"You should go back tomorrow and check it out, the place is incredible!"
I did take Joe's advice and headed up to Flagstaff. Competing against Oktoberfest and Canadian Thanksgiving the night before, everyone had "sleeping-in" as their primary Sunday objective. So I loaded up the truck and got on the road 6-ish with Skippy being the only hiking companion.
We arrived at the junction of SR180 and FR151 a little after 9am to check out the fall colours on Hart Prairie. One of the first objectives was to check out Crater Lake - a curious feature I noticed on the map off of FR9005L near Hart Prairie Tank and Corral. When I approached the junction of FR151 and FR9005L I noticed a large homemade sign indicating "Camp-Party". Undeterred, I turned onto the Forrest Road and saw at least a dozen RV's, campers, and dreaded ATV's. Decided to check out Crater Lake another day...
Next stop - Michelbach Ranch: Driving through the thick stand of aspens before you pop out onto Hart Prairie proper, I could see that fall colours was going to be a "mixed bag". Some trees are still green, some trees completely bare, others at various stages of autumn glory... I pulled into the parking area beside Galinas Tank and breathed a quick sigh of relief because there wasn't "Camp-Party" sign. In fact, mine was the only vehicle in the area! Skippy and I first trekked back towards FR151 to capture some shots of the golden aspen groves near the forest road. By the time we had circled around Galinas Tank, another vehicle pulled up and parked beside mine. I noticed plenty of photographic equipment being unloaded as Skippy and I walked by. Saying "hello" I was introduced to Jessie from New Mexico who runs a portrait studio. He was accompanied by his wife (Lucille?) and was on his way to capture some shots of the Michelbach Ranch house ruins. The ruins were secondary on my list, so I split off to climb the unnamed volcanic crater near the ruins to soak up the views and get some shots of Hart Prairie with the San Francisco Mountains in the background. Circled back around the ruins and found the Michelback Ranch Potato House up on the ridge south of the main ruins. This loop was 2.18 miles and I'll post the GPS route in the near future.
Next stop - Fern Mountain: Maybe not, trail head was akin to looking for parking at the local mall during last minute Christmas shopping. I've never seen anything like this on Hart Prairie with a dozen plus vehicle scattered about the TH.
Next stop - Bismarck Lake to Kachina Peaks Wilderness: This was more like it with only 2 other vehicles parked at the FR627 Elk Preserve TH. Took the usual route to Bismarck Lake and circled around the lake. This time we followed the trails further east up the slopes of Mount Humphreys into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. The path is an old jeep trail and remains of the double track can be discerned in some open sections. The return trek was 4.98 miles and ends near the 9500 foot contour. I'll post the GPS route in the near future.
Next stop - Fern Mountain: This time for real. A group had set up camp at the TH parking near the intersection of FR794 and FR151 so I parked at the side of the road. Fern Mountain is an extinct volcano and the steep grade and loose lava made for a vigorous workout to achieve the summit at 8772 feet. The payoff at the top with 360 degree views is superb. This side trek was 1.06 miles and I'll post the GPS route in the near future.
There was absolutely perfect weather on Hart Prairie today with lots of people out enjoying the fresh air. We exited FR151 onto SR180 around 5:30pm having spent 8+ hours on the prairie and hiking (2.18 + 4.98 + 1.06 = 8.22 miles) 8+ miles. Didn't have the time to check out FR9004U to Alfa Fia Tank that has a connector trail up to Snow Bowl Road.