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descent into canyon
From all the reports I'd been able to find, the upper area of Sycamore Canyon was seldom visited, yet beautiful. Having spent a week hiking out of a base in Tucson, I was ready for the road less travelled. My wife and I tackled this one in May '04. Good call.
The latest update from the RS in Flagstaff suggested that the rental car wouldn't make it to the Kelsey trailhead. The drive out to the turnoff to Casner Tank was scenic and very smooth. Road maintenance seems to end at that point. Progressively worsening obstacles had us entertained for less than a half mile before we had to park just shy of the Tank. Ample parking spaces there suggest that this was a commonly used unofficial trailhead. A very few very deep mud holes block two-wheel access between there and the real trailhead. The additional 1.5 mile and 200' descent is a minor inconvenience only.
The road ends at the well marked trailhead. A nearby overlook gives you a false impression of what is to come. The trail drops right off the rim and descends through the pines past both Kelsey and Babes Hole Springs ( both flowing well ). We had wished we had paid a bit more attention to the "Invasives..." brochure at the RS, as there were many suspect plants lining the trail. Thistle was one I was sure could be ripped up with thanks from the FS, hikers and greens alike. Just below Babes Hole, Kelsey Trail goes off to the left and Little L O Trail continues on down into Sycamore. After about a quarter mile the trail reeeeally drops. This will truly be a fat burner on the way out. You do get some nice views across very narrow and for all you know, bottomless canyons. Switchbacks help with the gradient. One very steep last stretch flattens out only at the bottom near Geronimo Spring ( which was flowing ). Of course there is a convenient campsite to the spring but we chose one further that would less disturb the wildlife trying to drink. FS regs also prohibit camping so close for the same reason and to try to keep the water unpolluted. One of the best campsites I'd seen is a few hundred yards further up Sycamore Canyon. Surrounded by pines, oaks and wildflowers, it was cleared, level and had log furniture.
After setting up camp and getting a bite, we retraced our steps to the check out the unnamed canyon to the northeast of Geronimo Spring. It narrowed and was very scenic for the short distance we went. We got stopped by a pool and mud hole spanning the canyon, cliffs on both sides. There might have been mountain lion tracks in the mud.
Going back to camp, we set out up the broad floored Sycamore Canyon upstream to explore as much as we could. There are campsite possibilities on both sides where floodplains have developed. Interesting pools in the occasional limestone floor seem to indicate underground flow. Otherwise the 'trail' is mostly boulder hopping. After a couple of miles, Volunteer Canyon comes in on the right and we decided to explore it rather than the broader Sycamore. Like the unnamed canyon of earlier in the day, it too narrowed and was an incredible place! We got perhaps a mile up it before fear of loss of daylight forced us to turn back. Yes, we both had adequate headlights, but the thought of boulder hopping after dark... As it was we had allowed ample time to get back and cook and eat dinner before night fell.
Next day we broke camp, dumped excess water and hiked/climbed out. That gradient was steep, a good workout, but we beat our estimated time ( I forget what it was ). That 200' 'ascent' from the trailhead to the car was not even noticeable.
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This hike is listed as One-Way.
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