A Beautiful Autumn Walk Along the Inner Basin Trail in Flagstaff
Flagstaff, a small town in Northern Arizona located at 7000 feet (the highest elevated city in the state of Arizona and one of the highest in the US), is the go to spot for a traditional fall getaway. The many aspen trees found along various hiking trails make it a popular leaf peeping destination come fall. Although several other cities in Central and Northern Arizona also see some fall foliage (Sedona, Prescott, Payson, and Williams), Flagstaff by far outshines them all with the most dramatic and abundant changes. The Inner Basin trail, a beautiful 4 mile round trip hike through the heart of the San Francisco mountains, is the premier fall hike in the area.
The abundance of aspen trees, gorgeous mountain views, and peaceful location far away from the city congestion easily make it the top leaf peeping pick in Flagstaff. The trail is so beautiful during the fall season that it rivals many of the most stunning options found throughout New England. During your hike, you will be treated to some of the most gorgeous fall colors you will find anywhere in the Southwest.
Not surprisingly, residents from Southern Arizona flock to the area most weekends in October. Due to the high number of people longing for a little hint of autumn color and cool temperatures, the majority of the trails are very crowded all month long. On the first 2 weekends of October, the Inner Basin trail is so popular that traffic has to be monitored. Due to the small parking lot and narrow road, only a select number of cars are let in at a time. A 50 car line wait is not unusual!
Despite the hassle, this hike is worth going out of your way for. Not only is the scenery and leaf peepign incredible, but the drive to the hike itself is scenic as well. Check out the beautiful views you will be greeted to just before you make your way up the windy, narrow road. Below is a picture of the San Francisco peaks with the golden colors of fall, along with an early dusting of snow!
The trail is 1.7 miles each way, which may seem easy to a regular hiker, however, it’s basically uphill for an entire 2 miles and you also have to take the high altitude into account (8600-10500 feet!). Luckily, you can relax a bit more on the return route, which is all downhill. Those not accustomed to the high elevation should drink plenty of water and take it really slow. And preferably, get used to the elevation around town for a few days before attempting this hike. We saw many mountain bikers coming in each direction, which seems really scary and a bit risky in my opinion!
The beginning of the trail travels through a pretty mixture of ponderosa pine and aspen forest. The striking difference between the golden aspens and green pines makes for a very picturesque, photo worthy setting. If you are able to complete the entire hike, you will notice the aspens become more dense and colorful as you hike further along. The trail only becomes more beautiful the further you continue on.
As you meander along the trail, you will come across more and more aspens which shimmer a beautiful golden hue in the sun. The weather is usually beautiful this time of the year with temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s with little rain. The fallen leaves along the trails create the perfect fall setting. Who knew you could experience colors like this in Arizona of all places?!
The mountains covered with aspens are truly breathtaking. The picture-perfect opportunities seem to never end. Every turn you will find yourself reaching for your camera.
Anyone visiting Flagstaff from a hot area of the Southwest (and longing for a bit of fall fun) should definitely plan for an October hike on the spectacular Inner Basin trail. The same goes for anyone else who enjoys the colorful leaves, cool temperatures, and perfect hiking conditions common throughout the picturesque fall season.
Tips for a great hike
*Bring lots of water. It’s a long hike and the elevation is very high, thus requiring you to take in extra fluids. You can dehydrate much easier due to the lower oxygen levels and dry air.
*Eat a full meal before setting out for your hike. Due to many contributing factors such as the long waiting time to get in during the busy fall season, the high altitude, and the strenuous uphill climb, you will thank yourself later as taking in extra carbs will reduce your chances of getting altitude sickness. Tourists not from the area should get use to the elevation around town before immediately attempting this hike. Here are a few recommended Flagstaff restaurants to check out.
*Check the Flagstaff Leaf O Meter to time your hike during peak. The first 2 weekends in October generally see the best color.
*Be aware of possible wildlife sightings. Bears frequent the area. Bring with bear spray and wear bells for extra safety (not as much a problem during the busy fall season due to the crowds).
*Arrive as early as possible on October weekend mornings to avoid a lengthy wait to get in. Arriving at 10am on a Sunday, we had to wait over a half hour. Expect the wait to be much longer Saturday afternoons. Or better yet, plan your hike on a weekday if possible.
*Check the weather forecast in advance. Prepare for dramatic weather changes, due to the high elevation. Also, prepare for much colder temperatures at this high of an altitude. Dress in layers and prepare for possible snow in October.
*Wear good hiking shoes and workout clothes. I saw many people wearing jeans and boots on this hike! It’s not a good idea. You will get in a fantastic workout going uphill and appropriate fitness clothes will allow you to move more freely, while shoes with traction will help you stabilize yourself when completing the downhill portion of the hike. I also bring with a hiking stick – you can find these in any sports/hiking store around town.
*Take your time on this hike. The elevation reaches 10,000+ feet. Those not used to the high elevation could feel sick very quickly without following safety precautions. Slow down and drink lots of water. Also eat salty, high carb snacks – it’s supposed to help.
*And lastly, bring a good camera! You will want to take lots of pictures on this spectacular hike!
Drive northeast of Flagstaff on US 89 for 12 miles to FR 420 directly across from the Sunset Crater turnoff. Turn left (west) for about 1/2 mile, turn right (north) on Forest Road 552. Turn right at the Lockett Meadow sign and continue to the trailhead. There is no fee to park. Restrooms are available. Leashed dogs are okay. High clearance vehicles are recommended (although my Prius made it just fine).