Aspens in Arizona??
Colorado and Utah usually steal the credit for glorious aspen groves, but Arizonans know where to go--the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff. Famous for its high-elevation forest cradled between alpine peaks, Inner Basin Trail #29 is one of the most popular hikes in the state.
The trail and campground are accessible for more than half the year, when the gravel access road is snow free, but early October is by far the best time to go. After summer thunderstorms subside and temperatures begin to drop, groves of aspen trees turn ablaze. The trail climbs through a very impressive expanse of these trees between Lockett Meadow and the Inner Basin. Lockett is the meadow you initially drive into, where the campground is located and the trail starts. The Inner Basin proper is the string of higher meadows at the upper end of the trail.
The hike begins as an easy stroll through the woods, heading gradually uphill. It soon steepens into a set of switchbacks, though remains moderate in grade. About 1.5 miles from the start of the hike, the trail merges with a Forest Service road, and a another half mile takes you into the meadows of the Inner Basin. This road is restricted to service vehicles only and is rarely driven. It leads to an array of pump houses that draw water from springs to supply the city of Flagstaff.
The buildings hardly detract from the allure. As the gravel path continues uphill, trees thin out and peaks loom overhead. This "basin" is actually the blown-out crater of an ancient volcano. The San Francisco Peaks were once one massive mountain built by lava, and was as tall as 16,000 feet. A series of massive eruptions and glacial erosion broke it apart within the last half million years. What remains today are five prominent summits including the highest point in the state, 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak.
The volcano is now extinct, but the crater still explodes--every year--with the fiery color of millions of aspen leaves. The best time to go is during the first two weeks of October. Brilliant colors can still be found outside of this time window, however, because the aspens tend to change color in patches, and certain areas turn earlier or later than others.
Plan for plenty of time to wander this trail and enjoy the aspens from all angles. Don't miss the opportunity to lie down in the grass and stare up at white bark and gold leaves against blue sky. Eventually you will reach the higher meadow where views open up. The trail reaches this spot in just over 2 miles, but you can continue on up the mountain through mixed conifer forest and connect with the Weatherford Trail, which meets the Humphreys Trail for option of conquering the mountain.
Note: The gravel road to Lockett Meadow is passable by all cars, but it is very steep and windy with blind turns. Drive with extreme caution. To improve safety during crowded weekends in fall, the Forest Service sometimes controls the number of cars parked at Lockett Meadow, only allowing one car in for every one car out. Traffic drops off dramatically during the weekdays, so try to avoid Saturdays and Sundays during peak season (late September and early October) if possible.