Arizona Snowbowl Chairlift A Ride to the Sky

October 16, 2015

Velma Michael
by Velma & Michael Henry

The first Sedona Westerners Tracker outing of the new hiking season took the group to the Arizona Snow Bowl north of Flagstaff. The lodge and the base of the ski lift were located at approximately 9,200 feet in elevation. At the base, the weather was a crisp 61 degrees with overcast skies. As the group rode the lift for 25 minutes up to 11,500 feet in elevation, grazing deer and other wildlife provided great photo opportunities. On the ride up, the group’s destination at Agassiz Peak was barely visible as the clouds blanketed a significant portion of the peak. The group arrived at the top to experience a chilly 43 degrees in the clouds. The Westerners’ Tracker Hike Boss, Helen Ducharme, had arranged for Forest Service guides to provide detailed interpretations about the local history of the San Francisco Peaks and the volcanic activity that created the Peaks. Fortunately, the clouds would briefly clear at perfectly-timed moments to allow the Westerners to actually see the geologic formations the Rangers were describing.

The guides described how the Peaks were remnants of a dormant stratovolcano that formed between 500,000 and 1,000,000 years ago. Stratovolcanoes had steep slopes and formed by accumulating layers of lava flows, cinders, and ash. These tall, cone-shaped volcanoes normally rose to a central peak and were built by many eruptions. Examples of these volcanoes were Mount Rainier, Washington, and Mount Fuji, Japan. San Francisco Mountain was the only stratovolcano in the San Francisco Volcanic Field.

The volcano’s original peak was believed to have been 16,000 feet in elevation before it erupted, leaving four major mountain peaks. Humphreys Peak was the highest of the Peaks at 12,633 ft. Humphreys was named for Civil War Brigadier General, Andrew Humphreys, who was responsible for evaluating survey data collected by expeditions to find routes for wagon roads and a railroad. Agassiz Peak was named for Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist, geologist and zoologist who taught at Harvard in the mid-1800s. Fremont Peak was named for John C. Fremont, who was a General in the Mexican War and the Civil War, and the territorial Governor of Arizona. Doyle Peak was named for Allen Doyle, a local cattleman who built a cattle trail into the peaks and a road to the Grand Canyon. Doyle also achieved fame for guiding western novelist Zane Grey when he visited this region.

The View of the Mountain as the Sedona Westerners Tracker hiking group ride the Arizona Snowbowl ski lift.

The Ranger guides explained that almost all hills and mountains between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon were geologically young, but extinct, volcanoes of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Sunset Crater was the youngest volcano. It erupted less than 1,000 years ago and has been a National Monument since 1930. Most of the volcanoes are basalt cinder cones, but the San Francisco Volcanic Field also includes lava domes. Lava domes are volcanoes which the magma piles up and forms very steep-sided domes at the site of eruption.

Elden Mountain, east of Flagstaff, is an example of a lava dome consisting of several overlapping layers of lava. Between the breaks of the clouds, the guides were able to point-out other hills and summits. They noted those formations were named for explorers or local citizens, like Schultz, Rees, Aubineau, Elden, O’Leary, Kendrick and Sitgreaves.

The San Francisco Peaks contain the only alpine tundra environment in Arizona. Only a few small plants have established themselves in this tundra. One of these species is the threatened San Francisco groundsel (Packera franciscana) which is only found in these peaks.

The chilly weather motivated the Westerners to have lunch at the lodge rather than on the mountain before returning to Sedona. The clouds cleared slightly and the ride down the mountain was even more beautiful than the ride up.


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