Originally Published: November 5, 2011 1:32 p.m.
Sycamore Canyon gets my nomination as the best overall wilderness hiking opportunity in Arizona. The Dorsey/Kelsey trail system at the upper end of the Canyon offers easy access, yet a feeling of being hidden away in a remote canyon that is quite scenic, has plenty of options for trails and camping spots, and best of all, there is plenty of surface water from several reliable springs. Add it all up and you get a place where plants are varied, colorful, and fun to learn about.
I began my hike at the Dorsey trailhead. From Flagstaff, take Route 66 west to the turnoff to the Flagstaff Arboretum. Turn south and go 14.1 miles to Forest Rd. 538. Along the way, you'll cross I-40 after about 1/2 mile. The pavement ends at 0.9 miles. The Arboretum is about 4 miles down the road. Take 538 5.5 miles to 538E and turn right (north). Take 538E 1/2 mile then turn left. Go 0.2 miles to the trailhead. The signs are not the best. The road is well maintained but washboardy. There are no facilities at the trailhead. The USGS topographic map for the area is "Sycamore Point." Some sections of the trail were hard to follow, but by staying alert, you shouldn't venture too far off the right path. The elevation at the trailhead is about 7,000 feet and the low point at Geronimo Spring is about 5,200 feet. Ponderosa pine and chaparral are the two most prominent vegetation types encountered.
A brief word about chaparral is in order. Chaparral is dominated by shrubs such as Manzanita, Silk Tassel, Bear Grass, Yucca, Mountain Mahogany, Ash, and a variety of cacti and oaks. Lots of mid elevation (e.g. 4,000 to 6,000 feet) areas across the AZ are dominated by this vegetation type, such as the foot hills around Prescott, the Mazatzal Wilderness south of Payson, the upper reaches of the Superstition Wilderness, some parts of Sycamore Canyon, etc. These shrubby species respond well to wildfires, though our chaparral is a little different than that found in California. Overall, the climate where chaparral is found is described as a Mediterranean climate. Because this vegetation type is widespread across the Southwest, you will encounter these plants quite often. In other words, these plants are good to know, not only because of their frequency but because of their value as sources of food, fiber, and shelter, for people, as well as wildlife and livestock. Some are also quite distinctive, at least in form (e.g. yucca) if not due to their flowers and fruits. Since our space is limited, we'll have to focus on only a handful of species, but I selected ones that are relatively important to a hiker's enjoyment along the trail.
With over 28 species of Yucca across the Southwest, the potential for confusion might appear high, until you begin to note the distinctive appearance of these plants, such as the Joshua Tree, Soaptree Yucca, Narrowleaf Yucca, etc. Significant differences in overall height, width of the leaves, presence of a trunk, to name a few, make it less difficult to distinguish one species from another than you might think from just looking at the number of species on a list. In reality, these plants stick out like a sore thumb from the shrubby species in a chaparral covered hillside. It is not likely that you'd have to separate several species of Yucca in this vegetation type. You won't find Joshua Tree or Soaptree Yucca growing here. But you will often find Banana Yucca in the chaparral, as well as in lower deserts. But if you learn it here, where it is easier, you'll be more successful elsewhere, where it is more challenging. Banana Yucca has large white, waxy, bell-shaped flowers. They are quite showy. The buds are reddish and the fruits banana like, relatively fleshy. The hallmark of the Yuccas is the basal rosette of leaves. In this case they are spine-tipped with white fibers on the margins. Interestingly, the dried roots, when soaked in water, make a soap-like lather. Additionally, the leaves have been used to make baskets, sandals, and other articles where strong fibers were important. As with all Yuccas, specialized pollination takes place with a specific species of moth. Hybridization is known to occur between the fleshy fruited species, so some ambiguity in identification is to be expected. The fruits ripen from August to October and they must be fully ripe to be considered palatable. A variety of wildlife also consume the fruits, including deer, birds, insects, and livestock. Be careful though, since the fruits act as a strong laxative. Don't eat too many. Traditionally, the fruits have been prepared in a variety of ways, from eating them raw to roasted.
Oaks are not too difficult to pick out of the vegetation mix, but identifying a specific oak out of the nearly 100 species found throughout the Southwest is another matter, due to how easily they hybridize. Regardless, if you have acorns, you know you have an Oak, yet the nuts vary in desirability. Most oaks growing in the Southwest are small and scrubby. A few might grow to a foot or so in diameter, but that is not to be expected in areas dominated by chaparral. Among species common in chaparral, the acorns are especially easy to gather. Acorns have been used for food for thousands of years, providing a rich source of oil, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fat, as well as essential vitamins and minerals. Taste is related to the concentration of tannic acid in this fruit. More acid means more bitterness, which can be removed by leaching with water. Acorns mature over different periods of time depending on the species. Drying the unshelled acorns in the sun for several days was practiced by many to prevent them from becoming wormy. Sometimes there was much ceremony associated with the acorn harvest, depending on the tribal group and preparation varied considerably, from eating them raw to grinding them for use in many different dishes such as meats and soup.
Compared with Oaks, Ash (trees/shrubs) constitute a small group indeed, with only four species in our region. In chaparral, Singleleaf Ash is the most common one encountered. They are small and scraggly in stature, but bear the standard wind pollinated flowers, with the females maturing into the classic samara fruits. You are probably familiar with the traditional winged samara of Maples. Ash are similar but are single in structure, not double like Maples. Singleleaf Ash is more shrub-like than Ash trees you might remember from wetter climes, perhaps reaching a height of six feet. It usually has a single trunk, like any tree, but the traditional split leaf (e.g. compound) is sometimes reduced to a single leaflet, so to appear as a simple leaf. They are found scattered amongst other chaparral bushes on relatively dry hillsides.
Mountain Mahogany is a member of the Rose Family, hence its flowers are more showy than the wind pollinated neighbors in chaparral covered hillsides, such as Oaks and Ash. There are also, relatively few species in the group, only about six. The most eye catching aspect of the shrub, though is not its flowers. Neither is its growth form particularly outstanding. But its fuzzy fruits are likely to get noticed. Since they stay on the plant for many weeks, they display their presence long enough to be seen by even the less than observant hiker. The fruits look like small tufts of hair protruding among the leaves. They are not the only plants to bear this kind of fruit. Their cousin, Apache Plume, does so as well. It is also a member of the Rose Family but not common in chaparral. The leaves of Mountain Mahogany are simple, with small teeth running across the upper half of each leaf.
Upper Sycamore Canyon is quite distinct from the mouth of the Canyon below Taylor Cabin in the Verde Valley. It is hotter and drier away from the streambed down below on trails such as Parson's Spring Trail, so the best season for hiking and the vegetation encountered at each end of the canyon are different. Regardless of when you explore this wilderness, you are likely to discover many treasures and come away with many cherished memories. Thanks to Anne Epple and Wendy Hodgson for some of the information I presented here, from their books Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona (Epple) and Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert (Hodgson).