|Submitted by Tom Evans on Sat, 08/21/2010 - 00:01|
Special Report: Volcano hiking near Flagstaff, AZ.
By Tom Evans
Yo… this is NOT your Dad’s ElCap Report so don’t get excited. The Report will be back in mid September. This account is about my recent trip to do some exploring in the San Francisco Peaks Volcano Fields near Flagstaff, AZ.
Monday, 16 August 2010. Merriam Crater.
I left Phoenix in mid morning to take a little road trip up north to see, close up, some of the volcanoes I had often noticed during travels through the Flagstaff area. My geologist friend, Jersy DePonty, had turned me on to the book, “Volcanoes of Northern Arizona” by Wendell Duffield, and after getting a copy and reading it, I decided to investigate some of the area’s most famous volcanoes. The drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff is always a pleasure as the topography is varied and interesting. I arrived in late morning and decided to head out to Merriam Crater, east of Flagstaff. I had done some internet research on it and knew pretty much what to expect. What I hadn’t expected was how green the whole countryside was. They’ve had a lot of rain this summer and the countryside was covered with wildflowers and greenery.
The sky was overcast and threatening around the nearly 13,000ft San Francisco Peaks. There were thunder storms scattered around the area.
I took the road out to the Merriam crater and got my first view of it from a few miles to the west. It is a big cinder cone varying from 1,200 to 1,500 ft in height from its base. The top is almost 7,000ft in elevation. Its’ east flank is being mined for cinders but the main cone is intact and is often used for hang gliding and paragliding.
I drove my 4WD Durango for this trip, as I was expecting to get onto some off road terrain. The satellite maps and other information showed a jeep trail to the top of the east flank and another to the top of the main cone itself. I was psyched!! Hell, maybe it would turn out to be a “drive up”! I could explore the thing from the comfort of my vehicle!! So I turned off the paved road and onto the jeep trail leading around the east side. I decided to make a run at the east flank as it was lower and the trail looked passable. About the time I got the 2 miles or so to the steepest part of the trail, a sudden, violent, thunder storm broke over the mountain with torrential rain and much thunder and lightning. These trails quickly become impassable in heavy rain so I stopped at the start of the steepest part and waited it out. The trail was soon running with water and heavily rutted. So I decided to go to plan B and circled further around the base to the north east and took the main crater trail. This trail was in much better shape and the ground, mostly small cinders, had absorbed the standing water pretty well. I put it in 4WD and gunned it up the trail. It took some careful driving but I was soon at the start of the steep part, about 800ft from the top. I was concerned, as this last part of the trail looked kind of mushy and some runoff debris had accumulated on the lower part, and I have little off road driving experience. It is steeper than it looks!!
I decided to leave the vehicle and hike up a ways to get a closer look at the conditions. I hiked up and didn’t like what I saw, and in a moment of foolishness, decided to just keep climbing up the trail until I reached the top. The sun came out and, with the high humidity of a stormy day, the hike soon turned into an unpleasant one. It was really hot and I was sweating profusely but had not wanted to give up the hard earned height I had gained to go back for water and my cell phone. The footing was loose and slippery and I made slow progress up the side of the volcano. There was hardly a breeze and I was rapidly becoming dehydrated in the heat. I would stop frequently and look at the view and try to cool off a bit by facing any breeze that would spring up. The vista was expansive.
The wide green plain stretched far off to the north and east and the cliffs of the Painted Desert were just visible at the limit of sight. I gained height well enough but for some reason the top never seemed to get any closer! I sucked it up and kept going. After a time I noticed a stick of some kind standing not too far above me and quickly saw that it had a little flag on it. I figured it was used by hang gliders to judge the wind and that meant that the top was not far! But after a time I noticed another such stick higher yet! So I continued on and shortly arrived at the top. I was higher than the other volcanoes in the area and the view was worth the hike to reach it. Nice volcanoes were seen off to the south and east.
The view off to the west toward the big peaks was impressive as was the sight of the huge thunderstorm that was rapidly approaching! I rested for a time and did a quick look around for any water bottles that some kind hearted soul might have left…no such luck! I stayed on top for several minutes but the crackle of lightning and booming of thunder brought me back to reality quickly enough. It was 2pm and I needed to get off this lightning rod as quickly as possible. So down I went, not using the trail but going on the natural ground as the footing was better and downward progress was not so jarring to the knees. The storm broke over me just as I reached the Durango. I jumped inside and chugged a diet cola and some water I had in a cooler. It was nice to be back at the truck and I quickly drove down the rest of the mountain to the green plain below. The storm blew through as I was departing. It was more fun to remember than to do but it was just what I was meaning to do and a nice little adventure in the rather mundane life of and old man! The view below is from the east side as the storm approached.
I had a wonderful dinner and a good nights sleep at the home of a friend I was visiting in the area.
17 August 2010 SP Crater.
SP Crater is one of the most classic cinder cones in the whole region. It last erupted some 71,000 years ago but it looks like it could have been last year. There is a 4 mile lava flow that heads off to the north from the crater. I got up pretty early and drove the 25 or so miles along Rt. 89 to the turn off for this volcano. There is a large area of volcanoes out to the west of the road and fortunately the Babbitt Ranch allows people to drive out onto its property to see these wonders of nature. It was so beautiful out there I was giddy with the excitement of new things to be seen.
It was an easy drive out to the lava flow and volcano itself. SP stands about 800ft high and, fortunately, has a saddle that connects it to another cone to the west. This saddle is used as a way to make height without having to actually climb the cinder cone itself. You make the final 500ft or so, from that saddle.
I made a mistake by driving to the north side of the volcano to start the climb. There is a jeep trail up to the saddle but it was posted as not passable so I had to go on foot. It took 45 minutes to reach the saddle over relatively steep but easy hiking terrain. This time I had taken a pack with a wind jacket, water, cell phone…. Etc.. so I was not going to be suffering so much as the day before. The day had started nearly cloudless but by now they had started building in a threatening way.
At the saddle I drank some water and looked at the 500 or so feet of trudging I would have to do to reach the top. There was no trail as the ground was just cinders and volcanic rocks of various sizes. I had to carefully place my feet to keep from the old “up three steps, slide back two” routine that such volcanoes deem necessary. To my good fortune some clouds had formed above the mountain so I was not even in the direct sun for this climb! Sweet! Notice the 4 mile long lava flow in the shot below and my truck is the white spot in the lower center of the photo.
I took my time picking my way among the small bushes. The trick was to try to place your upper foot just above a bush and then step up as the cinders were held in place by the plant and you didn’t slide much. Where there were no bushes I found good footing by kicking the toe of my shoes horizontally into the slope, much like a mountain climber would do in snow. This enabled me to get solid footing and not just skate off the loose surface rocks.
So, I took my time and although it wasn’t fun it was interesting and the views always made it worth the effort. Having water to drink made it much easier than yesterdays epic. I reached the top, on the western part of the rim, about 1pm and sat among the rocks on the lip of the crater, taking in the views. The crater in the center was an evil looking thing and I wanted nothing to do with going down inside it for the 400ft or so to the bottom.
I was alone, on a remote volcano and if anything bad happened to me I was screwed. So I took no chances with anything. I was on the look out for snakes, loose rock, bees, anything that might cause me a problem. I spent some time on top and really enjoyed the views off to the north, west, and south.
This view looks south with the 12,000ft plus San Francisco Peaks in the far distance. Everything in the picture is a volcano.
The view below is looking north toward the Grand Canyon.
The eastern view was blocked by the rim on the far side of the crater and it was too far to walk to on the schedule I had decided upon. Around 1:20pm I left the top and mostly slid down the crater. It only took 15 minutes to reach the saddle and my shoes were full of rocks and cinders.
I soon headed down to the truck and arrived without incident. I had some lunch and then decided to go around the mountain to the south side, as I noticed the jeep trail on that side of the saddle looked passable and I wanted to check that route out. The drive out to the west and around the volcano was very nice with some range cattle and many flowers in evidence.
The ladies, taking a break.
The bull pen.
Arriving at the south side of the mountain I noticed that the jeep trail to the saddle looked in much better condition, than the one I had to hike on the north side. So I decided to give it a try in the truck. There were no signs posted so I went for it. It took just 5 minutes to get to the saddle that had taken me 45 minutes to hike to earlier in the day! Oh well, live and learn.
I soon drove to the main road, Rt 89 and then did a swing out to the Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater road. Interesting country and geology and best of all…. It was a drive through! My legs were a little worn out and a nice drive was the ticket.
I again stayed with my friend Mark and his family that night and left for home early the next morning.
All in all it was a fun and interesting trip. I had wanted to take the ski lift at Arizona Snow Bowl up to 11,000ft on the big mountain but it was slammed by thunder storms the whole time I was there. Something for next time!!