This Arizona Trail segment checks all the boxes for a perfect summer hike. How to try it

Arizona Republic (July 22, 2022) by Mare Czinar

Shady and cool, Passage 31 of the Arizona National Scenic Trail is a satisfying respite from summer heat.

The 17.9-mile segment of the 800+-mile, state-traversing route southeast of Flagstaff drops off the plateau lakes region of Anderson Mesa and heads into pine-oak woodlands in Coconino National Forest.

Also known as the Walnut Canyon Passage for its swing by the finger canyons and periphery of Walnut Canyon National Monument, this close-to-town segment of the Arizona Trail has several access points that make it perfect for day hikes, loop and car shuttle options. One trip to try goes from Marshall Lake to Sandys Canyon.

At the Marshall Lake trailhead, hikers get a reality check on the effects of drought. While Marshall Lake is rarely more than a shallow, reed-choked pond, this year it’s bone dry.  Still, its elongated, pine-wrapped footprint is a picturesque sight and favorite grazing territory for elk.

The hike heads north from the large Arizona Trail sign along a well-defined single track. Thick tree coverage and riffled terrain obscure big vistas, so this hike is more about immersing in the details of forest life.

It’s a great place to smell “yellow belly” pines — older ponderosa pine trees that have developed yellow-brown bark scales and emit a syrupy fragrance that’s often described as butterscotch, vanilla or cardamom.

Each tree has a unique olfactory signature that blooms when warmed by the sun. Go ahead and take a whiff, but be respectful. There’s no need to damage the bark to determine if the sap is sweet, savory or spicy.

About 1.5 miles in, the green swale behind Marshall Mesa Tank appears below a set of easy switchbacks that lead into a shallow ravine. The wildlife water hole is contained by an earthen dam but, like the lake, it was dry. Lingering moisture feeds a fringe of wildflowers and elderberry trees.

Several more minor downhill twists lead to the junction with the Sandys Canyon Trail.

Here, the Arizona Trail veers right into the canyon where bizarre limestone formations are the key attractions in this very popular forest destination. For those who parked a shuttle vehicle at the Sandys Canyon trailhead, veer left at the junction and hike 1.5 miles for a 5.6 mile one-way trek.

For a longer hike, Passage 31 continues north to Interstate 40 where it connects with the Elden Mountain Passage on the east side of Flagstaff. The trail also links up with the Flagstaff Urban Trails System and the Flagstaff Loop Trail.

Consult the Flagstaff city website for details on how to customize a hike circuit. Otherwise, just shift into reverse at the junction for an 8.2-mile out-and-back day hike.

Hiking Walnut Canyon

Length: 8.2 miles round trip from Marshall Lake trailhead to Sandys Canyon junction; 17.9 miles one way for the entire segment; 5.6 miles one way for car shuttle.

Rating: Moderate.

Elevation: 6,885-7,185 feet as described here (6,500-7,185 feet for the full passage).

Marshall Lake trailhead: From Flagstaff, go 9 miles south on Lake Mary Road (County Road 3) to Forest Road 128 on the left, signed for Marshall Lake. Go 2.2 miles on FR 128 (pass the observatory) to the Arizona Trail post at FR 128D, turn left and continue to the parking turnout at the large Arizona Trail sign.

Sandys Canyon trailhead: From Flagstaff, go 4.5 miles south on Lake Mary Road to the signed Sandys Canyon Trailhead on the left. Follow the Sandys Canyon Trail 1.5 miles to the Arizona Trail junction on the right.

Details: Arizona Trail Association, Flagstaff Urban Trails System,

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