A stroll through the pines
The Flagstaff Loop Trail is a 48.6-mile loop that completely encircles the city of Flagstaff. Roughly 80% of the trail is on actual trail or closed dirt roads, with the remainder on paved Flagstaff Urban Trail System paths or roads. This description covers the 27-mile section from Lake Mary Road counterclockwise to the western end of the Rocky Ridge Trail near 180. Diehards can complete the loop, but the westernmost section has all of the road walking and probably won't make for interesting hiking (bikers might be more motivated).
For the most part, this is pleasant walking through the pines, with very gentle grades. Many sections see little traffic, and numerous side trips are possible, including Mt. Elden, A1 Mountain, the Campbell Mesa trail system, Sandy's Canyon, Picture Canyon, Buffalo Park, and the trails in Fort Tuthill Park. Our favorite section is the 18 miles from Lake Mary Road in the south to just north of Hwy. 89, where the Loop Trail meets the Sandy Seep Trail.
A quick navigation note
Where new trail has been constructed for the Loop Trail, you will find posts with the Loop Trail logo at most--but not all!--trail junctions. Where the trail follows roads or pre-existing trails (such as the Pipeline Trail or the Fatman's Loop), you will not see few or no Loop Trail markers. If you are not familiar with the Loop Trail or the trails you're following, I'd suggest bringing GPS.
This description follows the trail counterclockwise. There are numerous places to access the Loop Trail. One of the more popular is the intersection of Lake Mary Road and Lone Tree Rd, (appx. 1.5 miles east of I-17). There is a small parking area here. Follow the paved trail north for 250 yards along Lone Tree Rd. to the post indicating the start of the trail. The trail winds through the woods and then gradually drops into Skunk Canyon. This section is popular with mountain bikers and dog walkers. In summer, flowers are abundant, and in the valley floor is covered with flowering rabbitbrush.
After 3 miles, the trail gently climbs out of the canyon. From this point to Campbell Mesa, 8 miles ahead, you will see few people and plenty of trees. You might catch a glimpse of the San Francisco Peaks from the ridge (much better views will be coming ahead). At 4.3 miles, you cross the Arizona Trail. A right turn here will take you to Sandy's Canyon and Fisher Point about 1 mile downhill. Around 5.5 miles, the trail turns onto a closed dirt road, which it follows for a mile.
At mile 7.2, the trail crosses a little-traveled dirt road, which you more or less follow for another mile. At 10 miles, you reach a closed dirt road, which the trail follows north. At 10.8 miles, the dirt road you're following ends at a T-intersection. The official route follows power lines north for 1/2 mile and then joins up with the Campbell Mesa trail system. There are tons of trails in this area, and lots of bikers. We didn't see any Loop Trail markers through here, but the GPS route was accurate, so I suggest following it.
After another mile or two, you should leave the bikers behind and return to signed Loop Trail again. At 13.9 miles, you cross under I-40. Then you hop onto a paved road and cross the railroad on an overpass. At 14.4 miles, you turn northeast off of the paved road and back onto trail. A moment later, you join up with the Arizona Trail equestrian bypass and turn left. You may see signs for the AZT and the Loop Trail in various places. Don't count on seeing Loop Trail markers at every junction, but you can safely follow AZT signs all the way to the Sandy Seep Trail.
Soon, you enter a huge meadow with great views of the peaks. There's a short roadwalk starting at mile 15.4, and then a brief descent brings you down into Picture Canyon. You can connect here to trails in the Urban Trail System. There was flowing water (and ducks!) when we passed through here in April. A long gradual climb out of Picture Canyon brings you to an underpass under Hwy. 89. at mile 17.9. You meet the Sandy Seep trail at mile 18.3.
This junction marks the end of the dedicated Loop Trail. If you are continuing, you can consult the trail descriptions for the trails the Loop Trail follows. I'll just note the mileages and turns:
18.3 - turn left onto Sandy Seep Trail
19.3 - turn left onto Christmas Tree Trail
~20.5 - bear left onto the Fatman's Loop
20.8 - right turn onto the Elden Lookout Trail
20.9 - left turn onto the Pipeline Trail (note: we found the Pipeline trail to be confusing near Elden Spring)
24.5 - right turn onto the Oldham Trail
25.0 - left turn onto the Rocky Ridge Trail
27.2 - end of Rocky Ridge Trail. From here, it's roads and paved trail until you reach Observatory Mesa. And then more roads and paved trail connecting the south end of Observatory Mesa with Fort Tuthill Park. After the park, there's a short roadwalk over I-40 (the road you follow over I-40 has 2 roundabouts, a narrow bridge, no sidewalks, and plenty of clueless tourists. Not recommended on foot.). Finally, more paved trail brings you past the airport and back to Lake Mary Road.
Bring all of the water you need. You may see water in Picture Canyon, and there is a seasonal tank in Skunk Canyon, but you won't want to drink from either.
The trail goes through a mix of National Forest and state and private lands. A short section of trail near Walnut Canyon is signed "no camping." I believe that camping should be okay on the the other Coconino NF lands, but you should check with FS officials.
If you want to make the Flagstaff Loop Trail a real loop, a loop incorporating Sandy's Canyon, the AZT, and the Loop Trail would be around 30 miles (there is water on the AZT northeast of Fisher's Point). There are probably other options that would include some of the Campbell Mesa trails or the forest roads north of Walnut Canyon.
Flagstaff has a great bus system, and you can easily do one-way hikes without having to bring two cars. There is frequent bus service on Hwy. 89, Lake Mary Road, and 180. So, if your hike begins and ends on any of those three roads, you only need one car. http://mountainline.az.gov/ Warning: you may get strange looks from other bus riders when you get onto the bus covered in dirt and sweat. Enjoy it! You probably just walked more in a day than most of those people do in weeks.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.