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1:04 PM Sun, Sept. 23rd

Ah, Wilderness<BR>Sycamore Canyon delights senses

Provides riparian hiking adventure

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, and where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

— 1964 Wilderness Act

SYCAMORE CANYON, near Clarkdale — After weeks of covering open space issues in the tri-city area, my mind and body rebel against concrete walls and highways.

So when Wednesday dawns clear and blue, without a hint of rain in the forecast, my husband and I head up Highway 89A, in search of real open space, where one can hike for hours without seeing another person.

About an hour and a half out of Prescott, I'm standing on the edge of for-ever, green and lush, with a stream to guide my feet.

Welcome to Sycamore Canyon.

Just standing on top of the overlook at the trailhead is worth the trip. It's as if colors are more saturated here, with crisp blues in the sky and Sycamore Creek, verdant greens in the cottonwoods and sycamores, and deep, rustic reds in the sandstone cliffs.

Sycamore Canyon was the first area in Arizona to earn the "primitive area" designation. It became a wilderness area under the 1984 Arizona Wilderness Act.

Its 57,937 acres span three national forests, with the western portion in the Prescott National Forest, the eastern part in the Coconino National Forest, and the northern tip in the Kaibab National Forest.

The canyon stretches 20 miles down Sycamore Creek, from the Mogollon Rim to its confluence with the Verde River. At places the canyon stretches seven miles wide.

Parsons Trail, in the Yavapai County part of the Coconino National Forest, is an excellent day hike, 3.7 miles one way with scarcely any elevation change. While it is an "out-and-back" trail rather than a loop, it has enough variation and scenic qualities to make a person wonder if he or she is still on the same path on the way back.

Various places call Parsons Trail an easy hike or a moderate hike. That's because the trail is a tandem hike, with vastly different terrain.

After the steep descent from the trailhead to creek level, the first two miles are a cakewalk, with sandy paths of river silt, grassy surroundings and shade.

Then it crosses Sycamore Creek, and the path climbs into the hill country. A rocky path winds away from, then back to the creek, surrounded by red sandstone and white limestone cliffs.

The trail crosses the creek once more. Unlike developed trails such as Oak Creek's West Fork, Parsons Trail's crossings are slightly more challenging than rock hops across stationary, flat river stones — these are branches and unsteady rocks.

As the trail climbs, cactus-watching becomes a secondary pleasure this time of year: a hunt for red, orange and yellow blossoms. Prickly pear dominate, but we saw four different varieties, including some tiny ones sprouting close to the trail, still undamaged despite the well-worn path.

That's because people have been kind to this area, despite its popularity. Not a leftover plastic bag or water bottle mars the trail, and other than an occasional path to the creek, we didn't see the all-too-common informal trail cuts.

Cairns mark a handful of places on the trail. Cairns once were expertly piled stone pyramids, defining the trail without intruding as signs or markers do. Today's national forest cairns are more likely rock-filled wire baskets.

We see one lone hiker on the trail, then a pair and finally a group at a second water crossing that doubles as a wading pool. But in seven and a half miles, midday, we are virtually alone.

The silence is both refreshing and awe-inspiring. Hardly a breeze breaks the stillness, and while we see fresh sign from larger animals, small birds, insects and lizards are the only wildlife we see, until we reach the trails' end, at Parsons Springs.

Not that the place was teeming with wildlife. But we easily spend 10 or 15 minutes gazing into the tranquil pond that rises out of the canyons through underground springs.

Bass fill the pool, perhaps 40 feet wide and 25 feet across, and the calm waters allow us to see the bottom, where eight- to 10-inchers dwell. Then it was back down the trail.

Several words of caution: Sycamore Canyon isn't mountain country, but high desert.

Thus, while you can hike harder in the 3,000- to 3,500-foot elevation, the spring and summer heat is intense. Bring along more water than you think you will need. A gallon for the four-hour day hike isn't inappropriate. Cover your head, wear light-colored clothing and use sunscreen generously.

Second, the rocky upper trail close to water is a wildlife haven. And wildlife includes venomous snakes, bear and mountain lion.

Stay aware of your surroundings.

Finally, the narrow canyon is paradise, unless heavy rains or snowmelt create flooding conditions. The floods of 1992 and 1993 vastly changed the features of the Sycamore Canyon area, and flash floods can be deadly. Listen to the forecast before heading in, log your hike at the trailhead and watch for changing weather conditions.