Heat Relief Up High

While the desert sizzles, Arizona's Kachina Peaks are cool and comfortable.
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While the desert sizzles, Arizona's Kachina Peaks are cool and comfortable.

If you haven't experienced a summer's day in Phoenix, you're lucky. Four hours ago, it was so hot outside my home I couldn't walk barefoot down the driveway to retrieve the newspaper without burning the bottoms of my feet. But now, at a height of 9,000 feet in San Francisco Peaks, I'm yanking a fleece sweater out of my pack. Elevation is nature's air-conditioning.

Compared to other Western mountain ranges, the San Francisco Peaks are relatively puny in terms of acreage, but they're every bit as imposing. Several summits top 12,000 feet, including 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak, and with that elevation come all of the amenities: giant fir and spruce trees; abundant aspen; broad, wildflower-covered meadows; rare tundra plants; herds of elk; and the risk of snow falling any month of the year.

As we hike along the Kachina Trail through a dense stand of white-barked aspen, a canopy of fresh green leaves rattling overhead, I relish the feeling of being cold in the middle of summer. Our plan is to complete an 18-mile loop through 19,000-acre Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area via the Kachina, Weatherford, and Humphreys trails. From the trailhead next to the Snow Bowl Ski Area, Kachina Trail rolls 5 miles across fairly level-albeit lofty-terrain, where dark forests of mixed conifers and aspen alternate with sun-splashed meadows.

By late afternoon we have the place to ourselves, and we make camp on the edge of a meadow overflowing with red, purple, and yellow wildflowers. Tomorrow we'll tackle the rigorous switchbacks of the Weatherford and Humphreys trails, climbing from 8,800 to 12,000 feet. If no thunderstorms threaten, we may go for the summit of Humphreys Peak, just to be on top of Arizona for a few moments. For now, though, I'm content watching the setting sun turn the meadow gold and the snow-capped peaks pink, and lowering my surface body temperature before returning to the sizzling desert below.

QUICK TAKE: Kachina Peaks Wilderness, Arizona

DRIVE TIME: The Kachina Peaks Wilderness is located in northern Arizona, 134 miles north of Phoenix (21/2 hours).

THE WAY: From Phoenix, take I-17 north to Flagstaff. Then take US 180 northwest out of town for 6 miles to Snowbowl Road (FS 516). Turn right (north) and drive 8 miles up the mountain to the Snow Bowl Ski Area. Drive into the first parking lot on the right (south). The Kachina Trailhead is located at the end of the parking lot.

TRAILS: Kachina Peaks Wilderness and adjoining national forest contain 13 trails covering a total of 53 miles.

ELEVATION: The lowest point in the wilderness is about 7,400 feet, the high point is 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak.

CAN'T MISS: Some aspen stands are carved with "dendroglyphs" left by Basque sheep herders some 70 years ago.

CROWD CONTROL: You shake the dayhikers on popular trails merely by backpacking 5 miles into the wilderness.

MAPS: USGS Humphreys Peak and White Horse Hills 7.5-minute topographic maps cover the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. These can be purchased in advance by calling (800) 872-6277, or last-minute at Flagstaff outdoor stores. A good trail guide to the area is Flagstaff Hikes, by Richard and Sherry Mangum ($14.95, from Hexagon Press, 520-774-8800).

PIT STOP: Flagstaff has plenty of outdoor stores for last-minute purchases. Among the best are Babbitt Brothers and Peace Surplus.

WALK SOFTLY: When possible camp in meadows because the grassy surface is more resistant to trampling than the forest floor. Stay on established trails when hiking above treeline to protect fragile tundra vegetation.

MORE INFORMATION: Peaks Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, 5075 N. Highway 89, Flagstaff, AZ 86004; (520) 526-0866.