7 Solitary Hikes and Cozy Cabins

Mare CzinarApril 26, 2020
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View from Sketch-Ridge Loop in Sedona; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; model: Nicky Bustamante/Ford Robert Black Agency
View from Sketch-Ridge Loop in Sedona; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; model: Nicky Bustamante/Ford Robert Black Agency

In our complicated national moment, backcountry hiking is one of a handful of pastimes that most agree is healthy, responsible and fun. Find a rambling respite at these seven new trails, plus nearby cabin and camping options.

Photography by Mare Czinar & Kevin Kaminski

A Word on HIKING in May

With low desert temperatures lapping at triple digits, and high country trails above 7,000 feet still mired in mud and lingering snowpack, finding exploratory equilibrium on Arizona trails can be an issue. Hikers can take advantage of the famously fickle month by heading to the comfort zones of the Verde Valley, Sedona, Prescott, Payson and the lower elevations around Flagstaff. Opportunities to escape the heat and begin acclimating to thinner mountain air can be had on these less-crowded, mid-elevation treks.

Camp Verde

Ryal Canyon Trail

Ryal Canyon Trail; Photo by Mare Czinar
Ryal Canyon Trail; Photo by Mare Czinar

Drive Time from the Valley: 52 minutes
Not for the faint of heart, Ryal Canyon Trail climbs from 3,110 to 4,760 feet in good, old-fashioned, straight-up style. The rugged, 5-mile round-trip hike in Prescott National Forest is located a few miles south of Camp Verde and is renowned for its take-no-prisoners aggressive inclines and edge-hugging bends that trace fractured, sun-bleached cliffs of clay, gypsum and salt that are the remnants of an ancient lake bed. Your quads may protest, but the punishing slog that passes through tangled stands of cacti, Crucifixion thorn, scrub oak and occasional pinion pines pays off with sweet views of the Verde River Valley, Sedona and the peaks of Flagstaff. At this writing, the new trailhead on Salt Mine Road is open for use but is still under construction. When complete it will have a restroom, picnic ramada and an ATV staging area.
Directions/Infofs.usda.gov/main/prescott

While You’re in the Neighborhood
Copper Falls

Chasing waterfalls is sort of an unofficial rite of passage for Arizona hikers. One such cascade is the crux of Copper Falls Trail 504. The airy, 4.1-mile, moderate loop hike begins at a gate in the northwest corner of the Copper Canyon Trailhead, and ends with a swift descent on long switchbacks that end at a drainage area where a slim footpath heads into a secluded, stonewalled gorge that hides Copper Falls. fs.usda.gov/recarea/prescott

Bubbling Ponds Preserve & Page Springs Hatchery

Hikers who enjoy wildlife viewing will have a heyday on this 2.3-mile out-and-back in Cornville. Cradled among desert hills, wineries and dewy green zones along Oak Creek, the site has two formal trails that loop among the property’s rare and varied habitats. The flat, soft paths pass through mesquite forests, meadows, cattail wetlands, a warm water hatchery for raising native fish and a shady riparian corridor. azgfd.com/fishing/hatcheries/bubblingponds

Copper Falls
Copper Falls
Osprey
Osprey
Overnight Option
Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Set on the Verde River, on a grassy weald of mesquites and cottonwood, this beautiful property offers both camping space and eight rentable cabins ($60/night), each equipped with a full-size bed, bunk bed, furniture and heating/cooling. Bring your own linen. azstateparks.com/dead-horse

Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks
Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks
Village of Oak Creek

Transept Trail

Transept Trail; Photo by Mare Czinar
Transept Trail; Photo by Mare Czinar

Drive Time from the Valley: 98 minutes
Even the peaceful karmic haze that presides over springtime in Sedona can’t totally mitigate the buzzkill of big hiking crowds. Drawn by the promise of balmy breezes, peaceful vistas, wildflower mania and miles of easy-access trails, visiting hikers instead encounter loud, elbow-to-elbow mobs and bumper-bruising parking conundrums at popular trailheads. This is the new reality of hiking in what is often touted as one of the world’s most beautiful places. It is beautiful. But now, you have to go in the back door to cash in on the promise.

Recently realigned and adopted into the Coconino National Forest menu of Red Rock Country routes, the Transept Trail maintains its outlaw groove. It’s more difficult and exposed to precipitous drop-offs than other area hikes. Also, it’s not conveniently located and there’s limited parking at the tiny trailhead with few overflow options.

Unlike most Sedona trails that have optional shortcuts, this 6.4-mile round-trip trail – which traces the slopes below the Seven Warriors ridgeline west of Bell Rock in the Town of Oak Creek – has only one, and it’s located at a 4,570-foot landing where it intersects with the equally queasy Hiline Trail.

By the time you pass the hike’s signature Mayan Maiden rock formation a half-mile in, you must commit or quit. Beyond the Maiden, the going turns rocky, narrow and steep, with no way out except to turn back.
Directions/Infosedonaredrocktrails.org/ROGS/HilineTransept.pdf

While You’re in the Neighborhood
Bell Rock/Rector Connector

Connecting the loop-centric routes that orbit iconic Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, the Rector Connector puts a new spin on old standards. To find the new connector from the Bell Rock Vista trailhead, hike 0.6 mile north to the Courthouse Butte Loop junction. Turn right and go 0.2 mile to the junction. The trail spins away from airy high-desert savannas and dives into a cypress- and pine-shaded corridor with steep drop-offs on the west and the hulking form of Courthouse Butte to the east. fs.usda.gov/coconino

Bell Rock/Rector Connector
Bell Rock/Rector Connector
Kell Fox Trail
Kell Fox Trail
Kell Fox Trail

Hiding in plain sight off State Route 179 south of Sedona, this lightly traveled jaunt climbs 455 feet to a scenic viewpoint with who-knew views and plenty of solitude. The trail is 2.5 miles one way, but the best vistas happen within the first 1.5 miles. sedonaredrocktrails.org

Overnight Option
Crescent Moon Cabin

Adjacent to Oak Creek near the base of mighty Cathedral Rock, this rustic historical ranch house was built by ranchers of the original homestead and made available for public use by the U.S. Forest Service. With three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large great room, two kitchens and an enclosed sun porch, it accommodates 10 comfortably. $200/night. Disclaimer: Temporarily closed by the Forest Service as this issue went to press. fs.usda.gov

Photo courtesy Crescent Moon Ranch
Photo courtesy Crescent Moon Ranch
Sedona

Sketch-Ridge Loop

Drive Time from the Valley: 116 minutes
Tucked into a hilly parcel of thorny high desert in southwest Sedona, the Sketch-Ridge Loop is an easy-to-follow circuit with some mild challenges and panoramic views of the leafy Oak Creek corridor, and several iconic landforms including the majestic Sedona Pyramid Mountain. The undulating 4-mile route uses two of the newest trails in the Carroll Canyon system, both of which meander among the gullies and ocotillo-cluttered plateaus beneath Table Top Mountain, which is home to the Sedona Airport.

Lots of dips and climbs on slickrock contours that move between 3,996 and 4,422 feet with a few sections of edgy exposure require attention and good balance. To that end, a hiking stick comes in handy for descents on loose rock. A barely-there trailhead on Chavez Ranch Road that sees little action makes for a perfect access point for those who want to ditch the crowds.
Directions/Info: fs.usda.gov

Sketch-Ridge Loop; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Model: Nicky Bustamante/Ford Robert Black Agency
Sketch-Ridge Loop; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Model: Nicky Bustamante/Ford Robert Black Agency
While You’re in the Neighborhood
Sugarloaf Summit Loop

Easy to find, simple to climb and boasting one of the best places to savor a sunset, the summit of Sugarloaf is a high point in Sedona’s North Urban Trail System. The system is a compact set of loop trails that wiggle around some of Red Rock Country’s most iconic rock formations. Coffeepot Rock, Thunder Mountain (a.k.a. Capitol Butte) and Chimney Rock all loom large in this hiking hub tucked among residential neighborhoods north of State Route 89 not far from uptown Sedona. fs.usda.gov

Mescal-Long Canyon-Deadmans Pass Trail Loop

Originally a mountain bike route, the Mescal Trail in northwest Sedona is big on challenging terrain and vertigo-inducing exposure. After a stretch of semi-queasy ledge hiking, the route rounds the mountain to meet Deadmans Pass Trail at the border of Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness and Boynton Canyon. Mescal Trail ends here, however, a map at the junction shows how to use Deadmans Pass and Long Canyon trails for an optional 4.8-mile loop back to the trailhead. fs.usda.gov

Sugarloaf Summit Loop
Sugarloaf Summit Loop
Mescal-Long Canyon-Deadmans Pass Trail Loop
Mescal-Long Canyon-Deadmans Pass Trail Loop
Overnight Option
Briar Patch Inn

With 19 private cabins splayed throughout an impossibly lush stretch of creekbank in northeast Sedona, social distancing isn’t a problem at this privately owned bed and breakfast. Spend your days hiking, swimming and playing cards on the porch. Note: During the coronavirus crisis, breakfast is delivered to rooms, rather than offered buffet-style. briarpatchinn.com

Photo courtesy Briar Patch Inn
Photo courtesy Briar Patch Inn
Flagstaff

Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon; Photo by Mare Czinar
Walnut Canyon; Photo by Mare Czinar

Drive Time from the Valley: 136 minutes
Arizona Trail Walnut Canyon Passage 31 runs for 17.9 miles between Marshall Lake and Interstate 40 southeast of Flagstaff. Because it’s one of the shorter of the 43 passages that make up the 800-mile, state-traversing route, strong hikers can complete the moderate-rated hike – which wanders through forests and high-country meadows near Walnut Canyon – in a day.

However, if you’re in the mood for a more leisurely jaunt, park at a dusty lot on Old Walnut Canyon Road where the trail crosses the dirt track and heads uphill into a landscape defined by scoured limestone outcroppings, culminating at two jaw-dropping vista points. It’s a 4.8-mile round-trip hike to the first overlook and 7.8 miles round trip to the second. This moderate trek in Coconino National Forest hovers at a comfortable 6,613 to 6,920 feet in elevation and links wildflower grasslands, pine-oak woodlands, and a dip into a tapered canyon before revealing the spur paths that lead to ledges that overlook the feral backyard of Walnut Canyon National Monument, a 3,600-acre site with archaeological cliff dwellings.
Directions/Infoaztrail.org/explore/passages/passage-31-walnut-canyon/

While You’re in the Neighborhood
Walnut Canyon National Monument

Need to see those aforementioned cliff dwellings? The strenuous, 1-mile Island Trail and the easy Rim Trail explore ancient Sinagua dwellings, a pithouse and demonstration garden. Note: As this issue went to press, the visitor center and Rim Trail were closed due to coronavirus cautions. Check nps.gov/waca for updates.

Walnut Canyon National Monument
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Sycamore Point Trail
Sycamore Point Trail
Sycamore Point Trail

This odd, shared-use route is in a remote corner of Kaibab National Forest. The 10-mile round-trip hike, which follows a dirt road, is unique in that it begins in a typical ponderosa pine forest but quickly morphs into desert scrub and open rangeland as it descends from 6,583 to 6,296 feet to land at a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the rugged backcountry of Sycamore Canyon – Arizona’s second largest gorge. fs.usda.gov/recarea/kaibab

Overnight Option
Arizona Mountain Inn & Cabins

Emphasis on the “cabins.” They have 17 of them at this Coconino County compound, each fully furnished, each in the A-frame style, in varying sizes, including one large enough to accommodate 16 people. Or eight people, more distantly. Located about 10 minutes from downtown Flag. $147-$602/night. arizonamountaininn.com

Photo courtesy Arizona Mountain Inn & Cabins
Photo courtesy Arizona Mountain Inn & Cabins
Prescott

Firewater Loop

Firewater Loop; Photo by Mare Czinar
Firewater Loop; Photo by Mare Czinar

Drive Time from the Valley: 112 minutes
With its stimulating blend of water, far-reaching vistas, historic artifacts and several biozones, the Firewater Loop is off the beaten path but still an approachable tour of the Spence Basin network of newer trails in Prescott National Forest.

The 5.3-mile, moderate-rated loop that ranges from 5,614 to 6,010 feet in elevation uses West Trail No. 318 (which is also part of the Prescott Circle Trail), Javelina Trail No. 332 and Firewater Trail No. 325 to explore woodsy terrain around the South Fork of Willow Creek. The route entertains both the body and mind with deep canyon crawls, heady high points, ruins of a corral and homestead, and several creek crossings where willows, alders and oaks form pockets of lush greenery. While this circuit is near the busy paths that wind around iconic Thumb Butte, it’s far enough removed to relieve much of the trail-use pressure.

This quieter pocket of shady trails can be accessed at the White Rock trailhead just over a mile past the congested Thumb Butte Recreation Area on Thumb Butte Road, 5 miles from downtown Prescott. There are no fees or facilities at this trailhead.
Directions/Infoprescott-az.gov/recreation-events/recreation-areas/trails

While You’re in the Neighborhood
Prescott Circle Trail

Double down on the mile-high city’s most epic hike. The 54-mile jaunt has 15 trailheads that provide convenient access, a variety of terrain and difficulty levels plus connectivity with Prescott National Forest trails. The city-circumnavigating route is suitable for easy day hikes or multiday backpack trips. prescott-az.gov/recreation-area/
prescott-circle-trail

Prescott Circle Trail
Prescott Circle Trail
Fain Park Trails
Fain Park Trails
Fain Park Trails

Tucked into a ravine between industrial parks and subdivisions 5 miles downstream from Lynx Lake in Prescott Valley, Fain Lake offers a diverse menu of outdoor recreation opportunities. The hills above the 3-acre lake are outfitted with a convoluted system of loopy trails. Two primary routes – the Lynx Creek Loop and the Cavalry Trail – combine for a 1.6-mile circumference tour, while the Canyon, Chapel, Overlook and Shoreline trails provide scenic detours. pvaz.net/DocumentCenter/View/4817/Welcome-to-Fain-Park

Overnight Option
Juniper Well Ranch

Located northwest of Prescott on a hilly chaparral near the town of Skull Valley, this idyllic property operates four ultra-adorable, free-standing, log-stack-construction cabins, plus various “soft structures” (e.g. yurts and teepees). $150-$300/night. juniperwellranch.com

Photo courtesy Juniper Well Ranch
Photo courtesy Juniper Well Ranch
Flagstaff

Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Models: Beau Yotty/Ford Robert Black Agency, Mirelle Inglefield
Wupatki National Monument; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Models: Beau Yotty/Ford Robert Black Agency, Mirelle Inglefield

Drive Time from the Valley: 154 minutes
Part road trip and part hike, this four-stop tour of Wupatki National Monument explores the park’s underappreciated satellite sites. Best known for the heavily visited Wupatki Pueblo ruins at the visitor center, the monument also has peripheral attractions few people ever venture to see.

To get to the park’s curiously ignored, yet fascinating northern frontier, drive north from Flagstaff on U.S. 89 to milepost 444.5 and turn right at the national monument sign. The four sites are located on the Volcanoes & Ruins Loop Scenic Drive (Forest Road 545). They all sit at around 5,300 feet in elevation, are easy to navigate and feature great views of the Painted Desert and the San Francisco Volcanic Field that includes Sunset Crater, Humphreys Peak and O’Leary Peak.

A The first stop is the Lomaki and Box Canyon pueblos. A half-mile loop trail wanders among the remains of 800-year-old Native American structures that teeter above a gaping sandstone canyon.

A Just down the road, a 0.2-mile trail leads to the Nalakihu and Citadel pueblos – respectively, a hilltop fortress-like complex that sits above a massive sinkhole, and a companion field building. Both are outfitted with interpretive signs that suggest how the outpost might have been used by its creators.

A The third outlier is the Wukoki Pueblo, a structurally unique dwelling perched on a sandstone outcropping 2 miles east of the visitor center.

The tour ends at the famously crowded Wupatki Pueblo Trail. Located behind the visitor center, this easy half-mile loop trail winds around an ancient 104-room superstructure and ballcourt, both dating to the 12th century.
Directions/Infonps.gov/wupa
Note: The visitor center is closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but the trails are open.

While You’re in the Neighborhood
Doney Picnic Area

For a lunch break and an extra leg stretch, make a stop at the Doney Picnic Area that sits a few yards outside of the monument boundary between the Citadel and Wukoki sites. nps.gov/wupa

Doney Trail
Doney Trail
Doney Picnic Area
Doney Picnic Area
Doney Trail

Outfitted with picnic tables and a restroom, the site’s keynote feature is the Doney Trail. The 0.7-mile path climbs from 5,300 to 5,500 feet on the slippery slopes of an extinct cinder cone volcano for amazing views and learning opportunities at a set of prehistoric ruins with interpretive signs. fs.usda.gov/recarea/coconino

Overnight Option
Classy Cabins AZ

Four spacious, handsome, high-ceilinged log cabins, each on its own acre of land with stunning display-window views of the ponderosa pines – that’s the compelling sales pitch at this couple-run rental op located about 20 minutes east of Flagstaff, just south of the I-40. $250-$355/night. classycabinsaz.com

Photo courtesy Classy Cabins AZ
Photo courtesy Classy Cabins AZ
Payson

Highline National Recreation Trail

Drive Time from Phoenix: 102 minutes
Originally constructed in the 1870s, the Highline National Recreation Trail is a survivor. Long used as a travel corridor to connect homesteads and communities around the towns of Payson and Pine, the 51-mile route – which flows below the 7,000-foot cliffs of the Mogollon Rim in Tonto National Forest – withstood decades of neglect, misuse, wildfires and erosion before a major restoration project came to the rescue.

Organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service and Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona did the heavy lifting. Beginning in 2012, they re-aligned the trail to protect watersheds, stabilize the tread, improve sustainability and enhance user experience. Some of the most remarkable improvements can be seen by taking a hike from the Washington Park trailhead to Dude Creek. The relatively flat, 6-mile round-trip hike stays around 6,100 feet and begins in a shady maple grove where a bridge constructed by the Arizona Trail Association spans the East Verde River.

Highline National Recreation Trail; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Model: Jennifer Duff
Highline National Recreation Trail; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Model: Jennifer Duff

Heading east over the bridge, follow the Trail 31 white diamond tree markers that denote the route. The trail passes through areas of thick coniferous-deciduous woodlands, stunning geological features and patches of scorched earth where the deadly 1990 Dude Fire and the 2017 Highline Fire roared through the area. At the 3-mile point, the trail encounters the half-pipe chute of Dude Creek, the turnaround spot for the hike, where crystalline spring water washes over bare rock year-round.
Directions/Info: fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto

While You’re in the Neighborhood
Houston Loop Trail

It’s a little-known fact that during the Cold War era, Payson was a prime location for spying on the “commies.” A couple of bunkers used as seismic listening stations to detect hostilities across the globe during the 1950s’ atomic duck-and-cover days still stand along this trail. The route has two main trailheads and is either 4.5 or 9.6 miles round trip depending on where you start. paysonrimcountry.com/hiking

Cedar Mesa

Cedar Mesa is the kind of place you just don’t stumble upon. The desolate, flattop spread resides at the end of a ridiculously undulating road at the base of the Mogollon Rim south of the community of Pine. The 5.2-mile round-trip trail takes effort to get to, but the payoff is a pleasant, uncrowded diversion from the old standard hikes in the area. From Payson, go 12 miles north on SR 87 to mile marker 265 (2 miles north of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park). Turn right on Control Road (Forest Road 64) and go 0.8 mile to the parking pullout at FR 322.

Houston Loop Trail
Houston Loop Trail
Cedar Mesa
Cedar Mesa
Overnight Option
Christopher Creek Lodge

“The only lodge on the creek,” this alluringly ramshackle clutch of cabins and bunk rooms, set under a leafy canopy near the Tonto National Forest, boasts – and we’re biting. Hiking trails, fishing, the Tonto National Bridge and more are all nearby. $70-$219/night. christophercreeklodge.com

Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

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