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O’Leary Peak Day Hike
September 5, 2020
by Li Li
  GPS Map 
Kevin, Tom and Li

O’Leary Trail is one of my favorite hikes at Flagstaff, especially after I had just enjoyed the beauty of the Kachina Trail last week. This week’s hike is definitely different. If we described Kachina Trail as an elegant and sophisticated woman, then the O’Leary Trail would be a relentless and captivating man standing tall at the lava field.

O’Leary Trail is located at a popular geotourism location, Sunset Crater National Monument. Unlike the sunset crater volcanic formation, which is a cinder cone, O’Leary Peak is a lava-dome volcano, which was formed by bulbous viscous lava that was too thick to move a great distance.

Tom, Kevin, and I were the only hikers on this hike, since two people backed out at the last minute. The weather was very hot in the valley, but Flagstaff was not much cooler on this Labor Day weekend. The highest temperature was forecast at 91° in Flagstaff.

We started our hike at around 8 AM. The first mile was relatively flat, ascending only slightly. The Bonito lava flow could be seen on the right side as we continued our trail up. The black viscous hard lava stretched for miles along the right side of the trail, forming the large piles of the black dome. This lava formation has been there for over 1000 years, but it still looks fresh and untouched.

The first mile is relatively flat.

The beautiful and small whitebark aspens sprouted out here and there, forming a very interesting field. There were a few large ponderosas and spruce standing on the side of the road, reminding us of the significant amount of time they have been there despite the challenging and harsh environment, which made me admire the resistance and persistence plants can have.

Since the fire lookout tower is on the top of the peak, the trail that we were on is actually an old Jeep road that rangers use to bring supplies up to the tower. The trail is so wide, it allows 3-4 people to walk side by side without feeling crowded. If you would like to have a conversation with your hiking buddy while climbing, this is the trail for you! Due to the dryness of the soil and possible lack of moisture and rain in this area, I didn’t see many wildflowers as I had seen on various other trails in Flagstaff.

This section of the road has a mat.
Kevin on the slope of O’Leary Peak.

The views become increasingly more magnificent as we continued ascending. Tom, who was always 20 feet ahead of us, pointed out the beautiful mountain views behind us. The spectacular and unobstructed views of Mt Elden, Inner Basin, Humphreys Peak, and Sunset Crater were so clear and vivid, we couldn’t help but stop and snap pictures.

O’Leary Trail is very open and exposed. Except a few ponderosas and piñon pines of various sizes here or there, we had almost no shade at all. Luckily, we were above 8000 feet elevation. We passed many long switchbacks as we get closer to the top. Looking up, I could see a glimpse of the fire tower on the peak of the mountain which seemed too steep to climb.

The sun was hot and I was sweating bullets going up the hill. Finally, after 3 to 4 small switchbacks, I could see the Marston Mat metal sheets in front of me. That was the hallmark indicating that we had reached the top. I couldn’t help but smile. We were finally there. The young lady standing on the top of the tower greeted us warmly. She told us that Tom and I were the second and third persons today to make it to the top. Since it was Labor Day weekend she was expecting more people, but it seemed like she would have a quiet Labor Day weekend in the tower.

To the west, the San Francisco Peaks.
To the south, Sunset Crater.

We had short conservation with her until Kevin arrived. We rested a few minutes and discussed how intensive the cardio exercise climbing the peak was. This steep ascent seemed to have no effect on Tom. I admired his strength and exuberance during this intensive hike. We took a 45 minute break at the southeast corner of the lookout area, where piles of rocks and trees stand, and took the photos in each direction, before waving goodbye to the O’Leary fire tower.

Tom Tom

On the way back, the trail was a little slippery in some places due to loose gravel. The sun was hot and scorching, so we had to take many small breaks to prevent overheating. The temperature was now in the low 90s.

When we were two miles from the trailhead, we saw few people and a couple with their infant baby under the shade resting. It surely was a quiet and surreal hike. Kevin was a little overheated by the last mile, but we all made it back safe and happy! We had a blast on our fast-paced hike on a hot summer day!

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Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club, Phoenix, Arizona
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updated September 14, 2020