, we walk side by side on city sidewalks, talking little, just ready to be back at the trailhead parking lot.
Climbing a ¾ mile hill with cars passing at 50 mph, we eventually bushwhack to the trailhead parking lot. Nearly an hour after we expected to be here, we pull off our hiking socks and shoes, slip on our sandals, and most fortunately have but a 2.5 mile drive back to the motel. We cannot spin our weariness into something positive…yet.
After a shower and brief nap, we partake of the free happy hour at the Hotel Aspen Inn Suites. A cold Bud Light away out West never tasted so good.