Hiking the Weatherford Trail in Flagstaff, Arizona
About the Weatherford Trail
Trailhead location: Schultz Pass Road (FR420). Heading east on Schultz Pass Rd., the trailhead is on your left, across from Schultz Tank.
Distance: 9.9 miles one way, from Schultz Pass Road to the Humphreys Trail junction at the saddle.
Elevation gain: 4,000 feet (plus 1 mile and about 600 feet in elevation if continuing on the Humphreys Trail to the summit)
Optional Loop: Humphreys Trail to Weatherford Trail to Kachina Trail
Distance: 17.2 miles
Our Weatherford Trail Loop Hike
We began our loop at the lower Humphreys Trail parking lot on Snowbowl Road, which is just across from the Kachina trailhead and that parking area. If you have access to more than one vehicle, you have the option of excluding the 4.9-mile Kachina Trail portion by parking one vehicle at the east end of unpaved Freidlein Prairie road, a short distance from the junction of the Weatherford Trail and east end of the Kachina Trail. Without the Kachina Trail, the total distance would be 12.3 miles.
It never fails; I see that weathered sign on the Humphreys Trail that informs hikers they are at 11,500 feet, and suddenly I feel the elevation. My legs become lead weights, and I daydream about a nap in an alpine meadow. But the saddle is not that much farther, so I keep plodding. Some big steps and short switchbacks, some sandy trail on the final approach, and then I deserve a rest. Once the saddle is reached, I tuck myself into a crevice on the lee side, and enjoy the well-earned view.
But today I couldn't see much from my usual nook, except a glimpse of the Inner Basin during a momentary gap in the cloud cover. Even protected from the wind (well, most of it), I started to shiver, and as quickly as possible exchanged my t-shirt for a thermal top, using a skill learned years ago in summer camp, where shy girls like me would change clothes without exposing much more than a bellybutton. Unfortunately, my skill in that area has lagged over the years, and I got a bit tied up. With an audience of other hikers, Steve helped me get my twisted clothing in order, and then I added my fleece and windbreaker. After a couple handfuls of dried fruit, which I could barely grasp with stiff, cold fingers, Steve and I continued on. Instead of turning left and heading another mile to the Humphreys summit as we usually do, we parted ways with other members of the Flagstaff Outdoors Club and went right on the Weatherford Trail, another 8.5 miles past Fremont and Doyle Saddles, down, down, down to the Kachina Trail.
I must admit, the upper part of the Weatherford Trail, traversing Mt. Agassiz, unnerved me. Above tree-line, a steep, talus slope with no break of rock or vegetation between the edge of a very narrow trail and long way down, caused me a minor panic attack. I felt exposed, and fixated on the idea of slipping and sliding down the mountain and over an unseen cliff. I froze in my tracks and called to Steve, who wasn't at all phased by the situation, and asked him to come back so I could walk with him. Actually, I walked right on his heels, clutching his backpack, and stared at his feet. I don't remember what I babbled about, but my monologue was interspersed with apologies as I stepped on the backs of Steve's sneakers for the next fifteen minutes or so. At one point, I was forced to let go and, standing stiffly while feeling the earth turn, practice inhaling and exhaling when Steve decided it was a fine time and place to pee. Couldn't he have waited?
Finally, the hairy part was behind us, and I was loving the rest of that wonderful Weatherford, marveling at how a 10-mile portion of it used to be a wider dirt road called the San Francisco Mountain Boulevard, a toll road on which finely-dressed men and ladies would ride their Model T's to Doyle Saddle for an afternoon in the mountains. The road fell into disrepair during the Depression years.
Today, other than a rumble of thunder and a couple of minor spritzes, we got lucky with the weather. We kept glancing back up at Humphreys, wondering how our friends were making out. Did they end up continuing to the summit, and, if so, would they get a view? It turns out that the answer was yes on both counts.
As for our own views for the rest of the day, they were nonstop amazing. Once I was able to let go of Steve's backpack and we descended below the clouds, which eventually broke up and let in some sunshine, I sported a constant smile. The Weatherford Trail is now amongst my favorites in the San Francisco Peaks. Maybe next time, I'll be more comfortable on that top section. Or maybe not. Still, I'll want to walk it again.
After a lunch stop in the grass at the east end of the Kachina Trail, my smile faded as I started to drag. Beautiful though it may be, the Kachina's little up and downs, like a kiddie rollercoaster, can take their toll on a weary hiker. But our grumbles were at least partly in jest. Shared fatigue is an odd sort of fun. And shared accomplishment is even better.
Just near the end of our loop, when we could hear the traffic on Snowbowl Road, we met up with a lady tarantula, at eye-level on a on a shaded boulder. Steve touched a finger to her brown, fuzzy behind, which she lifted, whether in pleasure or displeasure I'm not sure, as I shivered. Caressing big hairy arachnids isn't my thing, but it was a treat to see her nevertheless. We sure didn't expect to find a tarantula so high up on such a cool day. That was our second wildlife encounter, having come upon three large bucks at the lower end of the Weatherford Trail. We smelled a lot of elk and stepped in a lot of elk poop, but we saw none of those big critters today.
Nearly nine hours after we started out, we returned to our truck, a bit stiff, somewhat whipped and very satisfied. We'll probably repeat this loop next year, in the opposite direction just for the fun of doing something different, with the much longer climb up the Weatherford Trail