Originally Published: June 8, 2012 8:39 p.m.
Always bear in mind that if hiking above timberline, you should be ready for anything as the season dictates: wind, sun, lightning, rockfall, snow. Stay on the trail as there are steep fines for venturing off route, primarily due to an endangered member of the Sunflower Family and the fragile nature of Arizona's only alpine habitat. You can start this hike in a number of locations, such as the Snow Bowl Ski Resort, Locket Meadow, or Schultz Pass. The shortest version will be from Snow Bowl. Take US 180 north of Flagstaff. At about seven miles north of town look for the Snow Bowl turn off. Take the Snow Bowl road north another seven miles to the parking lot for either trailhead, Humphrey's Peak or the Kachina Trail. I took the loop in a counter clockwise direction but you can take either approach depending on when you want to face the steepest part of the trail - at the beginning going up or at the end, coming down.
There is no surface water unless you find snow-melt. The Summit Trail is going to be crowded with plenty of dogs on any summer weekend with mostly day hikers, some getting in over their heads. But with easy access, Arizona's high point will attract all sorts. Watch for the runners on the Weatherford Trail. Otherwise, the area offers great opportunities for solitude, especially in the off season or during the week. No permits are required but hiking off established trails is not permitted, neither is camping above 11,400 feet. The entire loop is some 20 miles, so an overnight campout may be necessary, especially if you'd like to stop and enjoy some of Arizona's most unusual and unique flora. The following collection includes a low-growing juniper that favors the extremes near timberline, a beautiful wildflower found in the forest, an unusual parasite also in the forest, and a rare/threatened herb restricted to the alpine habitat on Mt. Agassiz.
Common Juniper, Juniperus communis (Cypress Family)
If you do not frequent higher elevation destinations, this species of Juniper will catch you by surprise. It is a low-growing shrub with needle-like leaves rather than the typical overlapping scales of lower elevation Junipers. But as the name implies, this species is common throughout the Rocky Mountains and extends into the Cascade Range as well as southern California. The "berries" might look odd among those needles, where you might expect a pine cone. Never-the-less, Common Juniper is an attractive "ground cover" seen in open spots at higher elevations or higher latitudes. The needle-like leaves may be green or silvery gray with a glaucous coating. This coating can be rubbed off and is also found on the "berries." If you rub the coating off the "berries," you'll find they are green underneath. I say "berries" in quotes since Junipers do not produce fruits, like true berries. They are Gymnosperms or cone bearing plants. The cones they produce, unlike pines are somewhat fleshy or mealy. While they may remind you of blue berries in size and color, they are nothing like them in structure or taste. They take two years to mature. Commercially, they have been used to flavor gin. I have eaten mature Juniper cones from other species and found them palatable, at least to an extent. I have not eaten them from this species, but expect they would be similar. The male and female cones are found on different plants. Only the female cones are used since the male cones fall from the plant soon after they shed their pollen.
Franciscan Bluebells, Mertensia franciscana (Forget-Me-Not Family)
Bluebells are high elevation members of the Forget-Me-Not Family. As the name suggests, the flowers are bell-like in shape. That is they are tubular, pendulous, and bluish. They start out pinkish but turn blue as they mature. They don't make a sound, however. The species name is based on this population on the San Francisco Peaks, named after St. Francis of Assisi. Growing in clusters as tall as half a meter, these leafy plants favor cool, shady forests. The bright green leaves are shaped like elongate tears with very fine hairs, at least when the leaves first develop. Expect them on the Summit Trail at the edge of the meadow not far from the trailhead.
Pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys, (Heath Family)
Standing only a few centimeters tall, this bright red parasitic plant seems to announce summer with a brilliant shout. The flowers are short tubes that hang in looses clusters. I spotted it on the Kachina Trail in the shade of a mixed conifer stand. Lacking chlorophyll, these plants piggy-back on fungi in the soil, which are living off trees in the vicinity. The biology is similar to Coral Root Orchids we mentioned from the Pinal Mountains to the south. While more precise chemical analysis has prompted some to pull these plants out of the Heath Family, establishing their own family as the Monotropaceae, I have taken the traditional view that recognizes their close affinity with plants like Manzanita and Rhododendron. The species name "hypo" and "pitys" means under pines, signifying where they grow, in the shade of pines. In addition to the name Pinesap, names like Dutchman's Pipe and Yellow Bird's-nest have been applied to these plants which vary widely in color and degree of hairiness depending on the season. Such unusual plants contribute an almost shocking quality to your hike in the context of the local flora. I hope you don't miss out on the opportunity to see this plant in action on the San Francisco Peaks.
San Francisco Peaks Ragwort, Packera franciscana (Sunflower Family)
As with any alpine plant, San Francisco Ragwort is not tall. It must remain close to the ground, often in crevices, for protection during the long, harsh winters when extreme cold and high winds make exposure deadly for plants and animals alike. A blanket of snow, is, of course, the best protection under such circumstances. Due to the abbreviated growing season, it flowers later in the season, August to October. The daisy-like flowers bear yellow "petals" and yellow disc flowers. The short stems are often purplish, and the grayish leaves are deeply dissected with a crumpled margin. Packera franciscana grows no where else other than the San Francisco Peaks. Hence, it is listed as a threatened plant for the United States and a highly safeguarded plant for Arizona. Please tread lightly on the San Francisco Peaks. That involves staying on established trails. What a treat to see such a treasure. Restricted geographically as well as ecologically, seeing this unique plant makes the hike to the very limits of Arizona's wilderness all the more worth the effort. The breathtaking views, the brisk air, and the rare plants combine to create an outdoor experience unmatched in the Southwest.
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