I've lived in Flagstaff, AZ, since 2003, where I'm an active member of the Coconino County Sheriff's Search & Rescue team and an avid hiker.
A Day Hike to the O'Leary Lookout : 360-Degree Views of Northern Arizona
Ready for a hike? Great! C'mon....
Located 20 miles north of Flagstaff is an old volcano known as O'Leary Peak. On top of O'Leary, on its 8,916-foot east summit, is a fire lookout currently used by the U.S. Forest Service.
On a clear day, which describes many days here in northern Arizona, you can see all the way to the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert from O'Leary's summit. You'll also have excellent views of old lava flows, Sunset Crater, the San Francisco peaks, and ponderosa pine forest as far as the eye can see.
O'Leary Peak is a lengthy day hike, but I consider it only moderately strenuous due to the easy grade of the gated Forest Service road that switchbacks to the top. What makes it more difficult for some folks is the elevation of Flagstaff (the city is at 7,000 feet) if they're visiting from somewhere much closer to sea level.
Round-trip distance: 10.2 miles
Elevation gain for this hike: 1996 feet
Dogs and horses permitted
Directions to the O'Leary Lookout Trailhead
From downtown Flagstaff....
- Take US 89 north, past the Flagstaff mall, Townsend-Winona Rd and Silver Saddle Rd.
- Turn right on the road to Sunset Crater National Park.
- Just before entering the park, take a left on Forest Service Rd 545A. You'll see the entrance to Bonito Campground on the left but continue ahead for O'Leary Peak trailhead parking.
- Go about 1/4 of a mile to the parking area just before the gate where the pavement ends.
- Visit the Coconino National Forest O'Leary Peak page.
Hike Along Sunset Crater's Lava Flow (It's called the Bonito Lava Flow)
The first (and therefore last) couple of miles of the O'Leary Peak hike take you alongside the Bonito Lava flow, which occurred about 900 years ago when Sunset Crater was formed. Take a few minutes to veer off the trail and check out the sharp and brittle black lava. Imagine trying to walk on that stuff? It would tear up your shoes in no time, not to mention your skin if ... or more likely when ... you'd have to use your hands or even fall.
The whole area, including O'Leary Peak, was blanketed with lava and cinders during a series of eruptions sometime between A.D. 1040 and 1100.
Bonito Lava Flow Field, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
More information about Sunset Crater and Flagstaff volcanoes:
View of Old Lava Flow from Partway Up O'Leary Peak - You really get a feel for all the volcanic activity that took place here as you ascend and look around.
Looking at Sunset Crater from O'Leary Peak - You can see right down into the bowl.
Wildflowers on O'Leary
Getting Up There...
The road to the summit is closed to all but the Forest Service and the lookout who mans the firetower, so you'll rarely encounter a vehicle on this hike. I've been up here many times over the years and never have come across one.
Erosion Control Just Before The O'Leary Peak Lookout - East Summit: You hike on this metal grating to get to the fire tower.
On the O'Leary Fire Lookout Tower - If the tower is occupied, chances are the ranger will invite you up.
Go up if you get the chance. Not only is the view amazing, but it's pretty cool to look in the windows of the firetower and see the lookout's setup. I think it would be fun to live in there ... for a few days, anyway.
A View of Northern Arizona from the O'Leary Lookout Tower - Imagine when those volcanoes were active.
I love looking out on the largest contiguous tract of ponderosa pine forest in the world, ranging from the New Mexico border northwest to the Grand Canyon.
Our hiking group at the summit, in front of the fire Tower
A Guide To Flagstaff Area Hikes
Take an Armchair Hike Up O'Leary Peak - A series of three videos from the trailhead to the summit and back
FYI--I didn't shoot these videos.
Descending from the Fire Tower to the Trailhead
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Deb Kingsbury
What's Your Favorite Hike? In Flagstaff or Beyond....
Old Navy Guy on March 24, 2014:
Nice job. Unfortunately, more and more Ranger towers are being replaced across the nation, not only due to budget cuts but technology advancements. Thanks for a look at one that is still operational. There is something to be said for the 'human' element......always. Thanks for sharing
Renaissance Woman from Colorado on August 20, 2011:
I like how you incorporated multimedia clips and music into this lens as well as photos and trail descriptions. In terms of my favorite hike, it is usually whichever one I am on at the moment. A beautiful place to hike in Colorado Springs is Garden of the Gods.
anonymous on August 08, 2011:
I was the lookout on duty that day. How interesting to see your view of the hike. Interesting choice of music...I'll hear it when I climb the stairs again, I'm sure. I appreciate your discretion in not posting me or my quarters online.
RinchenChodron on August 07, 2011:
I like hiking around Crestone Peak in Colorado. I love your photos! Nice lens.
Krafick on August 06, 2011:
My favorite hiking places are in New Zealand and the Himalayas, but this looks great too. Rafick
Paul from Liverpool, England on August 05, 2011:
Hiking O'Leary Peak sounds good. Nicely described.