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Abineau-Bear Jaw Day Hike
August 4, 2012
by Chuck Parsons
Group picture. [photo by Cyd]
front:  Becky, Ajay, George
back: Jim, Dottie, Nicole, Edith, Mark, Scott, Chuck

On a beautiful Saturday morning in early August, ten Arizona Trailblazers gather for a quick group picture across from the Sunset Crater National Monument Visitor Center, located about 14 miles north of Flagstaff on the east side of US Highway 89. Cyd is our official group photographer today, but has not hiked in the past few months so will not be joining us on today’s strenuous hike up Abineau Canyon where we will climb 1,900 feet in less than two miles. There may be a few among us, myself included, who are also wondering if we’re up to the task ourselves.

Sunset Crater Volcano [photo by Ajay]

This is the view approaching Sunset Crater National Monument. Sunset Crater stands 1,000 feet above the surrounding forest and is the last known volcanic eruption to have occurred in what is now Arizona less than 1,000 years ago. In relative terms this is shorter than the blink of an eye in the nearly incomprehensible scale of geological time, measured in terms of millions or even billions of years. At one time a challenging trail took hikers to the very rim of Sunset Crater, but that has since been closed for safety concerns, protection of a fragile environment, and other reasons.

Making preparations at the trailhead. [photo by Jim]
Make way – the Trailblazers are moving out! [photo by Jim]
The cloud cover is building fast as we pull into the Abineau-Bear Jaw Trailhead, boot up, and get our gear ready for today’s hike. The NOAA weather forecast at mid-week predicted a 30% chance of thunderstorms in the area for Saturday, but by Friday morning it had bumped those odds up to 50%. Now, according to a couple of our hikers, that figure was back down to 40% as of the latest forecasts. But that’s typical for the summer monsoon weather pattern in the San Francisco Peaks area of northern Arizona. You can pretty much take it to the bank there’s going to be anywhere between a 20% and a 80% chance of rain and thunderstorms on any given weekend during the summer months.

So the best plan is to always be prepared for rain or worse and to make the best judgment call you can when the weather does take a turn for the more serious and violent side of nature. And especially on the north side of these soaring peaks, where we will be hiking today, the weather is even more capricious and unpredictable.

The trailhead elevation is 8,500 feet, and the time is precisely 10:30 AM as ten intrepid Trailblazers begin hiking the short 0.3 mile stretch of connecting trail that will link us with the Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop. This will be the flattest and easiest stretch of trail for the next 2.3 miles until we link up with the Pipeline Trail at 10,400 feet – the high point of the full loop. We start out under mostly cloudy skies and a cool, refreshing 65 degrees, an unbelievable contrast to the sweltering 110+ degrees we’ve been enduring in the Phoenix area over the past week. I sometimes wonder if the residents of Flagstaff know just how fortunate they are during the long summer months?

The Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop is one of the most scenic alpine trails in Arizona and one that we have neglected far too long in this hiking club. The entire loop travels through dense stands of mixed conifer (mostly pine and Douglas fir) and aspen like these seen along the short connecting trail. So far at least, there appears to be very little bark beetle damage to the pine trees along this loop trail, probably due to the colder winter temperatures at this elevation. Frigid winters are one major factor in limiting bark beetle activity.

Arizona Trailblazers on the move. [photo by Chuck]
Decision time. Which way to go? [photo by Chuck]
Nicole signs us in on the trail register. [photo by Chuck]

This sign greets hikers at the junction of the connector trail and the main loop. Some hikers choose to take the Bear Jaw Trail first and hike the loop clockwise, while others take the Abineau Trail instead and hike the loop counter-clockwise. The elevation gain is obviously the same either way, but starting on the Abineau Trail puts all of that elevation gain behind you after the first two miles, not to mention the terrific cardio workout it provides. After that, the rest of the trail is level or down hill all the way back to the trailhead. Another advantage, especially during the summer monsoon season, is getting through the most open and vulnerable stretch of trail at the Abineau/Pipeline junction sooner – hopefully before any afternoon thunderstorms start rolling in.

We pause for a short rest break at the junction, as Nicole logs in the Trailblazers on the trail register. From here we start hiking the main loop on the Abineau Trail and begin a moderate ascent up through Abineau Canyon. The first mile is a continuous, although mostly moderate, climb through thick forest cover along the canyon floor. I’m sure some hikers are beginning to wonder at this point if the trail actually gets any steeper, as advertised, but any lingering doubts are quickly erased as we hit the second and toughest mile of the Abineau Trail. The trail now becomes both steeper and rockier, as it continues to thread its way along the canyon floor, passing through ever taller stands of Douglas fir reaching high into the overcast sky.

A study in conifer boughs. [photo by Ajay]

The healthy state of the conifers along the trail can be seen in these branches full of lush new growth. The light red objects seen in this picture represent the next generation of pine cones that will help reseed the forest, as well as provide a nutritious food source for local wildlife ranging from squirrels to birds to black bears.


Among the few flowers seen along the trail today, these Willow Leaf Groundsel, Senecio salignus, poke up through a low-lying conifer branch to reach vital sunlight so they can set seed and begin yet another generation of flowers for next season.

Flowers among the conifers.
[photo by Ajay]

Long before we reach this point near the upper end of Abineau Trail, the booming of distant rolling thunder echoes across the San Francisco Peaks and down through these forested canyons carved into the north slope of the mountains. I’ve been in this situation many times over the years, but it’s always a bit daunting and unnerving.

Ominous storm clouds are rolling in. [photo by Ajay]

What to do next? Should we consider turning back right now before the storm gets any closer, or should we press on in hopes that it will bypass us? I know everyone in the group has raingear and can at least remain dry in the event of a downpour, but we still don’t want to take any chances with lightning, especially as we approach the exposed junction point.

Fortunately for us, meteorologist Mark has a handy weather app on his cell phone and is continually tracking the progress of several small storm cells moving across the area and updating me on my Motorola TalkAbout radio, as I bring up the sweep position at the rear of our long string of hikers. Then disaster strikes! Mark suddenly loses his cell signal, and for several long minutes we don’t know what’s going on with the storm cells, although the rumbling thunder still loudly advertises their presence. Are they getting any closer, or are they moving away from our position? Luckily, within a few minutes he acquires a signal and is able to track the movement of the storm cells once again. They’re still moving through, but they’re not on top of us either or even too close for comfort just yet. That is one handy application to have on your phone, especially when hiking the mountains of northern Arizona during monsoon season.

Trailblazers stand in a sea of downed trees. [Chuck]
Did a tornado go through here? [photo by Jim]

Near the top of Abineau Trail and about a half-mile from the junction with the Pipeline Trail we come across this devastating scene of almost total destruction – hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of trees literally mowed down by some unimaginably powerful force for as far as the eye can see. Is this simply the result of sloppy clear cutting of the forest, or the swath of destruction left in the wake of a rare tornado, or is it perhaps the result of a very powerful microburst? It could have been any one of these things.

Is this the aftermath of a powerful microburst? [photo by Ajay]

But what really happened here was an avalanche or actually a series of avalanches over the years – the most recent one occurring in the winter of 2006. In just a matter of seconds thousands of tons of snow, rock, earth, and other debris breaks loose from its moorings and sweeps down the mountainside with a deafening roar, sending out a powerful shock wave at its forefront and leaving absolute destruction and devastation in its wake. Any living thing caught in the deadly path of this avalanche would have little chance of escape.

View from the top at the Abineau-Pipeline Junction. [photo by Ajay]

Rain is still falling to the north of us, but at the junction the sky is beginning to clear with growing patches of blue as the sun struggles to break through. We couldn’t have picked a better time or place for lunch. Except for the light sprinkling that hit us near the top of the Abineau Trail, it’s beginning to look like we’ve dodged the weather bullet once again, going for a three-time record counting the last couple of Arizona Trailblazers hikes.

Second view from the top of the loop. [pictures by Jim]

In this impressive view to the north on a really clear day you can actually see the Grand Canyon, although from here it’s little more than a nondescript wide gap in the expansive plateau stretching from the base of the mountains to the distant horizon.

Nevertheless, just to know that we can actually see the Grand Canyon from here is pretty darned amazing and the subject of several lunchtime conversations.

Mark checks his weather app one more time at the top.

From Mark’s latest weather report, the three storm cells that were a major concern for us earlier in the hike and might have caused us to reverse course and head back to the trailhead have now moved off to the north and east of our current position.

So, at least for now anyway, the weather is giving us a lucky break and we decide to give ourselves a break as well and stop here for lunch.

Even with a good pair of binoculars, it’s hard to spot the Grand Canyon from here. But over lunch several of us discuss a possible future Grand Canyon backpacking trip, something this hiking club used to do on an annual basis. However, over the years we’ve gotten away from backpacking trips for any number of reasons and need to seriously consider adding them once again to our hiking agenda.

Lunch break at the top. [photo by Ajay]
The perfect picnic setting. [photo by Chuck]

There are few hiking experiences anywhere in the world that can match a backpacking trip from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon deep into the heart of the great chasm and all the way down to the mighty Colorado River swiftly coursing its way along the canyon floor. One can look at pictures and read about it all day, but actually committing to putting boot leather to trail and backpacking deep into the canyon is something altogether different and rewarding. I can say this from personal experience since I’ve done six backpacking trips into the canyon over the years from both the North and South Rims. It is without question a life-altering experience.

From here, hikers used to be able to access Humphreys Peak, Abineau Trail, Bear Jaw Trail, and the Inner Basin. But because of this fragile alpine environment and potential damage to rare tundra plants further up the mountain, trail access to Humphreys Peak from here was closed a number of years ago. Now the only access is from the popular Humphreys Peak Trail on the south side of the peaks, a challenging hike we did just weeks earlier.

Signs and more signs. [photo by Jim]

The Pipeline Trail is actually an old service road, originally build to maintain a water pipeline carrying water from Abineau Spring (near the Abineau/Pipeline junction) to the Inner Basin and eventually into Flagstaff. Natural springs and runoff from these mountains are a vital part of Flagstaff’s municipal water supply. A two mile segment of this road connects the Abineau Trail with the Bear Jaw Trail, forming a 6.8 mile loop trail.

Hiking the Pipeline Trail.   [pictures by Jim]
Covered wellhead on the Pipeline Trail.

Although both the Abineau and Bear Jaw trails are within the vast 18,200 acre Kachina Peaks Wilderness, the Pipeline Road lies just outside of the wilderness boundary so service trucks can drive it. Over the years trail wear and erosion have exposed some of the original pipeline which can be seen right at or just beneath the trail surface. This wellhead is covered with a heavy steel plate for obvious reasons.

Hikers on the Bear Jaw Trail. [Chuck]
The Bear Jaw Trail forms the last link in the loop and runs for two miles, crossing Bear Jaw Canyon, as it winds through numerous large aspen groves like the one seen in this and the following two pictures. Some of these aspen groves are so thick in places off-trail, we joke about having to use a machete to make your way through them. And chances are you might not even hit the ground if you were to fall over since one or more trees would likely serve to prop you up. Several of us also observe that this would make a great fall hike when the trail would be ablaze in gold with thousands of turning aspen.

The aspen, the signature tree that defines the San Francisco Peaks, is actually the most widely distributed tree in all of North America, ranging from Alaska to Newfoundland to the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona. It is frequently the first tree to start the process of renewal in a burned area of the forest. Every single stand of aspen, however large in size, propagated from a single tree sending out root sprouts in all directions just beneath the surface of the soil. The largest single organism on Earth is not a large fungus colony or a huge bacteria culture or even the largest of the Giant Sequoias. Instead, it is a stand of over 41,000 aspens in the Wasatch Range of northern Utah – all propagated from one single parent tree. A truly unique and remarkable tree species.

trees trees
Winding through thick aspen on the Bear Jaw Trail. [photos by Ajay]
Tall aspen reach for the sky and vital sunlight in this interesting aerial shot by Ajay. In an intense workout of the neck muscles, you have to lean way back and point your camera straight up into the heavens to get this picture:
Reaching for the sky. [photo by Ajay]
A study in mushrooms. [photo by Ajay]

Unless you’re a mushroom expert or hiking with a mushroom expert you know you can trust, it’s generally a good idea to take pictures only and avoid samples. And as a rule of thumb the more colorful the mushroom, the more you want to avoid it.

While hiking in Colorado a few years ago, a mushroom expert told me that a species of bright crimson mushrooms we had seen earlier on the trail was so highly toxic that just touching one would make you violently ill and ingesting even the tiniest piece would kill you. Definitely something to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to touch or taste a wild mushroom. To be on the safe side, stick with store-bought mushrooms and leave picking wild mushrooms to the experts.

Creeping Barberry and sumac bobs. [photo by Ajay]
Evening Primrose. [photo by Jim]
Anyone for fresh Barberry pie? [photo by Jim]
A fallen forest giant. [photo by Ajay]

The sun-bleached remains of a mammoth ponderosa pine – king of the Arizona forest – lie prone on the ground and pointing towards its former home among the other giants of the forest.

The largest ponderosa pines can live up to 500 years, and this giant was probably close to that or at least several centuries old when it finally keeled over and slammed into the ground with a thunderous jolt.

Yet another fallen forest giant. [photo by Chuck]

This ponderosa pine is much further along in the process, just a few years away from completely breaking down and disappearing into the forest soil, coming full circle in the life cycle of a tree – from seedling to sapling to forest giant to collapse and finally being absorbed back into the earth from which it emerged.

It’s all downhill or level terrain from the Abineau-Pipeline junction all the way back to the trailhead, but it’s still four long miles through the forest.

Trailblazers pause for one last break on the Bear Jaw Trail. [photo by Ajay]

We take one last rest break here before making the final push to the trailhead. Last one back buys the beer, guys. Oops – never mind. That’s probably going to be me.

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updated July 27, 2020