Category: Trails

Woodchute Trail: Secret Gem!

With temperatures doing what they do in June in AZ, many people are seeking out cooler temps at higher elevations. Many people know about the stunning views and fascinating history of Mingus Mountain and Schnebly Hill Road, but a little-known secret gem of a trail is the Woodchute Jeep Trail just above Jerome AZ.


The Woodchute Jeep Trail starts at FR 503A just at the bend at mile marker 339 on Hwy 89A. High clearance 4x4 required, and if you have an aversion to brush scratches, this may not be the trail for you, as its status as being "little-known" also means lower traffic and more overgrowth after the wet season.

The trail is short--only about 5 miles and 1-1.5 hours off-pavement, with stops. It loops back down to Hwy 89A and you come out on the highway only 2 miles uphill from Jerome. For a gorgeous full-day of Jeeping, start with the Mingus Mountain trail, which takes off at the bottom of the mountain near the Cottonwood Airport, then loop back through Woodchute for those spectacular afternoon views.

Check it out for yourself!

More maps and info at and

Trail Ratings

As the Jeep event season looms closer, and winter-bound Jeepers start licking their chops over the trail selections of various 4-wheeling events around the country, I find the ever-sticky trail rating questions frequently crossing my path:
"Can my Jeep make it through the _____ trail?"
"What's a good moderate trail to do at _____?"
"What's the most fun trail at ______?"

As most of you already know, the askee cannot adequately answer any of these questions without acquiring a slew of other information from the asker: "How is your Jeep set up?", "What's your definition of moderate?", and "Is your idea of fun an easy scenic jaunt, or a heart-pounding steel-crushing rock fest?"

But beyond those subjective conversations is a larger befuddlement in the entire 4-wheeling world:
There is NO universal trail rating system!

In Arizona, we have used a 0-5 scale for a long time, with 0 being paved road, and 5 being impassable to any vehicle that ever rolled off a factory line. And we throw around terms like "easy" or "beginner" to "adventurous" or "extreme". Utah (specifically, Moab) has gone to a fairly well-defined 1-10 scale that categorizes anything in the 9 or 10 rating as buggy class only, relegating those of us in originally factory-built rigs, no matter how modified, to the 1-8 trails only. But to confuse matters further, Colorado and California use a 1-10 scale that makes trails like the famous Rubicon an 8-10 on their scale (the same trail might be a 6 or 7 on the Moab scale).

Then factor in that trails like Black Bear Pass near Ouray CO--the trail is actually very easy to drive--would barely rate a 4 or a "moderate" on the scenic Jeepers scale, except for that one little sticky fact about the narrow shelf road and excrutiatingly tight switchbacks with a sheer drop off of hundreds of feet promising certain death if you screw up by just a few inches--how do you calculate that HUGE intimidation factor into a trail rating?

Ask two different wheelers about the rating of a particular trail, and you will get two entirely different replies. For example, take a trail I will call "Bad Deal"--if you ask my friend Rick, whose Jeep has no straight sheet metal, a full roll cage, and carries crash helmets for its passengers, Rick will tell you that Bad Deal is a really easy trail. If you ask a recent client of mine, Jim, with a shiny stock 2011 Grand Cherokee, he would say it was impassable--that it wasn't a "trail" at all. The truth? In the rental and 4x4 instruction business, we would call this trail difficult or extreme, because it does take an aggressive 4wd with a driver who can make some good line choices to be able to make it through without damage beyond a few brush scratches and a little exercise of the skid plates. But, in the rock crawling world, this trail is barely a speed bump, and you have to go out of your way to make it interesting.

With all of this said, how can you properly choose a trail? Read, research, ask...Ask detailed questions of a knowledgable person you trust, or, at the very least, ask a variety of people and hope the truth will reveal itself in the averages (online forums are great for that!). Other good sources of info are local clubs, 4x4 shops in the area of your intended trails (and good people to know ahead of time in case you need some repairs), Jeep or ATV rental shops, and sometimes you get lucky and find a knowledgeable trail person at the local BLM or USFS Ranger Station.

But, what do you ask in order to get a true picture of what you are trying to get yourself into?

As an instructor, I address this with clients, and advise them to ask detailed questions about trails they are considering, such as:
"What size are the biggest rocks I will have to surmount? Labrador-sized? Volkswagon?"
"How tall are the ledges? Are they easy, rounded steps, or 90-degree steps?"
"What is the trail surface like? Sand? Sandstone? Slippery shale?"
"Are there bypasses for the harder obstacles on that particular trail?"

And, if you have particular fears or interests, ask about those too:
"How wide are the shelf roads?"
"How steep are the sidehills or inclines?"
"Is there adequate trail to pass other vehicles or stop for pictures?"
"Are there (ruins, mines, historic sites, etc.?"

And, last, but not least, don't forget to plan to get in and get out comfortably:
"How far to the nearest gas station to the trailhead? Closest air?"
"What about bathroom breaks...facilities at trailhead or just plenty of shrubs near the trail?"
"Closest place to pickup lunch/snacks/drinks on the way?"

Remember--the only dumb question is the one you didn't ask.

Happy trails!

Eliminate “Off-Road” Abuse!

That should get everyone's attention! 😀 What I am actually referring to is the overuse of the term "off road" as opposed to "off highway," "off pavement," or "4-wheeling." For as long as I can remember, the recreational sport of 4-wheeling has been called "off-roading," as in "Hey, y'all, let's load up the Jeep and spend the weekend offroading!" Somewhere along the way, the legal definition of "OFF road" came to mean when you are NOT on an established public thoroughfare.

As a group, those of us who engage in the use of unpaved roads and trails for recreation need to update our vocabulary to more legally accurate terms, and here is why: I frequently experience incidents where a mere misunderstanding of each party's definitions have caused unnecessary conflict and confusion.

For example, when a local Forest Service district announced they were considering eliminating all off-road use, the local Jeep club came unglued, until the fine print was reviewed, revealing that what was actually proposed was the elimination of allowing people to drive off of the established trails onto virgin terrain--our favorite 4-wheeling trails were not actually in peril (that time).

Another common confusion I encounter is in the Jeep rental business. We frequently have guests tell us "I'm not sure if my insurance covers me off road," to which we reply "That's fine since you aren't actually going off road today." Then we explain it: The legal definition of "off road" by land management agencies and insurance companies is "off of an established public thoroughfare." When a ranger or insurance adjuster says "off road", what they mean is "were you on a named and/or numbered, identifiably established trail?" Even trails like Smasher Canyon and Broken Arrow are officially-recognized public thoroughfares--legally, you are "ON road". 

Therefore, I have been trying to catch myself whenever I say "off-road" and changing it to "4-wheeling," "off-highway," "trail riding" or " rock crawling." I should also mention that the term "trail" in Forest Service-ese means hiking, so mindful of that, too. Sheesh! 
Bottom line: stay off of the topsoil, ask about the local rules, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification. 
Happy trails!

Enjoy the Trip!

This past Saturday, I ventured out onto Diamondback Gulch. It's a moderate Jeep trail in West Sedona that is not nearly as well known as Broken Arrow, Soldier Pass, or Schnebly Hill. In fact, on busy Saturdays, it's one of those trails you take because you know there will only be a few folks out there. But on this Saturday, there were countless tour Jeeps and three different 4x4 clubs on this mere 6-mile trail. What is usually a casual two-hour excursion was a harried 3-hour stop, wait, and back-up game.

With Spring Breaks starting all across the west this week, traffic snarls and manic visitors are the expected fare in tourism towns all over, both on and off pavement. This carries over onto even our most exclusive 4-wheeling Jeep trails. A few reminders:

  1. Safety comes first--no matter how late you may be to whatever appointment or next scheduled activity, it's never worth the safety of you or your family to hurry: stay calm, pay attention (no texting or taking pictures while driving), don't rush. There are way too many other harried people out there this time of year. Stay alert!
  2. Educate yourself--call ahead to your destination or next activity to find out what the weather conditions are, what road construction snarls you may be able to avoid, or what alternate activities or timing could better suit your needs to help you avoid peak traffic. Most business operators are happy to help direct visitors to a time frame that will be better for everyone. Some Jeep trails are busier certain days of the week or time of day. Some road construction snags can be avoided by alternate routes or different times of day.
  3. Have fun! Remember why you are out there--to enjoy the natural beauty of your surroundings, and share a fun experience with friends and loved ones. Plan some extra time in case of unplanned snags in your schedule--have snacks or activities for kids ready. Make the best of whatever situation you encounter. Keep everything in perspective and ENJOY your trip.

Happy Trails!

Trail Clean-up: What are YOU doing next Saturday?

I'll keep this short and sweet...well, at least short. If you love the outdoors--four-wheeling, hiking, fishing, whatever--you need to give back. Disrespectful, lazy, worthless scum leave trash on our trails every day. No, it's not our trash, but it is our land and our responsibility to take care of it. Participating in a trail clean-up is a great way to get started on responsible land use, a great way to meet other like-minded recreationists, and the most fun trash pickin' you will ever have.

Four Peaks is a beautiful area northeast of Phoenix that is abused by slobs. There is an annual clean-up there, and we are making headway--every year gets a little better. This year's event is NEXT SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2010. Join me and a bunch of other people here, or watch for a clean-up near you through your local club, association, or land management agency.

Happy Trails!

More Fall Color: Mingus Mountain

Mid-October is usually prime color on Mingus Mountain, and though some sporadic color may be enjoyed from the highway and some of the hiking trails, by far the most spectacular color is only accessible by Jeep or other high-clearance 4x4.

We enjoyed a jaunt up Mingus Mountain this past Sunday, October 18, and it was definitely in that perfect 10-day window of the most vibrant reds, oranges, yellows, and golds.

The trail starts in Cottonwood, Arizona from Mingus Avenue. Take Mingus Avenue past the airport and stay on it as it turns to bumpy dirt and gravel road. This is now FR 493 in the Prescott National Forest. Follow 493 as it winds up the mountain and gradually gets narrower, steeper and rockier.

Pass the Copper Chief Mine (be careful to stay on the main forest road, not wander onto private property--respect signs and gates), which was a very rich copper mine from the turn of the century until the mid-50's, but gets very little historical note due to the fact that the much bigger and richer Jerome lies just over the rise. With the rise of metal prices, this mine has recently been reopened and you can see signs of more modern mining amongst the historic footing of the old operation.

About 5 miles up, you will come to a T at FR 413, but not before the trail tests your resolve with a half-mile of extremely rocky trail. This last 1/2 mile before FR 413 is the toughest part of the whole trail and definitely requires a high-clearance 4x4 with tough tires and a driver who knows how to pick a line. Experienced Jeepers in well-built rigs will walk right through this section without much thought, but a novice in a stock SUV will gasp at the sight of 12-16" rocks sticking up in the narrow trail.

In addition to gorgeous flora, visitors are also rewarded with expansive views of the Verde Valley and the red rocks of Sedona.



For the best color, turn left (southeast) on FR 413. The red and orange maples and yellow walnuts will cluster in the canyons for the next few miles as the trail winds southeast and climbs gradually toward the top of Mingus Mountain.

Follow FR 413 all the way to the pine forests on top of Mingus Mountain. As you get closer to highway 89A, note many great campsites in the area. Come to a T at a (sometimes marked) road, where left takes you to the highway, and a right takes you to the Mingus Mountain overlook and hang glider launch area.

About 18 miles total, from Hwy 89A in Cottonwood and back to Hwy 89A on the top of Mingus Mountain. You climb 4000 feet in elevation, from 3500 to 7500 feet above sea level. Allow 3-4 hours with stops. This trail is not recommended in wet weather and is usually closed at the top in the winter.

Happy trails!


Fall Color in Northern Arizona

11 October 2009, Flagstaff AZ - Fall Color is here! Golds, coppers, and reds contrast the green pines and blue sky for spectacular scenic drives throughout Northern Arizona. Aspens, oaks, and maples are in full swing at the highest elevations (north side of the San Francisco Peaks), with color expected to carry through mid-November at lower elevations (Mingus Mountain, Oak Creek Canyon).

Yesterday's excursion ventured to the Flagstaff area to visit Lockett Meadow, then around the north side of the San Francisco Peaks. This area always presents the earliest autumn color, with its higher elevations and cooler, northerly-facing slopes. Apparently, the secret is out, as we passed hundreds of other motorists out for a picturesque country drive as well. Note: Lockett Meadow is busy on weekends, especially a holiday weekend!

The road to Lockett Meadow is easily passable by any truck or SUV, though we did see many adventurous (or careless?) folks in sedans, many of which we witnessed bottoming out in ruts or changing a flat tire. Expect ruts, washboards, baseball-sized rocks, and some mild wash-outs. It is plenty wide for any single vehicle, but can be interesting when you encounter a vehicle coming the other direction--watch for wide spots. The road is also completely devoid of any guard rails and does follow a steep, shelf section for most of the three miles of the Lockett Meadow spur. If heights bother you, this road will get your attention!


Lockett Meadow is the caldera for the San Francisco peaks--the heart of the (dormant) volcano. There are campsites and hiking trails available in the area. Please stay on the established road and use existing pull-outs and parking spots--Arizona meadows are very fragile.

To get there: (See map below) Take Hwy 89 north from Flagstaff, and travel about 10 miles north of the mall. Watch for the entrance to Sunset Crater & Wupatki National Monument on the right--turn left onto the Forest Access road directly across from the monument entrance, near mile marker 430. Follow the Forest Access road approximately 1 mile to the T. Turn right onto FR 552 (sign says Lockett Meadow and FR418 to the right). Approximately 1 mile further, note FR 418 to the right--you may want to return here later to follow the road around the north side of the Peaks. Just past this, FR 552 Lockett Meadow turns right. Follow 552 another 3 miles to the meadow--the next 2 miles are the narrow shelf section! Once you reach the meadow, the road makes a 2 mile counter-clockwise loop of the meadow, with a side road to the bathrooms, and hiking trails and campsites all along the way.

Return the way you came, or for a slightly less-traveled road, go back to the bottom of the hill and follow FR 418 around the north side of the peaks. Once you turn onto FR 418, it's about 20 miles to Hwy 180. Spectacular views northward toward the painted desert and the Coconino Plateau, and many sunlight-dappled stretches of road that offer patches of fall color.

About 8 miles in, you might want to turn left to the trailhead for the Abineau or Bear Skull trails--there are numerous 4x4 side roads for more private picnic and/or camping spots.

About 11 miles along FR 418, the road splits and becomes FR 151 in White Horse Basin. Take it right (north) for a short 2 mile drive to Hwy 180, or left (west) for more scenery back to Hwy 180 and come out just 3 miles north of Snowbowl Road. The left route is my favorite because it wraps around the northwest side of the peaks, for more of those breathtaking meadow vistas, with the peaks as a backdrop--great for wildflowers in the summer, too!

Allow about 3 hours for a casual roundtrip from Flagstaff. Remember to take plenty of water, and have a good spare tire and jack on board, just in case. Cell signal is weak (if any) for most of the trip.

Once you get to pavement, turn left on Hwy 180 and drop into downtown Flagstaff for a refreshment at one of the fine local pubs or coffee houses.

Happy trails!