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Sat, Dec. 07

An afternoon in Flagstaff can be a lofty experience

Arizona Snowbowl ski resort offers a number of summer activities, including the Scenic Skyride, which takes riders to the top of the mountain, and the lodge restaurant, where hikers can enjoy lunch and soak up the views.

Labak, who splits his time between Snowbowl and other Flagstaff-area attractions such as Walnut Canyon and Wupatki monument, said he sees mostly out-of-state tourists at the summit.

"About 80 percent are from out of the area," he said. "I see a lot of people from the Midwest, the East Coast and California."

Interpretive signs dot the short, steep trail that extends upwards from the lift, explaining the history and the volcanic geology of the area.

Labak is also on hand to offer explanations. For instance, he pointed out that a rare plant – the San Francisco groundsel – had caused the closure of much of the top of the mountain in the summer.

The small holly-like plant, which nestles in the rocks of the mountainside, grows only in the San Francisco peaks, and nowhere else in the world, Labak said. Once abundant in the area, the plant has become scarce in recent years. To protect it, the U.S. Forest Service closed down hiking between the Snowbowl summit and the nearby Humphreys Peak.

Hardy hikers can still make it to the top of Humphreys Peak on foot. The trails start just feet from the bottom of the ski lift. The trail rises more than 3,000 feet – to 12,634 feet – and is described as a "difficult" hike. It is six miles roundtrip and takes about four and a half hours.

But once at the top, the vantage point offers views of the San Francisco Peaks mountain range and ponderosa pine and aspen trees. The trail extends well beyond the tree line.

In fact, Arizona Snowbowl is flanked by awesome stands of aspen and ponderosa pine trees all around; hiking opportunities abound just feet from the lodge.

An easier alternative to the Humphreys Trail is the Kachina Trail, which starts just down the hill from the ski resort. It is about five miles roundtrip and takes about two and a half hours. Although it doesn't have the huge altitude change of the Humphreys Trail, the Kachina Trail does have plenty of up-and-down hiking through rocky terrain.

The Coconino National Forest terms the Kachina Trail a "moderate" hike. The elevation actually drops overall – from about 9,800 feet to 8,900.

It doesn't take long into the hike to realize that aspen trees are the highlight of the Kachina trek. For hikers accustomed to the ponderosa pine forests of Prescott, the smooth white trunks and shimmering green leaves of the aspens are a pleasant change of pace.

About a half-mile into the hike, the trail enters the Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area, where sloping green meadows alternate with moss-covered granite outcroppings and gently waving ferns. At times, distant views of Flagstaff are visible across the meadows.

Contact Cindy Barks at cbarks@prescottaz.com.

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