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Bell Trail/White Mesa
March 20, 2021
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
by Terry Kelley
Eleven Arizona Trailblazers gather for the group picture. [photo by Quy]
Sonny, Jeff, Rodney, Billie, Neil, Quy, Laura, Terry, Chuck, Julie, Laurie

On a sunny Saturday morning in late March, eleven Arizona Trailblazers meet at the Bell Trail Trailhead on FR618, a couple of miles east of I-17, via Exit 298 for Sedona. The Trailblazers have hiked the Bell Trail on numerous occasions over the years, but today we’re also doing an exploratory hike on the White Mesa Trail, located 1.7 miles from the Bell Trail Trailhead.

In a January article in the Arizona Republic, Mare Czinar describes White Mesa: “From the hyper-popular Bell Trail, the imposing vertical cliffs of White Mesa appear as an unsurmountable wall of stone rising over 1,000 feet above one of the most heavily visited trails in Coconino National Forest ….” How could any Arizona Trailblazer resist such a challenging invitation? Certainly not this group.

As we get our gear together and form a tight circle for introductions and then gather around the trailhead signs for the usual group picture, vehicles full of hikers continue pouring into the parking lot, quickly filling all remaining parking spaces. Looks like we made it just in time this morning.

It’s 10:00 AM when we finally strike out on the popular Bell Trail. Bell Trail runs parallel with Wet Beaver Creek all the way to the end at Bells Crossing, but the best and closest views of the creek come after the White Mesa Trail junction.

Trailblazers charge up the Bell Trail. [photo by Quy]
Chuck and Laurie bring up the sweep position. [photo by Quy]
Trailblazers gather at the White Mesa Trail junction. [photo by Quy]
Bell Trail gets a little rocky here.
[photo by Quy]
Meanwhile, Terry is ready to charge up the mesa.
[photo by Quy]
This is where the hike starts to get serious. [photo by Quy]
Jeff takes a picture of the group. [photo by Quy]
OK, here’s the plan, Trailblazers. [photo by Quy]
The uphill grind begins right here. [photo by Quy]

Like so many of Arizona’s hiking trails, the Bell Trail started out as a dirt road used to access a sprawling cattle ranching operation, one of many on the Mogollon Rim of central Arizona. The first couple of miles of the Bell Trail follows the old roadbed through typical high desert terrain of arid grasslands, prickly pear cactus, acacia, and juniper.

From time to time we catch a glimpse of the perennially flowing Wet Beaver Creek. It’s still too far away to tell, but it appears to be flowing at a faster rate than normal. And, in fact, just to the east of I-17 approaching the Sedona turnoff, we had earlier seen small stretches of the normally bone-dry Dry Beaver Creek actually flowing, sunlight dancing off its surface. That is definitely a rare site in Arizona.

Admiring the scenery, with the rugged cliffs of White Mesa in the far background. [photo by Quy]
This is unmistakable canyon country now. [photo by Quy]
Billie leads the charge up this stretch of the White Mesa Trail. [photo by Quy]
Up, up, up, and away we go! [photo by Quy]
Julie carefully navigates a rock and boulder strewn path. [photo by Quy]
Jeff treads a narrow passage between boulders. [photo by Quy]
Taking a well-deserved rest break. [photo by Quy]

Although we’re not aware of it from the terrain, the Bell Trail soon enters the mouth of Wet Beaver Creek Canyon, as we continue hiking this relatively level and occasionally rocky trail toward the junction with the White Mesa Trail. Eventually we come to a well-weathered wooden sign, split in half vertically with the right side missing, identifying the area we’re about to enter as the Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness.

Shortly after that, 1.7 miles from the trailhead, we see a second heavily weathered wooden sign, identifying the White Mesa Trail. We all take a short rest break here, while admiring the surrounding scenery, before starting the hike up the much narrower and rockier White Mesa Trail, as we enter the head of Casner Canyon.

This unnamed mesa appears to be even higher than White Mesa. [photo by Quy]
We’re getting close now. [photo by Quy]
Panoramic shot from the top of White Mesa. [photo by Quy]

We start out with a relatively gentle, but steady, climb up the White Mesa Trail, which gradually becomes more aggressive as we progress, carrying us up the western flanks of Casner Canyon. We’ll climb just under 1,000 feet in 0.7 miles before reaching the top of White Mesa, although for the most part the climbing is not quite as strenuous as one would think, especially with no switchbacks on the trail.

As we climb ever higher, we’re treated to more expansive and impressive views of both Casner Canyon and Wet Beaver Creek Canyon.

We enjoy a lunch and rest break on the top of White Mesa. [photo by Quy]
Sonny, Jeff, Billie, and Neil. [photo by Rodney]
Julie has a comfortable-looking boulder. [photo by Rodney]
Careful Terry! Not another step forward. [photo by Quy]
So what’s our next move, Billie? Up or down? [photo by Quy]

As we continue on a steady upward trajectory, it’s a bit hard to believe that, like the Bell Trail, this trail was also once used by local ranchers to move cattle to higher grazing grounds on the mesa during the warmer summer months. Those must have been some very fit cattle back in the day. Another surprising aspect of this trail is the total absence of other hikers. Hundreds of hikers ceaselessly going up and down the Bell Trail, far below, all day long and not one other hiker sharing the White Mesa Trail with us the entire time. Apparently, it’s all about the water.

We head back down the mesa to the Bell Trail. [photo by Quy]
It’s all downhill from here, people. [photo by Quy]
This tiny wild onion flower takes shelter next to a large prickly pear pad. [photo by Quy]

We finally reach the top of White Mesa, or at least what we’re calling the top for now, and look for a good place to take a well-deserved lunch and rest break. We find a cluster of strategically placed boulders and select the most comfortable-looking ones for seating.

After lunch, we weigh our options. I had originally intended to follow the Mare Czinar article and hike another half-mile or so to reach the edge of the mesa for the views looking down on Wet Beaver Creek, Casner Butte, Apache Maid Mountain, and Table Mountain. But after conferring with Billie and talking with the rest of the group, we decide to head back down the White Mesa Trail and spend more time on the Bell Trail, hiking to the series of deep swimming holes known as The Crack.

Meanwhile, back on the Bell Trail. [photo by Laura]
Trailblazers forge ahead on the Bell Trail. [photo by Quy]
Jeff navigates a slickrock stretch of the Bell Trail.
[photo by Laura]
Preview of Wet Beaver Creek rushing over
rocks and boulders. [photo by Laura]
Gnarly junipers grace both sides of this section of the Bell Trail. [photo by Quy]
Wet Beaver Creek is flowing pretty heavily today. [photo by Laura]

The hike back down White Mesa goes quicker than expected, and we soon arrive back at the junction with the Bell Trail and start hiking that east, deeper into Wet Beaver Creek Canyon. We soon come across two more trail junctions, the first with the Apache Maid Trail that goes to the top of another mesa, and the second with the Wier Trail which runs parallel with the creek for a half-mile. From this point the Bell Trail gradually becomes more rugged and rocky, looking more like typical Red Rock Country surrounding the Sedona area, as it rises and falls through rougher and more jumbled terrain requiring some rock scrambling and even a little butt sliding from time to time.

We also have to watch our footing even more carefully in this rugged terrain.

Along stretches of the trail closer to Wet Beaver Creek, especially as the trail drops in elevation and gets closer to the water, we can hear the rushing sounds of the creek racing over its rocky creek bed. I’ve done this hike at least 5 times over the years, and this is by far the most water I’ve ever seen flowing in the creek. But the stark contrast between the trail and the rushing creek below the trail is one of the more interesting aspects of this hike.

The trail is dry and dusty and hot during much of the year, surrounded by towering formations of Coconino Sandstone and Kaibab Limestone, juniper, Arizona cypress, prickly pear, and agave, while Wet Beaver Creek below is flowing through a lush riparian corridor, dominated by massive sycamore and cottonwood trees providing a cool and shady environment. Two entirely different habitats existing side by side within Wet Beaver Creek Canyon.

The rushing waters of Wet Beaver Creek. [photo by Quy]
Huge boulders line this part of the creek bed. [photo by Quy]
Jeff is preparing to dive into the water below. You need to move closer to the edge, Jeff. [photo by Quy]
This diver is already airborne. [photo by Quy]
He’s making the plunge, feet first. [photo by Quy]
Julie, Jeff, Terry, Billie, & Quy check out the creek. [photo by Laura]
Nine Trailblazers gather at The Crack: Terry, Sonny, Jeff, Quy, Laura, Billie, Julie, Chuck, Neil.
[photo by Quy]
After a quick dip in the creek, Rodney dries off in the sun. [photo by Quy]
Columns of sandstone overlook The Crack. [Laura]

We know we’re getting closer to The Crack when we start seeing more and larger groups of young people hiking in or hiking back out, many in swimwear. At one point I’m hiking by myself when a group of six young women, wearing beach towels and bikinis, approaches me on their way back out, still pretty damp from the creek. I ask them if they had a good time swimming. One replies “It was a lot of fun, but the water was freezing!”

“I bet it was.” I said, figuring a lot of that water was from snowmelt.

After about 20 minutes of R&R at The Crack, we reluctantly pack up our gear once again and start the long trek back to the Bell Trailhead. Gusty winds hit us from time to time, blowing sand and grit across the trail. Otherwise, this has been a perfect day as far as the temperature, the scenery, and the group camaraderie. What more can we ask for?

Trailblazers begin working their way back to the Bell Trailhead. [photo by Quy]
But we still have miles to go. [photo by Quy]
One of the larger petroglyph panels in the area. [photo by Quy]

When it comes to people throwing objects for their dogs to retrieve, a ball or a small stick typically comes to mind. But this owner picks up a large tree limb, about 5 feet long, over 6" in diameter at one end, and probably weighing 10 to 15 pounds, and heaves it off the trail as far as he can. We expect this Labrador Retriever to simply ignore such an object and pick up something more manageable instead. But he dutifully races over, carefully picks up this large limb by the middle, and trots up the trail after his owners.

I ask, “How far do you think he will actually carry that?”

The young woman replies, “Probably all the way to the end of the trail and then all the way back to the trailhead. He loves carrying his sticks.” Some stick. We’re in the presence of Super Retriever

Quy meets Super Retriever, proudly carrying his “stick”. [photo by Rodney]
Then she captures his picture as he runs past. [photo by Quy]

It’s almost 4:30 by the time the last few hikers arrive back at the trailhead. Most decide to head back home, but five of us opt for a late lunch stop at Chilleen’s on 17, a great BBQ joint just east of I-17 in Black Canyon City.

Hiking Stats by Terry:
Total Miles Hiked: 10.13
Elevation Change: +-1,857 feet.
Total Time on Trail: 6.5 hours.

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updated March 26, 2021