Hiking Kendrick Mountain, One of Northern Arizona's Best Summit Trails
Tuesday, June 21, 2016 at 6 a.m.
Kendrick Mountain Wilderness, located just north of Flagstaff, offers a unique summit hiking experience.
John Muir once wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go…” It's a partial line taken from a letter to his sister Sarah Muir Galloway in which he discussed the intense research he undertook as a naturalist in hopes of contributing to the realm of science. And while it would seem that Muir was called to the mountains with a fierce commitment to preserve these lands, his intense love for wilderness has inspired thousands of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts each year to take to the mountains for any number of reasons. One of which is as simple as seeing the world from a new perspective: above the tree line.
For summit seekers in Arizona, there's likely a familiarity with Humphreys Peak in the Coconino National Forest just north of Flagstaff. It's the highest natural point in Arizona, reaching 12,633 feet in elevation. It’s often considered a point of interest for hikers and outdoor junkies alike. And while this hike is brimming with outstanding views, and let us not forget, the challenge of reaching the highest point in Arizona, there is another unique summit hike that tends to get lost in the shadows of the San Francisco Peaks.
Also located on the Coconino Plateau, in a wilderness named for itself, stands Kendrick Mountain. Reaching a peak elevation of 10,418 feet, this mountain offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the San Francisco Peaks to the east, Sycamore Canyon to the south, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the north. Yes, you read that correctly. On a clear day, you can see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon as its elevation reaches 8,000 feet, about 1,000 feet higher than that of the South Rim.
Fire Lookout Tower atop Kendrick Mountain offers amazing 360-degree views, including Sycamore Canyon, San Francisco Peaks, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Exclusive to this summit hike is a fire lookout located at the peak. Established in the early 1900s and still staffed today, the lookout offers a rare hiking destination. In fact, the trail’s existence is due solely to this staff – but more on that later. And for those wishing to attempt Humphreys in the near future, this is an exceptional warm-up hike, as well as a great way to test how your body will handle elevations exceeding 9,000 feet, since such an altitude is often associated with the onset of elevation sickness.
From the trailhead, this hike greets you with a quiet serenity among a forest of tall Ponderosa Pines. Giant switchbacks cover most of this 4.5-mile out-and-back trail, which makes for an enjoyable climb, considering you will be gaining almost 3,000 feet to the peak. That's not to say you won’t feel yourself putting in the work, but the scenery is a pleasant distraction from such a moderate grade upward. This will continue until you reach the saddle. At this point, you see the fire lookout in the distance, with a mere three-quarters of a mile remaining to the peak.
From here, the character of the trail will change slightly, becoming a little rocky with a tighter switchback grade for the remaining 1,000 feet. The last 500 feet are the rockiest and most intense portion of the hike. Just before hitting that last section, you will come across an old lookout cabin built in the early 1900s. This is a nice place to pause and take in a little bit of Arizona history (or stop for a snack on your way back down).
Once you’ve reached the lookout, there will most likely be someone working the tower. Do not assume that you are welcome inside the structure. If you are invited in, that’s great – if not, show courtesy to whomever is on duty. Be sure to visit the adjacent helipad for the incredible viewpoints mentioned earlier, as well as climbing the stairs to walk the perimeter of the tower.
Kendrick Mountain peaks at an elevation of 10,418 feet.
Oh yes, the helipad – we were getting to that. You may have noticed that there is no drivable access road to the lookout. Yet another extraordinary feature of this trail: It is the only one of its kind in Arizona, and as mentioned earlier, the sole reason this trail exists. And that means those working the lookout tower must do the same hike you just did, but with all their equipment in tow. Knowing that adds a new level of appreciation.
Inside the tower is a sense of serenity reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, in which he wrote, “The silence was an intense roar.” You may find yourself imagining the sun fading on this grand wilderness area, and the darkness setting in, until finally it’s just you, the moon, and the flickering stars in the distance. A lovely thought in a world tethered by immediacy, that this sort of quiet solitude could still exist.
Kendrick Peak Trail
Distance: 4.5 miles (one-way)
Level of Difficulty: Moderate
Average Time: 5 hours round trip