A trail that exceeds expectations

Arizona Daily Sun (August 4, 2020) by Sam McManis

here are no boring trails, only boring people. John Muir said that, I think. Or, if he didn’t, he should have.

I entertained that thought — so, so deep and incisive — as I was traveling on the 5.7-mile Deer Hill Trail east of the Peaks, from Little Elden Springs Horse Camp to Schultz Pass Road, way north. Loping along, following the gentle undulations of singletrack trail that traverses stands of Ponderosa pines and denuded meadows in the aftermath of the 2010 Schultz Fire, it struck me just how wrong my assumptions were.

Look at any trail map for Flagstaff and environs, and your eyes might glaze over the Deer Hill Trail. It appears as something of a straight line, save a few squiggles, in lower reaches of the foothills. The Peaks are well to the west, some housing developments not so far away to the east. Yawn. And the description provided by map authority Emmitt Barks Cartography, which gives it a green dot (“easy”) doesn’t exactly set one’s heart aflutter: “Gradual grades, partially follows bed of old logging road.”

Yet, my latent OCD required me to at least step foot on every single Flagstaff trail (I’m making steady progress, a year in), so I figured why not knock off Deer Hill. Rather than do an out-and-back for 11.2-mile round trip, I thought I’d spice things up by turning onto Schultz Pass Road after the 5.7 miles of Deer Hill and take that route to Schultz Tank and breeze down the Arizona Trail (aka, Little Elden Trail) to finish up at 14.1 miles.

Amazing what can happen when expectations are low. The Deer Hill segment was the most enjoyment by far, while Schultz Pass was a slog (more uphill than you might think) and the AZT a little too crowded late on a Sunday morning.

The first thing to know about the Deer Hill Trail is that there is no hill, per se. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not every excursion should require challenging climbs. But there are deer flitting about — big mule deer. I have ocular proof.

The next thing to know is that the trail was designed and is primarily used by equestrians; hence, it’s southernly terminus at Little Elden Springs Horse Camp. So unless you want to pay a fee, it’s best to park at a dirt pullout off of Elden Springs Road (FR 556) and hoof it 0.2 of a mile to the signed trailhead.

You can tell, right from the start, that equine dominate here. Horse droppings, sometimes impressive cairns of the manure, dot the path. But, on a more positive note, the trail builders made sure the way is mostly boulder- and rock-free and the surface a nice duff.

That’s true for the first two miles or so, as you wend your way through the trees. I was pleasantly surprised by the lushness present — and the shade is offered on a warm summer morning.

Eventually, though, the trees recede and is replaced by the part I most dreaded — the burn scars from the Schultz Fire, still startling evident a decade in. It was just how I pictured it: stubby, charred remains of once-thriving pines, desert scrub terrain taking hold, clear views of the side of the mountain that looks about the same (deforested) after the devastating blaze.
To read the rest of the article, click here.