360 Bike Tour of Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks

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Once in the spring, and once in the fall, I ground myself in Northern Arizona’s seasons by riding my bike around the San Francisco Peaks. In the spring, my mind wanders as I ride through tunnels of bright green aspen, meadows dappled with lupine, poppies and Rocky Mountain iris, and views of shrinking snowfields plastered on the brown flanks of the peaks. In the fall, my mind wanders less as I prepare for another gray-brown winter.I focus on the gold aspen leaves, the day-glow orange of lobster mushrooms hidden along the trail, the green moss on the north side of the Peaks.

I road the loop last week, and the spring wildflowers are at their prime.

The route I typically follow is about 55 miles long, part single track, part dirt road. It takes me a little over six hours, but I know people who enjoy breaking the loop up into a two day bikepacking trip and spending one night in the designated Wilderness corridor on the north side of the peaks.

In case you were wondering, this is bikepacking. Actually, this is me scrapping the mud off of my wheels while attempting to bikepack. The ideas is that you carry all of your camping gear with you on your bike!

For those who are more into dirt road bike touring, or those with a sturdy touring bike but not a mountain bike, skipping the single track and sticking entirely to Forest Service roads is definitely an option. I have also heard stories of a few people using this loop to backpack–walking from their houses and returning three days later. Although I don’t know anyone who has done it, horsepacking this route is also an option. Below, I describe the usual route that I take, but the map (also below) is filled with alternative dirt road routes–or routes, for the backpacker and horsepacker, in which detours into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness could easily be taken. If you are horsepacking or backpacking and worried about water, leave a comment below and I will happily describe locations of cattle tanks and springs along the route. You might also consider emphasizing the geology, natural history, human history or fire ecology of the area in your tour. I hope you plan your route around your interests and needs (because this is the fun part of any adventure). I recently read an article about how all map making is “partial and particular” to the map maker. In other words, most maps contain an element of bias and subjectivity. Here’s the link to the article on mapping if you are interested.

I like to map my routes using significant changes in geography as landmarks–this route includes ponderosa pine forests, aspen groves, ridges, drainages, dacite rock formations, burned areas and springs.

The Water Line Trail leads to tunnels and tunnels of aspen. This photo is from a ride at the end of color season last fall.

I also use human history: cow tanks, the Waterline Road (where Flagstaff pipes most of its water), and landmarks significant to Native American spirituality and history. Political lines–specifically where designated Wilderness starts and ends–are particularly important information to anyone traveling by bike, since we are not allowed inside Wilderness Areas. This route is unique in that the Waterline Road cuts through Wilderness, and since it is open to service vehicles, it is also open to cyclists.

Schultz Creek Trail (red on the map) is the best place to start the loop around the Kachina Peaks. Mountain bikers and hikers will enjoy the trail, but those wishing to ride only dirt roads could take FR 420 Schultz Creek Road.
westernTaniger
I saw three Western Tanagers in one afternoon along Schultz Creek this spring.

The best start for this route is from the Schultz Creek trail head off of Hwy 180. There is a large parking area here, but Flagstaff is a bike friendly town, so if you live here–or are staying somewhere near downtown–I strongly recommend biking from home and heading out the back of Buffalo Park to the Oldlham Trail, down Elden Lookout Road (FR 557) and to the Schultz Creek Trail Head (see map for more details). From the Schultz parking lot, the trail climbs at a gentle grade along Schultz Creek. In the fall, be sure to look for the bright orange lumps of lobster mushrooms. They’re a delicacy, and you can either fill your backpack toward the end of the ride, or buy some from the Farmer’s Market on Sunday. In the spring, keep your eyes peeled for bright yellow Western Tanagers.

Schultz Creek trail ends three miles from the start in another parking lot, from this lot head to the dirt road (Schultz Creek Road) and turn right. In about a half mile you’ll see Schultz Tank on the right–a large man made pond, home to ducks and frequented by mule deer. I once saw a family of javilena up here, which are rare to see in Flagstaff! This tank is gorgeous, but like most tanks, it did some damage to the local ecosystem by diverting water away from its original course. If you wander into the field to the southeast you’ll find remains of what look like small dams. Continue down Schultz Road, and in less then a mile your turnoff for the Water Line Trail (which is really a road) will appear on the left.

The water pipeline was damaged during the Schultz fire in 2010, and since then the original pipe has been removed and replaced. Remains of the original clay pipe are all over the road. The pieces are really interesting! You’ll be on Water Line almost all the way to the Inner Basin on the north side of the peaks. It’s a gradual uphill, so pace yourself! About three miles down Water Line you’ll encounter my favorite feature: a tunnel in the crumbly dacite rock.

Sometimes my friends and I ride our bikes out to the tunnel just to throw parties. That’s how cool it is!
Take Water Line all the way to the turnoff for Locket Meadow.

Along Water Line you’ll see the burned area, the re-growth of aspen, and fantastic views of craters in the distance. Eventually you will hit an intersection for the Inner Basin and Lockett Meadow. I strongly recommend a detour into the Inner Basin! But the trail down to Lockett Meadow is what you want to take to continue the loop. From here, you’ll descend through a tunnel of aspen to FR 552, and then you’ll descend for another several miles down FR 552 to FR 418.

Once on FR 418, you’ll be climbing, and climbing, and climbing for awhile. But enjoy the view! This is the prettiest side of the Peaks. Along FR 418, first you will be looking into the Inner Basin, and then into Abineau Canyon.

This photo is from halfway up Abineau Canyon. The canyon is north facing, and it holds so much snow that I was able to ski it the same week I road around the Peaks on my bike this spring. To the right, and just out of this photo, the Water Line Trail enters the canyon (but it dead ends in designated Wilderness so bikes need to leave Water Line before reaching this point).

The views from FR 418 always make me forget that I am in Arizona! But, of course, we are in Arizona and all of this pretty land–this terrain that is so fun to recreate in and around–has its fair share of controversy. The Peaks are sacred to Native American tribes in the area, but with their European names (Agassiz, Humphrey, Fremont and Doyle) this is easy to forget. I find it rather disturbing that one of these sacred Peaks is named after the biologist Louis Agassiz who did quite a lot of damage to our country’s views on race in the late 1800 and early 1900s. In short, Louis Agassiz was a racist. Here is a link to a New York Times book review his biography (and horrible legacy) by Christoph Irmscher.

This is what the area Native American tribes call the San Francisco Peaks (from the Coconino National Forest website).
This is what the area Native American tribes call the San Francisco Peaks (from the Coconino National Forest website).

FR 418 eventually leads to the Arizona Trail, and you’ll take the Arizona Trail all the way back to Schultz Creek. It’s really well marked! Before the final descent to Snow Bowl Road you’ll have views of Arizona Snow Bowl over your left shoulder and Kendrick Peak (as well as several grass covered cinder cones) over your right shoulder. Click Here for a link to an Aljazeera article about the Arizona Snow Bowl controversy, and Click Here for a New York Times article on the same subject.

Be sure to look for elk on this last stretch of the ride! Before setting out on this ride, I would pickup a Flagstaff trail map from Flagstaff Bike Revolution or one of the local gear stores. Enjoy!

4 comments on “360 Bike Tour of Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks”

  1. What an adventure! Having spent many weekends (and a year at NAU in the early 1980s) in Flagstaff over the years, I am familiar with a lot of the trailheads and Forest Service roads you discuss in your blog. Most of my interaction with this part of Northern Arizona is from camping and being in vehicles. The freedom you describe of being on a bike sounds exhilarating and wonderful… you must be able to see so much more of the terrain and minute details (such as the mushrooms and mountain iris) than you do simply driving past.

    I love that you included detailed maps in your narrative. I would read a bit, go back to the map, read a bit more, go back to the map, etc. It is good to have a visual to reference as you follow a detailed description of a route on a map. Maybe you could have a larger map at the top (or bottom) of the post, and then blown up, cropped sections of the map littered throughout the narrative close to where you are talking about that area.

    If I ever get the chance to live in Flagstaff, I will definitely be taking advantage of the hiking (and maybe biking!) opportunities this beautiful area of Arizona has to offer.

    Thanks for a great read!

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  2. Chase-

    Your passion and knowledge for this area bleeds through even your directions! I can tell this an important place to you and your community.

    I liked how you included links to other related items, particularly the historical bits. However, as a reader, it’s a lot of work (I know! Lazy of me!) to click on all the links and find out all the curious bits the trail offers. It might benefit the reader to give a little explanation of these bits, and maybe how they add to the cultural value of your trip.

    I wonder if you could expound a little on the introspective aspects this trip provides you…as you map the area physically, I wonder if you could map it introspectively as a party of your journey, and maybe tie in your perspective of female athletes?

    Thanks for sharing. Wish I could ride it!

    K

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  3. Thanks Chase! I would love even more pictures, but I am a picture addict so, that’s me. I like the way you talk about all the options as far as foot/bike/type of bike before highlighting the route, and also that you include maps that we could actually use to recreate your mountain loop! Also, thanks for mentioning the controversies surrounding the peaks. Oh and the dance parties!

    I hiked waterline trail last summer and saw a baby elk parked near the trail, presumably by his mama, about a mile past the tunnel. I was all worried about him, it seemed a weird place for her to park him, but the ranger station was like, um. Yep. and what? It was super hot without any tree cover, but I heard from a friend that the aspens are getting much taller now. I think I will talk a couple friends into the loop for a backpacking extravaganza!

    I loved reading your post, and the only thing I would suggest is including the Navajo name for the peaks along with the others (unless I missed it) and instead of saying “for blah blah click here and for blah blah click here”, I think it is common and bit more modern to write the sentence and include hyperlinks without the ddifrecctive,

    for example, instead of :

    “Click Here for a link to an Aljazeera article about the Arizona Snow Bowl controversy, and Click Here for a New York Times article on the same subject., it could read”

    You could say: “Aljazeera carried an interesting article about the controversy surrounding the Arizona Snow Bowl.” and just hyperlink to the word “article” or “Aljazeera” or what not…It might also be nice to have one or two more sentences outlining the controversy right here in your blog.

    Thanks again for writing!

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  4. Hi Chase,

    I enjoyed reading your post! You do an excellent job of making your post interesting and fun to read. I love that your post has a storytelling feel to it. You describe everything so beautifully. I think that the inclusion of the maps are a great idea and I think that the maps would be extremely useful for someone wanting to take the same route as you did. I like that you point out the best place to start. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    Like

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