Coconino National Forest – Recreation for Horizons
By Jacob Wolf, Correspondent
Looking north from Prescott, you’ll find that our desert landscape has some snow-capped intruders: the San Francisco peaks. Despite the snow, the smallest of these peaks can be climbed in the wintertime with only your hiking boots. This is accomplished via Mt. Elden’s Lookout Trail, which rises 2,300 feet over three miles.
Mt. Elden’s trailhead sits just off of Highway 89 in Flagstaff. It has a small paved parking lot, and all the typical signage you’d expect at a National Forest trailhead. Once you start climbing, you’ll notice intersecting trails shooting off across the mountain. Most of them are easy-going loops that circle Elden. Our Lookout Trail crosses all of these, and heads straight up the slope.
The end of the first mile brings you out of the boulders and into the ponderosa pines. At this same point, the dirt trail gives way to packed snow. Because the Lookout Trail takes huge zigzags across Elden’s face, you’ll find a variety of conditions separated by only a few hundred feet. One half of the mountain is calm, densely populated by trees, and covered by snow. Climbing to the other side, you’re hit abruptly by gusting winds and lots of sunshine.
After a solid hour of switchbacks, you’ll find yourself at the summit. You won’t be alone, as Mt. Elden’s roof hosts various communications towers, a Forest Service administrative hut, and a lookout tower (it’s called the Lookout Trail, after all). If you’re lucky, and the good folks of the Forest Service have staff up there, they may let you climb up to the lookout tower’s platform. Otherwise, you can trespass and take your chances with a $5,000 fine. Tuition is expensive enough, so I would save my money and stay on the ground.
Elden’s summit looks out over much of the Arizona desert. If you squint hard enough, you can try to convince yourself that you see Prescott sitting on the horizon. You could also choose to focus on the Flagstaff airport sitting near the foot of Mt. Elden. For once, the planes will be flying beneath your feet instead of over your classroom.
If you’re planning on making a trip up to Flagstaff this winter, I suggest you spend your time at the other San Francisco peaks and enjoy the slopes of Arizona Snowbowl. But if hiking is more your style, Mt. Elden is the place to go.