The cool of granite - The Explorer: El Sol

The cool of granite

Forested mountains beyond Prescott's charm

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Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:35 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Midway between Phoenix and Flagstaff and 34 miles west of I-17 sits historic Prescott.

Founded in 1864 and incorporated in 1883, Prescott has twice been the capital of Arizona. Losing that title to Tucson in 1867, the distinction returned in 1877. Since 1889 Phoenix has held this designation.

At 5,347 feet, a welcome escape from desert heat is found in this mile-high city. Daytime summer temperatures run to the mid-90s with comfortable mid-60s at night.

Discovery of gold in 1861 brought attention to the Arizona Territory and was a primary factor in the settlement of Prescott. Numerous shops and restaurants circle the Yavapai County Courthouse and Plaza. Residents and visitors mingle peacefully in the small town atmosphere. Tap dancing cloggers, concert musicians and others regularly entertain on the grassy, tree-lined plaza.

Listed in the National Registry of Historical Places are nearly 700 homes and businesses. Many restored Victorian houses are within walking distance of downtown. Prior to their departure for Tombstone and the enhancement of their legend, Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp as well as Doc Holliday called Prescott home.

Seven miles northwest of the town lies the nearly 10,000-acre Granite Mountain Wilderness Area, with 7,626 foot Granite Mountain as the main focal point. Volcanic activity formed this mountain about 1.4 billion years ago, close to half the age of Earth itself. Composed almost exclusively of granite, the mountain is characterized by massive, rugged boulders, many the size of RV's and buses.

Walking west from the Metate trailhead parking area at 5,626 feet, trail # 261 heads into a ponderosa forest. Winding to the north and descending into a small valley, this drainage feeds Granite Basin Lake, a jewel at the mountain's base. Soon the well-maintained and well-traveled trail delivers hikers to a registry logbook, and immediately thereafter into Granite Mountain Wilderness Area. Rising gently, the trail passes through a heavily forested section of alligator juniper, ponderosa and manzanita. Century plants bloom near the creek bed.

Covering the first 1.5 miles, just 200 feet in elevation is gained as Blair Pass is reached. With trail # 261 now on a north heading, the mountain looms to the east. Knowing over 1,200 feet in elevation is yet to be climbed in the next 2.5 miles, the question of where that gain will be found is soon answered. Entering an open Chaparral zone, characterized by low vegetation of scrub oak, yucca, manzanita and various cacti, the trail begins an arduous climb over a series of switchbacks, gaining 900 feet in the next mile. A slight breeze and clouds drifting over Granite Mountain add welcome comfort. Looking back, Blair Pass is now far below.

Nearing the top, the trail again enters a zone of ponderosa and juniper. Also growing at this altitude are pinon trees. Several of the juniper trees are stunning in their colossal size.

Hiking across granite slabs the size of baseball diamonds, the trail now more level and on a southerly heading, Granite Mountain Overlook is reached at 7,185 feet. Climbing over large boulders, their coarse texture providing excellent footing, a vast panoramic view is enjoyed. Granite Basin Lake sparkles near the trailhead in the forest below.

Following a 7:30 a.m. departure, trail's end is reached in just under three hours. Mid-morning at this altitude finds temperatures quite comfortable. A two-hour descent will bring a return to temperature in the 90s.

The actual summit of Granite Mountain is 7,626 feet. It can be reached via a cairn-marked trail that can be difficult to locate and one not maintained by the Forest Service. To preserve a more complete wilderness experience, the Forest Service has chosen to not develop a trail to the summit, instead allowing hikers the opportunity to bushwhack the final half mile. Some final rock climbing will reward those individuals with wonderful panoramic views of Prescott National Forest.

Back at Blair Pass, the southwest side of Granite Mountain is viewed. Vertical cliffs reaching a couple hundred feet. This area is habitat to endangered peregrine falcons. February through July is their breeding season, rendering these cliffs off limits. During the rest of the year, this wall is a popular destination for rock climbers.

Signing out at the logbook with just four other names recorded, yet another beautiful hike is enjoyed in near solitude.

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