Outdoors: No fun in the mud on the Arizona Trail at Anderson Mesa
Mornings after monsoons, it’s best to choose your trails carefully lest you fall prey to the mistake I made last month and get stuck in the very definition of the word quagmire.
Now, let me preface this by saying there are many trails in greater Flagstaff that can handle a little bit — or, OK, a lot — of rain with little effect. So many trails here, especially those with volcanic material underfoot, just suck up the moisture, ShamWow-like.
The Arizona Trail, Segment 30, traversing Anderson Mesa is not one of those trails, however.
I learned this the hard way, by trying to run on this flat, meandering trail on a blissfully clear morning after several days of monsoon activity. (Yeah, remember, we did have rain awhile back.) I went, oh, maybe less than a mile before I had to bag it and turn around. The rich, loamy soil on Anderson Mesa, so conducive to the formation of verdant meadows dotted with cows enjoying a salad bar of grasses, gets rather mucky when wet.
The hard-packed single- and double-track, not to mention the fire roads of the AZT closer to the Horse Lake Trailhead, became not so much a mud pit as a deceptively difficult slog. The darkened dirt enveloped my shoes with each step. I sank into it, and when I lifted my foot to take another step, I was taking caked-on mud with me. Cows interrupted their grazing to shoot curious glances my way.
Not good — for either trail or for your hiking or running experience.
Ethically, I believe I did the right thing turning around and hoofing it back to the trailhead on that post-monsoon morning. Had I continued on, I would’ve been putting big divots into the trail that, when dry, would be worse for the path than erosion. Plus, where’s the fun in having to stop every quarter-mile to scrape layers of tacky mud off your shoes — making your shoes feel as heavy as bricks, by the way — only to continue on and have to repeat the process?
So I aborted the trip, waited for a few sunny days in a row and then tackled Anderson Mesa once more, pretty confident this time that it would be dry enough to proceed.
After all, this is supposed to be mellow, bucolic trek on a 9.7-mile stretch from the Horse Lake Trailhead to the south to the Perkins Telescope just south-east of Marshall Lake. Nobody wants a mucky slog.
Day hikers flock to this part of the AZT; runners, not so much. The most popular way to span the stretch is to do a car shuttle, using Lake Mary Road as your connection. Drop one car off at the USGS Observatory off of FR 128, then drive another 8 miles east on Lake Mary Road to the Horse Lake Trailhead, 0.7 miles on FR 85-E to begin the trip.
Of course, you could drop the first car at Horse Lake and start from the telescope — or be an endurance junkie and complete the entire 19.5-mile out-and-back. Starting from the observatory area is the more scenic route, giving you gorgeous overhead views of Upper Lake Mary within the first mile before settling in to the traverse across the grassy mesa.
I chose, however, to start at the Horse Lake Trailhead, mostly to get the (frankly) prosaic part of the trail out of the way early and save the eye candy for the end.
Truth be told, the first 4.8 miles of this part of the AZT is not the most memorable part. It combines either rocky and rutty double-track with even rockier and ruttier fire roads (FR 129A, to be exact). Talk about erosion. Huge tire divots, punctuated with jutting boulders, makes the footing quite technical.
Around mile 3, though, when you get closer to Horse Lake, the going gets a bit smoother. After a cattle guard and a gate crossing, the trail leads around the northern part of Horse Lake, which, unlike many other “lakes” on the mesa, actually has some water in it. I figured as much after nearly a week of monsoon activity; still, it was more swampy than swim-worthy. No horses, either. But several cows seemed to revel in standing in the boggy morass.
The lake soon recedes and, eventually, so does the fire road. At 4.8 miles, look for the AZT directional sign and make a left onto singletrack. Now this is more like the AZT people know and love. Yes, it’s still a little rocky, but you wander through juniper, Gambel oaks and (naturally) some Ponderosa pines dotted in the meadow.
Thankfully, there’s a little more shade on this stretch, which passes by the Lakeview Campground connector trail at mile 6. At this point, you are heading parallel to Lake Mary Road below — though you’d have to have very acute hearing to pick up the sound of cars whooshing by.
About a mile before the observatory, you can finally get that long-sought view of Lake Mary from above if you take just a few steps off the trail. If you’re there in the early morning, there often is a wispy mist rising from the lake’s surface, a sublime sight.
As you continue west, the trail skirts the mesa’s edge and you can see Lower Lake Mary from a vastly different perspective. Whereas from the road Lower Lake Mary seems just a field of wildflowers and grasses, when viewed from above you can really detect the marshiness therein, several shades of green and blue melding in a mosaic.
Oh, and there’s this sight, one that’s with you almost the full 9.7 miles from Horse Lake: the looming presence of the San Francisco Peaks in the distance. You may be enjoying, or not, the flatness of the mesa, but the Peaks remind you that more vertical paths await.