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 4×4 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.