A Fall Hike Along the Kachina Trail

November 10, 2023

By Duncan Orr and Jan Taylor

The view extends for miles from this vista at the 9,000-foot elevation along the Kachina Trail that skirts around the southwest sides of the Humphreys and Mount Agassiz peaks near the Snowbowl and Aspen Nature Loop Trail.

Fall in the San Francisco Peaks. The Kachina Trail in Flagstaff skirts around the southwest sides of the Humphreys and Mt. Agassiz Peaks near the Snowbowl and the Aspen Nature Loop Trail. Each year several hiking groups from Sedona Westerners make the fall pilgrimage to see the aspens along this beautiful trail. This year was no exception. Jon and Terri Petrescu led the Amblers group - along with Ambers Boss, Jan Taylor - on September 28 and Duncan Orr led the Dogies hike on October 10. The weather was picture perfect both days with cool temperatures and blue skies.

The Kachina Trail starts at an elevation of about 9,300 feet. You enter from a parking lot just below the entrance to Snow Bowl. The trail goes through a short section of National Forest before entering the Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area. While the trail feels relatively level, it gradually descends to around 9,000 feet in just over 2.5 miles. The entire trail is 5.5 miles long and meets the Weatherford Trail which can be ascended to Doyle Saddle or descended to Forest Road 420, the Schultz Pass Road.

The Amblers hiked out about 1.75 miles, a bit beyond the point where the trail started to go steeply downhill. From there they could see as far as Anderson Mesa to the south, although there was quite a bit of smokiness from the Cecil fire a little southwest of Flagstaff that day. The Dogies went a bit further and stopped after 2.7 miles where they encountered a beautiful meadow with expansive views. The hike back regained the elevation, and while it was minimal, it didn’t feel that way at 9,000 feet.

This is a wonderful trail for fall color with the trail paved with gold coins - golden aspen leaves, that is. The Amblers did this same hike last year, in late October when the aspens had already made the change to their brilliant fall colors, and in the distance, the mountain had swaths of red and gold. But this year, the slopes were still green in late September. The trail was lined with pines and firs, so fragrant in the high crisp mountain air. It was truly a feast for the senses, as one of the hikers described it. The trail wove in and out of the forest and open meadows where the ferns that were green, yellow, and brown. Basalt rocks, boulders, and a myriad of roots littered the way. Being vigilant was important because they offer a hazard for tripping. The breeze blowing through the aspens is what gives them the name “quaking aspens,” as they shimmer and rustle. 

The San Francisco Peaks formed in the late Miocene Epoch (10.4 - 5 million years ago) as a single stratovolcano with many layers of lava in the San Francisco Volcano Field. Humphreys Peak – at 12,633 feet - was part of the central vent. There are various estimates on the original height of Humphreys Peak, generally around 15,000 – 16,000 ft. According to the USGS website, “The volcano then experienced a collapse, either by a gravity-induced landslide or a lateral blast eruption similar to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. This event created the great bowl-shaped amphitheater in the upland area east of Humphreys Peak (Fellows, 2000, USGS, 2003).” Nearby, Sunset Crater is another notable peak in this lava field, still considered active.

The San Francisco Peaks are sacred to several Native American groups including Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni who believe their ancestral spirits live here. Many tribes have creation stories centered around these mountains. Native Americans come to the mountains to collect plants for religious ceremonies. Basque Sheepherders worked this area in the 1880s. Downhill from the Kachina trail are remnants of their camps. Historians have discovered dendroglyphs or carvings in the bark of the aspen trees made by the Basque. Many of the glyphs found deeper in the forest date up to the 1920s, though more modern carvings can also be seen. The cuts in the bark make the aspen susceptible to a fungus called aspen canker. Those tempted to add their names should be aware that doing so today is illegal, and the current fines are up to $5,000 and/or up to 6 months in jail. 

As the Sedona Westerners retraced their steps for the hike back, they were reminded that the trail had been all downhill before and now they experienced the sneaky elevation gain. Stopping for breathers and water was necessary - especially water since the air is very dry that high up. Both groups took many photo stops to take in the aspens, the distant peaks, and the basalt boulders and rocks that were spectacularly beautiful in this lovely forest. While they did not see much in the way of wildlife - other than other hikers, squirrels, and ravens - they all enjoyed the sounds of rustling leaves, woodpeckers, and birdsong. 

To learn more about the Sedona Westerners Hiking Club, view this season’s hiking schedule, or to become a member go towww.sedonawesterners.org. The hiking season runs through May 9, 2024, and the membership fee is only $30 for the whole season.

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