Thunder Mountain

February 26, 2016

Brad Kincaid
By Brad Kincaid

On a recent Saturday morning, the Roughriders gathered to hike Thunder Mountain. This winter day was perfect for hiking with high clouds and a cool breeze moderating the temperatures. Nearly half of the assembled group had never attempted this hike before.

With Thunder Mountain in Sedona’s backyard, why is it that so many of the group had never hiked this icon of the red rocks? Maybe it is because this hike is one of the most challenging and difficult hikes in the Red Rock Pathway system. Maybe it is because any weather but a perfect winter day multiplies the difficulty of reaching the top. Or maybe it is because of the regular stories in the Red Rock News of rescues and recoveries from the mountain.

Whatever the reason, relatively few hikers attempt to reach the summit of Thunder Mountain, and that is the way it should be. Only the most fit and experienced red rock hikers should ever attempt this hike. This made the hike perfect for the RoughRiders who are the most advanced hiking group in the Sedona Westerners. The hike was led by Walter Krywucki and Brad Bell, veteran Scouts for the club, assisted by tailgaters Mike Holmes and Tom Makielski.

The view from atop Thunder Mountain of Sedona and beyond.

According to Jean Kindig in Sedona Places & Names, Thunder Mountain became a popular name for the mountain after Zane Grey published his novel Thunder Mountain. The official name is Capitol Butte because of its dome shape. Earlier names included Gray or Grayback Mountain reflecting the color of the Coconino Sandstone that caps the mountain.

Safety is always a high priority for the Westerners with strict rules that every hiker must follow. For this hike, extra precautions are taken to keep the group together over the slick rock, as a missed turn on the sometimes-faint trail could have serious consequences.

The hike itself is relatively short covering only 3.5 miles, while most RoughRider hikes are more than twice that distance. The challenge for this hike is the relentless elevation change. Starting near the Dry Creek Vista and the Lizard Head trail, the elevation change to the summit is 1800 feet. The undulating ridgeline above the Lizard Head adds about two hundred feet to the combined elevation change. Adding to the challenge were severely angled and sometimes loose rocks.

In RoughRider style, the hike started at a good clip. Despite the shaded northern slope, a series of clothing adjustments and breathers were necessary to keep the pace. The back of the lizard at the Lizard Head provided a relatively flat place for the hikers to catch their breath and to have a snack. With renewed energy, the group was ready for the push to the summit.

Beyond the Lizard Head, the trail generally followed the ridgeline alternately providing north and south views. The northward view at a saddle in the ridge was particularly spectacular. From there to the summit, the climb was relentless with a few false trails that might test some hikers. Fortunately, the leaders were confident at every turn.

The summit was celebrated with brownies provided by the leaders and great views in all directions. Everyone appreciated the views of their homes in Sedona and beyond. The summit also provided some unique views of the trails below and a new perspective for planning future hikes.

Interestingly, the hike down took about the same time as the ascent. Even though gravity assisted the return hike, extra time was necessary to ensure good footing along the way. All the hikers, especially the first timers, were thrilled with the accomplishment of climbing this Sedona landmark.

If you are interested in joining the club, visit the Sedona Westerners website or just come to one of our monthly meetings. The next one will be on Thursday, March 3rd, 2016 at 7 pm at Saint John Vianney Parish 180 St. John Vianney Lane in Sedona.


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