I like to take the short hike to Red Mountain (not to be confused with Red Butte) on my way into Flagstaff. By the time I reach the turnoff to the trailhead, I’m somewhat dazed from the drive and welcome the chance to get out of the car and stretch. The turnoff to the Red Mountain trail is at milepost 247. A sign alerts you to the trailhead on the right. Park either in the large dirt lot near the highway, or drive a short distance on the dirt road to the parking area at the trailhead.
Red Mountain is a volcanic mountain that lost its eastern side, thereby exposing an inner core that has eroded into awesome hoodoos reminiscent of Bryce Canyon or the badlands of northern New Mexico. The level trail wanders through a pinion-juniper forest, then drops into a wash. A smattering of ponderosa pines offers cooling shade as you come up to a rock dam. Take the stairs over the dam or the very steep trail to the right. There’s a nice picnic spot at the end of the trail just a short distance from the dam. Munch on a snack, ponder the hoodoos and listen to the birds before retracing your steps back to the trailhead. Unless you want to spend time wandering through the hoodoos, the total time out and back should be under two hours.
An interpretive sign and map at the trailhead tell you where the trail goes and gives you a brief explanation of the geology of Red Mountain. There are no toilets, trash cans or water facilities available at the trailhead. Bring water and sunscreen, and wear a hat. The trail is level in most places and can be hiked with athletic shoes or sport sandals. Watch your footing on the cinder-strewn trail near the end; the loose rock acts like marbles under your feet. Be sure you lock your car and don’t leave valuables in view.
If you want to escape the hot weather, the next hike guarantees a cooling respite from the sun. In fact, you need to bring a flashlight with you. Bring two, and extra batteries. And bring a jacket, too, because you’re hiking underground. The Lava Cave hike is a mild spelunking adventure inside a volcanic tube formed when molten lava flowed like a river 700,000 years ago. The outside of the lava river cooled and hardened, forming the tube, while the inner lava continued to flow. When the lava quit flowing, the hollow tube was left. You can check out the ripple marks of the volcanic flow from the light of your flashlight. Wear good hiking boots, since the floor is covered in places with blocky rocks and the entrance is wet and slippery.
At mile marker 230 on Highway 180, turn west (right turn if you’re coming from the Canyon) onto Forest Road 245. Signs will direct you to the lava cave as you turn left onto Forest Road 171 for a mile or so before turning left again on Forest Road 171B. Park in the parking area and walk up the short trail and two track to the entrance to the cave. Although it looks like a squeeze from the first view, the entrance is quite roomy and drops quickly to the cave floor. The chilly 32 degree temperature remains with you until you hit the end of the cave, which is 3,280 feet away and a “warmer” 45 degrees.
Once your eyes adjust to the light from your flashlight, you can see the pattern of lava flow in the walls and floor of the cave. You’ll come to a place where the ceiling reaches 80 feet, and then you must choose between a right or a left passage. Don’t worry; they both meet back into one passageway a short distance ahead. There’s one spot that’s a bit of a squeeze, but the tube opens up once again. Once you reach the end of the cave, turn off your flashlight and experience total and complete darkness. Once your flashlight is back on, retrace your steps back to the entrance, perhaps choosing the opposite passage that you chose on your way in. If you’re like most people, your appreciation for daylight and good flashlights is enhanced once you see the shafts of sunlight piercing the darkness at the cave’s entrance.
The Lava Cave offers a unique opportunity to hike in a cave, but also requires some additional preparation. You’re traveling to the trailhead on dirt roads, so be aware of weather and road conditions. As with the Red Mountain hike, bring water and snacks. Without a good flashlight, you won’t make it 25 feet. Bring extra batteries just in case, and second flashlight is good insurance. Wear a jacket and consider bringing gloves. The cave’s cold environment is a stark contrast to the temperature on the surface, but you’ll remember how cold 32 degrees really is once you’re inside. There are no trash cans, toilets or water facilities at the trailhead. Be very careful to leave nothing in the cave; pack out all your trash. A map at the cave’s entrance lets you know where you’re heading; study it well if you’re not familiar with the cave’s layout. Sign the roster at the entrance so Forest Service folks know how many people are enjoying the cave.
The next time you’re faced with the drive to Flagstaff, schedule your day to take in a hike on the way to or from the city. It may even make that trip to Wal-Mart a bit more enjoyable.