Steepest Trail in the Coconino
The Purtymun trail is the southermost trail of the five trails climbing the east side of Oak Creek Canyon. In order from south to north they are: Purtymun, Thomas Point, Telephone, Harding Spring and Cookstove trails. All these trails are about a mile long or a bit more and there is an elevation change of 900 to 1200 feet. In other words, all the trails are steep. The Purtymun Trail is the steepest of them all -- a knowledeable person claims that it's the steepest trail in the Coconino.
The Purtymun Trail is a historic trail. It was built by the Purtymun family before 1900 to get to and from Flagstaff. The story goes that the family stashed some wagons at top of the rim and that they walked the horses and goods up and down the trail. I find this hard to believe because this trail is steep. It is very, very steep. I can see mules negotiating it, but not horses. But then, maybe horses in the old wild west were hardier animals than they are today.
Until recently, the trail was in extremely bad shape. During the winter of 2003/2004 the Forest Service started rehabilitating it. In the best tradition of government work, they got the job about half done, but then probably ran out of money. So now the bottom half of the trail is steep, but reasonably well maintained; the upper half is steeper and at times hard to find. With the job only half done, the FS put a "Trail Closed" sign at the trail head. (There wasn't a sign when the trail hadn't been maintained for years!) Whether you want to obey this sign is up to you. If you decide to hike the trail in spite of the sign, make sure you have good foot wear and some water. If you have hiking sticks, bring them along. They'll come in handy in the very steep sections. If you're hiking during the warm season, you may want to start your hike early in the morning, so that you can do your climbing in the shade.
The trail starts climbing steeply right away, first in pine forest but fairly soon in a mixed forest with mostly low growing shrubs. It starts zigzagging fairly soon and from then on you'll follow many switchbacks to the top. The switchbacks are nice because you get a chance to catch your breath on the moderate parts after climbing at times almost straight up the canyon side.
While you're hiking the maintained half of the trail, you won't have any problems other than possibly getting out of breath. There are a few stretches that already have new growth growing in the trail (because the trail isn't being used much, because of the sign), but basically it's simple, if strenuous hiking. As you climb higher, you start getting good views up Oak Creek Canyon towards the San Franciso Peaks and also across the canyon. You can make out the switchbacks of A.B. Young Trail on the other side. You also get a good overview of the Junipine Resort and the expensive homes behind it.
You'll realize quickly when you come to the end of the maintained part. The trail gets very narrow, very overgrown and at times hard to spot. There are blue and yellow ribbons put up by the Forest Service to indicate to the trail maintenance crew where the trail is. You can follow these ribbons, too, if you find it difficult to spot the trail. I only encountered one spot where the trail was ambiguous and seemed to go in two directions. If you have the same problem, take the left branch. The right branch ends after a few feet.
The trail in the unmaintained part is at times extremely steep. Steep enough that you're glad to find a branch to hold on to. The footing, though isn't too bad. There aren't any volcanic cinders or rounded rocks, just dirt and sharp edged rocks.
Once you reach the top, the trail seems to peter out. There is a great view point a few hundred feet south of where you crested. Make sure you remember where you came up; the trail is quite faint and you might have a hard time finding it again. Based on the topo maps, I don't think there is a road or established trail connecting the top of the Purtymun trail with the next trail north, the Thomas Point Trail. You could try following the rim, but before you get to Thomas Point, you'd have to swing inland a ways to clear Surveyors Canyon coming up from Oak Creek Canyon.
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