The Mustangs” group of the Sedona Westerners kicked off their 2011 – 2012 hiking season on the 8th of September with an invigorating hike up the Harding Springs trail to the rim of Oak Creek Canyon, followed by a ‘’stroll’ to Ritter Butte. The group was led by Gini O’Brien, with Cathy Lutz as the ‘”tailgater”. The Mustangs hike every Thursday. Their hikes are challenging and feature great scenic beauty. The majority of the Mustang hikes is in the 7 to 9 mile range and often have elevation changes of 1000 to 2000 feet, sometimes more. Most leaders set a moderate pace.
The Harding Springs Trail hike retraces a bit of Sedona history. When the railroad reached the mountain town of Flagstaff in 1882, the town began to grow and became the best customer for the produce of the scattered farms in Oak Creek Canyon. As the crow soars above The Mogollon Rim, the distance to Flagstaff is about 30 miles from the Harding Springs Trail Head. For the homesteaders unable to soar, the Mogollon Rim was a major obstacle. The homesteaders in the upper canyon hacked out a number of trails to the top of the East Rim. Harding Springs trail was not only used for horses carrying produce, it also provided a way for cattlemen to drive their stock out of Oak Creek Canyon. For this reason, the trail is a little wider than most leading to the rim. Although it may not seem so to all hikers, it is not quite as steep as many rim trails. The wagons were kept at the canyon rim. Crops of apples and peaches were loaded onto horses that were then led up the trail. A wagonload required multiple trips to the rim. Once the wagon was loaded, the horses were hitched to the wagon and the two to three day trip to Flagstaff from the rim would begin. Although the need for better roads was apparent, there was little money to build them at the time. In 1902, Coconino County and local landowners joined forces and built Schnebly Hill Road, shortening the trip to Flagstaff to a two-day jaunt. At this time, the upper canyon settlers were still struggling with the Harding Springs Trail. The trail was abandoned for commerce in 1914 when there was (finally!) a continuous wagon road through the canyon to Flagstaff.
The trail is a perfect early season hike. In September, when many Sedona trails are still subject to warm summer temperatures, all of Harding Springs Trail is in the shade. The Mustangs enjoyed the cool of a mixed conifer forest, predominantly Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, typical of central Arizona canyons. The trail starts at an elevation of 5,440 feet. The steepest part starts as you leave the trailhead. After many switchbacks, the trail has reached 6,300 feet, and the ‘stroll’ begins. The next portion to Ritter Butte is through widely spaced conifers. Paths that were once logging roads intersect and diverge. The only sign of a mechanized vehicle noted was a FORD tailgate, slowly returning to its natural state. The rusting tailgate had many bullet holes. One hiker suggested the holes matched those of a Clovis point. His CSI credentials were immediately questioned and rejected.
Ritter Butte, the lunch stop and turnaround point, is 6,975 feet (2,125.98 meters for those for you still flirting with the metric system) and provided a magnificent vista in all directions.
One additional comment; do not be confused by the name of the trail. There is a ‘Harding Spring, however it is at the campground and not on the trail. As with most hikes, start the hike with ample water, there isn’t a flowing spring once you leave the tarmac.
The Westerners always welcome new members. If you are interested in joining the club, log onto our website: www.sedonawesterners.org. You may also join at a monthly meeting. Our next one will be Thursday, September , 15, beginning at 7p.m. at the Jewish Synagogue and Community Center, Hwy 179 and Meadowlark.