Technically known as Weatherford Trail #102, this is a 15.6 mile, out and back hike. Situated in the San Francisco Mountains, this trail is just north of Flagstaff, Arizona. The hike takes you up to nearly 11,000 feet above sea level. When you arrive at Doyle Saddle you will be rewarded with fantastic views of Flagstaff and beyond.
The trailhead is found at Shultz Tank, off of fire road #420. The last leg of the drive is on 6 miles of unpaved, narrow road, so use caution. Shultz Tank is clearly marked and the parking lot is on the right, just after Sunset Trail. You’ll also notice a body of water beyond the parking area. There are a few trail options from the parking lot. Weatherford begins across the road from the lot, and has an easily seen sign.
This trail is rated as “hard” on most trail sites, due to the persistent uphill grade, the loose rocky path, and the altitude. The trail difficulty is exacerbated by the complete lack of any water source. We had to pack all of our water in. At 2.2lbs per liter, the 4 liters of water that we each carried added almost 9 pounds to each of our packs. Once we added food, in a bear canister (bears are plentiful up here, so plan accordingly), a tent, sleeping bags, and all the rest of our essential gear, our packs were very heavy. The climb, the altitude, loose footing, and the weight of our packs really combined to push us out of our comfort zone.
We are very fortunate to have so much natural diversity so close to home. This is the first trail in Arizona that we have hiked with aspen forests. You are much more likely to think of saguaros than aspens when you think of Arizona, but they are thick at times on this trail. Some of the aspens at the higher elevations, on this trail, have trunks as large as 20” in diameter!
After hiking for about two hours, making our way through the sparse piñon pine forest, and the occasional aspen thicket, we came to a large meadow. The meadow gives way to the dense, shady forest of the Kachina Wilderness. About a half mile into the wilderness is a sign-in box. Always sign-in when entering a wilderness area. Also known as a Trail Register, this box serves to track usage of the area, for budget and maintenance purposes, to assist search and rescue workers in locating parties in trouble, and as a place for postings about possible dangers in the area. On some of the longer section or thru hike trails, hikers will often leave interesting bits of information, sage advice, or just some clever observations.
Once we were signed-in, we began the switch-backs. The switch-backs are very long and very well engineered. This entire trail seems very carefully planned, in terms of the consistent, fairly gentle (yet unrelenting) grade. One word of caution: don’t plan to average anything faster than 2 miles per hour. The golf ball to baseball size, loose rocks make footing difficult. It is very easy to slip, and your ankles will be sore after all the torquing they will take on this hike. The rocks will slow you down and exhaust you. Some of the switchbacks are quite long and the trail often puts you at the edge of a precarious drop on one side. Take your time. This is not a place to sprain an ankle, injure a knee, or worse. Also, for everyone’s sake, don’t break into “The Sound of Music” in the alpine meadows. The trail is narrow on these sections, if you twirl, with your arms extended, you will fall off the mountain, and most importantly, we don’t want to hear it 😉
At the turn of some of the switchbacks, you will find a reasonably flat area to pitch a tent. Many of these areas are rocky, and would make for a tough night sleep. I highly recommend making your way all the way up to Doyle Saddle. At the top, you will find at least three, flatter, smoother spots for your well-earned night’s rest.
You can venture on another mile or so through the ravine up to Fremont Saddle if you wish. At Fremont Saddle, you meet up with Humphreys Trail. From there it’s only another (very steep) half-mile to the top of Humphreys, Arizona’s highest peak (12,633’). Fremont Saddle is a perfect base camp, from which to summit Humphreys the next day. Note that you cannot camp in the area between Doyle and Fremont Saddles, but at either is permitted.
On our hike, we reached Doyle Saddle at 6pm. With sunset at 6:50pm, we had just enough light to set up camp, while the temperature plummeted. On this outing, we did not summit Humphreys. We will return to do so, but this climb of 3372 feet in just under 8 miles was enough of a challenge.
We began our hike around 1:30pm. Such a late start was mostly due to the Labor Day weekend traffic. Since it was late in the day, the temperature was 85f. As we hiked, and our bodies warmed up, we welcomed the shade of the forest. But with a warm core, we hardly noticed that by the time we reached the summit, in the setting sun, the temperature had plummeted into the low 40s. Even in shorts and short sleeves, we didn’t feel cold. Setting up the tent, we both wondered aloud why we couldn’t get our hands to work. They were numbed from the cold, even though our cores were warm. You really have to be careful at higher altitudes, to avoid hypothermia and frostbite. It can seem counter intuitive to pack mittens and a hat when it’s 106f at home and 85f at the trail head. The low temperature on the mountain was about 40f. Our 30f rated down sleeping bags worked perfectly.
This was a stunningly beautiful hiking trip and very rewarding. I highly recommend this hike, as one of the best I’ve done. The beauty and the challenges combine to make this a favorite for me. As I write this, my calf muscles and hip flexors are still a bit sore, but it was totally worth it. From my perspective, there is no greater reward, than witnessing a sunrise on a mountain, in the wilderness.
By the Numbers:
Distance: 15.6 Miles
Trailhead Elevation: 7,464
Elevation Gain: 3,372’
Peak Elevation (Doyle Saddle) 10,836’
Hike Time: 5 hours
Difficulty: 7 out of 10
We had an incredible time out there. Surprisingly, we didn’t see any bears, mountain lions, elk or deer, though they are said to be plentiful in this area. Even our bear canister was unmolested overnight. We did see some of our trail friends, including desert horned lizards and plentiful butterflies on the mountain lupine.