I’ve always wanted to go to Flagstaff for some reason. Even before Cocodona, even before I saw photos of this beautiful town, I’ve wanted to go. Maybe it was the one episode of Coconino Cowboys, or maybe it was the fact that I wanted to go to Arizona but the Phoenix area was too hot and seemed kind of boring. (Sorry, Phoenix!) But ever since I remember, Flagstaff was the place I wanted to visit.
To Go or Not to Go?
I almost didn’t do it. First, there was never time to go. Then, when I had time, I was so depressed I almost canceled the whole trip, part of which was staying over in Flagstaff. And when I finally decided to go through with it, I almost didn’t go to Flagstaff in favour of heading directly to the Grand Canyon. But the night ahead was forecasted to be too cold near the South Rim so I set sail for Flagstaff after all, driving through a sandstorm and into the night.
Since I arrived in Flagstaff when it was dark already and stayed at the very edge of the town in East Flagstaff, I didn’t see the historic center. I felt safe sleeping in my car in the small gravel lot behind Mary’s Cafe. (The cafe is beautiful inside by the way: all wood and exposed brick, and serves great food!) On the backdrop of a starry sky, obscured by tall pines, Elden Mountain stood tall and patient, waiting. It must have known that I would decide to completely change my plans and go up to its peak the next morning.
The Mountain that Called my Name
Sleep was surprisingly good in the front seat of the rental. Only the coming dawn woke me up. During the night, a few trucks joined me on the gravel lot and I prepared my breakfast of oatmeal as their residents still slept. Looking up at the mountain, the decision was made; I would go up Elden instead of heading directly to Grand Canyon. The trailhead was only a bit past the Circle K Gas station where I would refill on gas and water and brush my teeth, anyway. There was no reason to not go.
The trail was smooth and fun at the beginning. Knowing it wasn’t too far to the top, I opted to leave water in the car and grab only a jacket—there was still snow on the top. I soon left the cover of the thin growth of pines and rounded past a few cacti—the fun had begun.
The Elden Lookout Trail is the last climb of the Cocodona 250. And I must ask, how on earth do people survive it at mile 240? Seriously. That thing is gnarly. On fresh legs, it was a nice challenge but after a few days of running? I simply cannot fathom how anyone survives it.
Coincidentally, the most beautiful views were not from the very top but from about three-quarters of the way up. The Coconino plateau spread before me, the occasional cinder cone or lava dome jutting up above the otherwise perfectly flat landscape. (Learn a little bit about Flagstaff geology at the end!)
I crawled to the top, my low-lander lungs screaming in horror at what I forced them to do, and then headed back down quickly; the wind was a bit nippy at the top, even with my jacket. I promptly slipped on a patch of snow before my legs started listening to me once more and then it was all fun and games.
I ran down, enjoying the rocky terrain. It was fun to be hopping and skipping down the trail, even though I had to slow down at times so my low-lander lungs could catch up. I changed clothes at the bottom, chugged a liter of water, and headed into Flagstaff to enjoy the historic town which, in the end, ended up being even more gorgeous than I thought it would be. A certain kind of sadness overwhelmed me for a bit; a regret that I have never lived in the town and most likely never will.
Some chocolate from The Sweet Shoppe Candy Store cured those blues and I hopped into my rental; it was time to finally head north. Not before I stopped in Fort Valley to admire the gorgeous San Francisco Peaks, however. Still snow-capped, they were breath-taking.
A bit of Geology
Grand Canyon was coming up; an open book of Earth’s history. The Coconino plateau, however, wasn’t any less exciting from a geological standpoint.
Coconino sandstone—named after Coconino County—is about 275 million years old. This sandstone came from ancient sand dunes made of pure quartz sand1. This sandstone hides within itself the track marks and tail-dragging trails of prehistoric reptiles2.
Northern Arizona, however, wasn’t always a dry landscape. There was a time some 90 million years ago when it was submerged in the waters of an ancient sea. The sedimentary deposits from that era containing fossils of marine organisms are nestled 6,600 feet above sea level nowadays3.
Before the uplift, likely caused by gravitational forces and dynamic flows of hot rocks in response to plate tectonics, began, what makes for the ground Flagstaff stands on today was buried under 9 to 15 thousand feet of sedimentary rocks. “By 6 million years ago, much of the Flagstaff area had been eroded down to the limestone bedrock, and only thin layers of overlying red sandstone remained, mostly in east Flagstaff3.”
Okay, that might explain what was under my feet when I walked through Flagstaff; it doesn’t explain the tall mountains that poke out from the perfectly flat plain like pieces of candy corn someone patiently placed on a plate. That someone was the San Francisco volcanic field.
The San Francisco Volcanic Field is a large volcanic province sitting at the very edge of the Colorado Plateau. The San Francisco Mountain, visible in the last photo, is a composite volcano, while Elden Mountain which I summited is a lava dome. The first eruptions in the area began about 6 million years ago (yes, just when the erosion had run most of its course to today’s levels). The land didn’t stop spitting fire until 950 years ago; if it had stopped at all. So far, the area is covered with about 800 small volcanoes3.
If you’re interested in the geology of the area, I recommend reading through THIS document. It uses simple language to explain the processes that formed this ridiculously interesting place and makes for a nice evening read.
Next, we will head to Grand Canyon; the mecca of geological history! (Will I keep talking about geology? Most definitely! After all, I warned you.)