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Granite Mountain Day Hike
May 12, 2012
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
Historic Courthouse Square in downtown Prescott. [photo by Dave]

We had earlier decided on Courthouse Square as our Prescott rendezvous point before striking out for the Granite Mountain Trailhead. The square is a beehive of activity this morning, with a busy weekend of bazaars and festivals scheduled for the area. We can’t afford to stick around here too long, so we caravan straight away for the trailhead.

Although I drew up our official route map for today’s hike, somehow Randy and I manage to zip right past the Montezuma Street turnoff and have to backtrack a couple of miles to link up with the rest of our group. Montezuma Street turned out to be a lot closer to Courthouse Square than I realized. When we finally hit Iron Springs Road, we are on course all the way to the trailhead.

Arizona Trailblazers on the Granite Mountain Trail. [photo by Dave]
From left to right:   Steven, Jeff, Kathy, Dottie, Mark, Quy, Debbie, Anikó, Randy, Nicole, Michael, and Chuck, with Dave behind the camera lens.

On a beautiful, albeit a tad warm, Saturday morning in mid-May a Baker’s Dozen of Arizona Trailblazers gather for our group picture about a quarter mile down the trail from the Metate Trailhead which marks the beginning of Granite Mountain Trail. Unfortunately, we can’t find a third-party photographer for the task so Dave volunteers for the honors. Today’s hike marks exactly eleven years to the day since the old Motorola Hiking Club (our original name) last did this hike back on May 12, 2001. Amazingly, today’s weather is almost identical to that day eleven years agoŃsunny and warm, with clear skies and a 9:30 AM starting temperature of 80 degrees, far warmer than normal for this time of year at 5,600 feet. This, despite the latest NOAA National Weather Service forecast for a high of only 74 degrees for the day on Granite Mountain. Wonder if I should have gone into weather forecasting instead of widget making?

Prescott National Forest Granite
Mountain Wilderness boundary sign. [Chuck]

This rugged wooden sign marks the official boundary of Granite Mountain Wilderness, a 9,762 acre preserve within Prescott National Forest, and is located about a quarter-mile from Metate Trailhead.

Perhaps it’s just my imagination running wild, but whenever we pass these wilderness boundary signs on our hikes I get the uneasy feeling that we’re leaving behind a known safe zone and entering into the great unknown, a fraught-with-danger wild and woolly place where giant cave bears and saber tooth tigers, marauding beasts twice as large as normal, roam freely in search of human prey. Yup, the imagination running amuck and totally out of control again.

Granite Mountain was originally known as Mount Gurley and named in honor of John A. Gurley, the first governor of the Arizona Territory. Unfortunately for the governor, the name was short-lived and eventually lost out to, of all things, a rock.

The overwhelming predominance of Precambrian Granite throughout the area, especially this mountain of granite that soars to 7,626 feet northwest of the city of Prescott, prompted the name change.

But as a consolation prize for the former Guv, Gurley Street is today one of Prescott’s major thoroughfares.

Rocks, trees, and more rocks. [Chuck]
Soaring cliffs along Granite Mountain’s South Face. [Dave]
Peregrine Falcon nest site on the cliff face. [Steven]

Not too far from the trailhead hikers can see this sheer 500-foot high granite cliff on the mountain’s south face. Granite Mountain is a popular location for rock climbers from around the Southwest, and this cliff face is one of the best locations for rock climbing in all of Arizona, attracting thousands of climbers to the area each year.

These sheer granite cliffs are also ideal nesting sites for Peregrine Falcons, as seen in this picture taken by Steven. The falcon nest is located on the ledge circled in red. To protect the species during nesting season, the Forest Service closes these cliffs to all climbing activity from February through July. Peregrines are legendary in their dives for prey, having been clocked in excess of 200 MPH, making them the fastest birds in the world.

DSC00140 DSC00143
Manzanita and pine trees seen along Granite Mountain Trail. [photos by Dave]

Pinyon pine, manzanita, alligator juniper, numerous species of oaks, and scattered Ponderosa pine line the trail and populate the slopes of Granite Mountain. Although we see evidence of past forest fires in the area, there doesn’t appear to be any significant bark beetle damage to these trees despite the fact that almost 50% of Prescott National Forest has been decimated by bark beetles over the past decade or so. And as this report is being written, a major wildfire tagged as the Gladiator Fire has already chewed its way through 14,000 acres of Prescott National Forest northeast of the Crown King area, with little containment to stop its progress.

Between massive bark beetle destruction and prolonged drought induced stress, Arizona’s forests are under major assault and losing ground year by year. The largest wildfire in Arizona’s history occurred just last year, with the destruction of 540,000 acres of prime timber in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona’s beautiful White Mountains.

Claret Cup cactus. [Chuck]
Indian Paintbrush [Dave]
Goodding’s Verbena [Dave]
Russian thistle [Steven]

Granite Mountain Trail gains almost 400 feet in elevation in 1.8 miles before reaching Blair Pass, the saddle lying between Granite Basin to the south and Long Canyon to the north. Blair Pass lies at the intersection of Little Granite Trail and White Rock Trail, both worthy of exploration at a future date. Despite scant spring rainfall, a number of colorful wildflowers, including these Claret Cup, Indian Paintbrush, and Russian Thistle, adorn the edges of the trail on the way to the pass.

The 1.3 mile stretch of Granite Mountain Trail between Blair Pass and Granite Mountain Saddle climbs steadily for over 900 feet through a long series of switchbacks on the way to the summit. This is just one of many spectacular views along the way.

The cliffs of Granite Mountain towering over the trail. [Chuck]

Dave, Kathy, Dottie, and Randy take time out to admire this huge alligator juniper sitting right at the edge of the trail. Granite Mountain has some of the largest alligator junipers we have ever seen in Arizona, and this particular one is probably the largest juniper along the entire trail.

Massive alligator juniper at trail’s edge. [Chuck]
Can you count the tree rings? [photo by Nicole]

This huge Ponderosa pine fell across the trail some time ago, and a section was cut out to allow passage on the trail. We’ve seen Ponderosa in the past up to 8 feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. Although this fallen giant is not one for the record books, it’s still pretty darned impressive. Can you count the exact number of tree rings on this trunk? If so, you’re a better Dendrochronologist than me.

Anikó is one of our newer members and also one of our faster hikers, typically in the lead group on most hikes. You can see a shy smile peeking out from under her hat in this picture, while many of us have our tongues hanging out in the breeze, gasping for air.

Anikó charges up the trail. [photo by Steven]

Now what can this particular discourse be all about? Hiking ethics? Geology? Photography? The history of Granite Mountain? Quantum Mechanics? Astrophysics?

Not quite sure, but the group seems to be completely enthralled by the lively discussion taking place here.

Group discussion led by Michael H. [Dave]
Moby Dick on Granite Mountain? [Dave]

A solid granite Moby Dick, frozen in both time and stone, seems to be pushing his way through to the surface in hot pursuit of Captain Ahab. Who knows if he will ever succeed, but he will surely keep on trying since Moby is one darned persistent whale you don’t want to tangle with.

Kissing Rocks on Granite Mountain? [Nicole]

This picture by Nicole reminds me of other similar rock formations we’ve seen over the years along the Heart of Rocks loop trail in the Chiricahuas or the Wilderness of Rocks Trail on Mt. Lemmon.

Jack and the Beanstalk? [Steven]
What the heck is this? [Chuck]

We finally locate the famed bean stalk but, alas, Jack is nowhere in sight. However, this “bean stalk” is actually a yucca sending its blooms soaring skyward in its final act as it attempts to propagate itself and perpetuate the species. Once completed, the plant will wither and die and the stalk will eventually come crashing back down.

Animal, plant, or mineral? If you guessed animal, you are wrong. Sorry, but no alligators in these parts – just not enough water here and completely wrong area of the country. But if you guessed plant, you are absolutely correct. This is in fact a close-up shot of alligator juniper bark, from the very same large juniper seen in the earlier picture.

The last stretch of trail from Granite Mountain Saddle to Granite Mountain Vista climbs another 500 feet in a little over a mile through scattered stands of tall Ponderosa pine, providing the best shade along the entire trail. The final home stretch of trail levels off before one last rise over a section of slick rock out to the vista point.

Perched near the edge of a rather precarious looking granite outcropping, Steven and Nicole pose for a quick picture near Granite Mountain Vista.

Whatever you do here, don’t even think about taking one tiny step backward and, in fact, don’t even sneeze. Oh, and just one more thing. If you feel the ground shaking, run like hell!

Daredevils Steven and Nicole.
Living testimony to sheer tenacity. [photo by Nicole]

Although the interior of this large alligator juniper was totally burned out and charred and its lower trunk virtually gutted, most likely by a lightning strike, somehow the tree has managed to survive and even thrive with plenty of new growth in its crown.

This would have killed most trees, but junipers are legendary survivors of both fire and extreme drought and even seem to be resistant to bark beetle attack as well.

But in the natural world this is just one of many examples of how life hangs on and often thrives in the face of overwhelming adversity – a valuable lesson we humans should all take to heart. So if I come back in the next life as a tree, I sure hope it’s an alligator juniper.

“Leaves of three, let them be.” [photo by Nicole]
    This is the mantra that Randy repeatedly drills into us as he points out the many clumps of Arizona poison oak along much of the trail. Brush up against this nasty stuff and you can break out in a severe rash, especially if you’re highly allergic as he is.

Randy relates his woeful encounters with perilous poison oak when he was younger, spending many a summer covered in both the rash and a special ointment used to treat it and relieve the horrific itching it causes. Wearing long pants is a definite plus whenever hiking in poison oak country since most of it is too low to the ground to brush against anything other than your legs.

View from Granite Mountain Vista. [photo by Chuck]

The sweeping views from Granite Mountain Vista take in much of the town of Prescott, Granite Basin Lake, the Granite Dells, and the Bradshaw Mountains in the distance.

Granite Basin Lake from the vista point. [Chuck]
Not the real summit, but pretty close. [Chuck]

Aside from the town of Prescott, Granite Basin Lake is the most prominent feature seen from Granite Basin Vista. The Civilian Conservation Corps completed work on the dam for this lake way back in 1939, and the lake has been a prime recreation area for the people of Prescott for many years.

The trail comes to an abrupt end just below this “lesser summit” of mammoth granite boulders that peaks out at 7,185 feet. Roughly a half mile northeast of here and unseen from our location, the true summit of Granite Mountain rises another 441 feet to top out at 7,626 feet. If we were hard-core rock climbers we probably wouldn’t think twice about going for the summit, but since we’re just hard-core hikers this will be our turn-around point before heading back down the mountain.

Lunch on Granite Mountain. [photo by Steven]

We finally arrive at Granite Mountain Vista about 12:30 PM and just in time for a lunch break. The group splits up, with some of us hanging out in the lower area in this picture and others deciding to move up a little higher among the larger boulders. There’s scant shade to be found around here, but at least the air is cooler at our nearly 7,200 foot elevation and we catch an occasional cooling breeze blowing up the mountain.

Debbie and Michael share a Four Peaks Amber Ale, as Mark and Anikó look on. After a long, hard hike there’s nothing like sitting down with good friends and an ice-cold brew or an ice-cold soda or an ice-cold anything else for that matter.

Post-hike libation. [photo by Steven]
A little R&R after returning to the trailhead.
[photos by Steven]
Prescott Brewing Company’s best brew sampler.
The dark chocolate flavored brew emerges as the clear winner among this lot.

Part of our group decides to head back to the Phoenix area after the hike, while most of us take a well-deserved break at the trailhead and discuss our options for a post-hike dinner. We decide to stay in touch via our Motorola TalkAbout radios and meet up for dinner somewhere along Prescott’s famed Whiskey Row. We’re also curious to check out the recent fire damage that destroyed several businesses in the area.

Trailblazers enjoying dinner at the Prescott
Brewing Company. [photo by Steven]

Clockwise: Debbie, Steven, Michael, Randy, Chuck, Mark, Nicole, and Anikó.

From the seemingly endless crowds lined up and waiting to be seated here, the Prescott Brewing Company seems to be the place of choice for visitors and locals alike along downtown Whiskey Row. We’re certainly not disappointed and will be back again some day after another Prescott area hike. H’mm – I wonder what garlic flavored beer would taste like?

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updated May 27, 2012