No fun in the mud on the Arizona Trail at Anderson Mesa

Arizona Daily Sun (August 11, 2020) by Sam McManis

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.

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