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Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop, AZ

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Guide 11 Triplogs  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Flagstaff > Flagstaff NW
3 of 5 by 3
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Difficulty 2.5 of 5
Route Finding 3 of 5
Distance Round Trip 7.48 miles
Trailhead Elevation 7,218 feet
Elevation Gain 426 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 5 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 9.61
Interest Historic
Backpack No
varies or not certain dogs are allowed
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6  2017-10-07 TJHIKER
5  2017-09-02 NatureNerd6
8  2014-10-14 Crzy4AZ
56  2013-05-10
Northern Arizona Trek - May 2013
5  2009-07-20 Randal_Schulhaus
4  2007-02-18 Randal_Schulhaus
30  2006-09-16 Randal_Schulhaus
Author Randal_Schulhauser
author avatar Guides 71
Routes 98
Photos 9,967
Trips 1,009 map ( 9,248 miles )
Age 59 Male Gender
Location Ahwatukee, AZ
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Preferred   May, Oct, Sep, Jun → 8 AM
Seasons   Spring to Autumn
Sun  6:14am - 6:24pm
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Hiking Mars to Pluto
by Randal_Schulhauser

Likely In-Season!
Some History
In 1894 a wealthy Bostonian named Percival Lowell became passionately interested in Mars and the possibility of intelligent life on that planet. Under the advice of astronomy experts, he became convinced of the advantages of locating a large telescope in dry conditions at high altitude. With such conditions prevalent in Arizona Territory, he dispatched a team headed by Dr. Andrew E. Douglass with the purpose of finding the ideal location for his dream observatory. Dr. Douglass visited Tombstone, Tucson, Tempe, and Prescott before sending a telegraph back to Lowell in Boston indicating; "I have found our location in Flagstaff Arizona". Construction soon began at the Mars Hill site for an observatory to house a 24 inch Alvan Clark Telescope. When the telescope was commissioned into service in 1896 it was the 4th largest telescope in the world!

By viewing its surface through the 24-inch Clark Telescope, Lowell produced intricate drawings of the Red Planet, delineating hundreds of straight lines (termed "canals") and their intersections (which Lowell called "oases"). Lowell concluded that the bright areas were deserts and the dark were patches of vegetation. He further believed that water from the melting polar cap flowed down the canals toward the equatorial region to revive the vegetation. Lowell thought the canals were constructed by intelligent beings who once flourished on Mars. He published his views in three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908).

Perhaps Lowell's greatest contribution to planetary studies came during the last years of his life, when he devoted much of his time and energy to his quest for "Planet X," a theoretical ninth planet. The search continued after his death in 1916 and led to the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 using a specially designed photographic telescope. Pluto, in Greek mythology, is the god of the underworld -- a perfect name considering planet Pluto dwells at the outermost reaches of the solar system. PL, the first two initials of the name Pluto, not so coincidentally is also Percival Lowell's initials.

The observatory is a registered National Historic Landmark and State of Arizona Treasure. Check out for more information.

The Hike
A quick side trip to the southern reaches of the Lowell Observatory parking lot along Mars Hill Road will provide a vista view of Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks. We choose to start our hike from the trail head located in the northwest corner of the Lowell Observatory parking lot. This trail head is a short connector to Coconino National Forest Road #515.

Now begins the first of many hiking choices on Mars Hill. The numerous crisscrossing trails can form a confusing labyrinth so take careful note of any landmarks. We take the northwestern route along FR515 towards a feature denoted on my GPS as "Observatory Mesa" we estimate to be about 2.5 miles away. Towering Ponderosa Pines dominate your view along FR515. The thinned forest also provides home to numerous birds and a variety of wildflowers.

After traveling about 1 1/4 miles along FR515, we come to a road barrier that demarcates the transition from Lowell Observatory Scientific Preserve into the Coconino National Forest. The barrier forms a T-intersection with an intersecting Forest Road and another hiking choice. We take the northern fork that soon joins a 4-way intersection between a vehicle access Forest Road and a Flagstaff Urban Trail System (FUTS) pathway. We are now about 1 1/2 miles from the parking lot Trail Head and decide the large quarry stone barrier provide a comfortable place to sit and rest.

We soon push on along the vehicle access Forest Road heading in a general northwestern direction. The road passes a water-filled tank where we note many animal footprints. Elk we surmise are the source of the footprints. Near mile 2 1/2 we veer off the Forest Road towards my GPS POI (point-of-interest) noted as "Observatory Mesa". This turns out to be an unspectacular POI, only noted for the maximum elevation of Observatory Mesa.

Decision time again, A1 Mountain is another 2 miles west along the Forest Road or do we explore the FUTS trail marking the original road constructed by the City of Flagstaff to access Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill? We choose to explore the historical road and retrace our steps about 1 mile back towards the east.

At the 4-way intersection the FUTS pathway re-enters the Lowell Scientific Preserve and continues to track due east. The FUTS pathway provides intermittent views of Humphries Peak. The pathway has an abundance of fungi and wildflowers along both side (check out the photographic evidence). About one mile from the 4-way intersection the pathway will begin a steep decent down Mars Hill. At the base of the hill is Thorpe Park and an alternate trail head for accessing Observatory Mesa. There is vehicle parking by the baseball diamonds.

We loop back along the FUTS pathway towards Lowell Observatory. My GPS indicated 6 1/2 miles traveled when we reached the parking lot. There's still a guided tour of Lowell Observatory waiting that will ultimately add another mile to our trek.

The Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill occupies only a small portion in the southeast corner of Observatory Mesa. This mesa has a large network of hiking and biking trails made famous by mountain biking publishing icon "Cosmic Ray". The Flagstaff Urban Trail System (FUTS) also provides access to the mesa. I have described one possible hike. Take advantage of the many trails and Forest Roads to create your own custom hike. At the same time, take in a guided tour of Lowell Observatory for the history and science. This is a great combination for kids. Enjoy!

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

Leave No Trace and +Add a Triplog after your hike to support this local community.

2006-09-20 Randal_Schulhauser
    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.

    Most recent Triplog Reviews
    Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop
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    The rain forecast scared me off my initial plan but wanting to do something I happened across Randal's description and GPS track for this hike up at Lowell Observatory. I've always been an astronomy buff and this seemed a good way to spend the day.

    I figured I'd do a walk first but ran into some problems following Randal's track. Maybe some trails have changed in the past 11 years. Anyway after having no luck exiting the main Lowell Observatory area on his track I decided to do the Observatory tour first and maybe get a hint on trails. The $15 admission gets you nearly a full day and evening of astronomy entertainment. It's very heavy on the history of this famous place, the Lowell Family, and other accomplished staff members from the past. I just did two hour long tours: The Story of Pluto and The Lowell Tour but I'll come back some time when I can stay for the evening program.

    After the tours I was determined to walk in the pines and just headed off to the NW following some paths and eventually some two track until I hit a forest road and Randal's track. I post an edited version of my route: it works more or less with just a bit of open forest between recognizable paths. Easy level pleasant walking. I started at the southern parking overlook but you could just as easily start from the main observatory lot.

    I don't actually know the Lowell property hiking rules...I suspect they don't mind if you've paid your admission and I passed no barriers. But on my return on the forest road the Lowell property to the right (that I'd walked out on) was posted as private property. Nice day out of the heat.
    Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop
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    Spent the evening at Lowell Observatory - learning about Mars.
    Saw a nice ring nebula - and then waited in a long line to get inside the Clark Telescope status-post renovations.

    Caroline is a science nerd too! So much fun to pursue interests with a mini-me :)
    Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop
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    Went at night on the 14th (just me and Caroline) and during the day on the 15th (all four of us).
    Took the Mars tour and Pluto tour during the day. Listened in on a late night lecture with very cool projection into a half globe.

    The art nouveau Saturn light fixture really caught my eye in the rotunda museum - it was a gift in the 1920's made at the same time.

    NAU has a 3D printer version of the brand new Discovery Channel Telescope that will be opening in the near future - little bit south of Flagstaff to get away from light pollution of the city.

    Caroline really got into the constellation names and picking them out.
    George noticed a tarantula on the big group tour and shouted at the top of his lungs for everyone to look and the out-of-town visitors became more interested in the tarantula than the telescope history.
    Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop
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    Northern Arizona Trek - May 2013
    Sarah’s Grad and Northern Arizona Trek - May 2013

    4 days
    3 nights
    791 miles by truck
    110 miles by boat
    324 digital images
    1 Master’s Degree celebration
    1 Slot Canyon
    1 Natural Bridge
    1 Vintage Mary Colter designed hotel
    1 Mother’s Day

    With my daughter Sarah’s graduation from ASU with a Master’s in Clinical Speech Pathology, my parents made the trek down from Canada to celebrate the achievement. Considering that Mother’s Day would be over the weekend, a road trip was in order :next:

    Friday May 10th
    11am to 3pm Sarah’s grad @ ASU
    3pm drive from Ahwatukee to Flagstaff – 161 miles, 2hrs 26min per Google Maps
    Fairfield Inn Flagstaff, 2005 South Milton Road, Flagstaff, AZ – Confirmation #85054171 & 85054171
    5pm – 9:30pm Lowell Observatory 2nd Friday Science Night, 1400 West Mars Hill Road, Flagstaff, Arizona
    ASU Clinical Speech Pathology :next:
    Marriott Fairfield Inn, Flagstaff AZ :next:
    Lowell Observatory :next:
    Beaver Street Brewery :next:

    After Sarah’s graduation ceremony held at Wells Fargo Arena on the ASU main campus, friends and family gathered at our Ahwatukee home for some good eats and an opportunity to personally congratulate Sarah. As the day wound down, it was time to head out on a road trip to Northern Arizona to take in some sights my parents only thought they could view through other people’s photographs. First destination – Flagstaff AZ to catch the “2nd Friday Evening Event” at Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill. The evening event was just about to wrap-up when we arrived 9-ish, but we still were able to walk the grounds and see the various telescope installations. Checked into the Marriott Fairfield Inn – rooms were scarce since NAU grad ceremonies were also on this weekend! Had time for a late evening stroll to Beaver Street Brewery – a Flagstaff visit requirement…

    Saturday May 11th
    8am drive from Flagstaff to Page AZ – 192 miles, 3hrs 15min per Google Maps (note Hwy89 closed at Echo Cliffs)
    Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas, 100 Lakeshore Drive, Page, AZ 86040 - Confirmation # 80002356H
    Upper and/or Lower Antelope Slot Canyon guided or self-guided hike
    Mars Hill :next:
    Hwy 89A Kachina homage :next:
    Tuba City Dinosaur Tracks :next:
    Upper Antelope Canyon :next:
    Glen Canyon Dam Overlook :next:
    Horseshoe Bend Overlook :next:
    Wahweap Marina Walk – Glen Canyon NRA :next:
    Lake Powell Resort & Marina :next: ... tions.aspx
    Big John’s Texas BBQ, Page AZ :next: ... beque.html

    After our complimentary breakfast at the Flagstaff Marriott Fairfield Inn, we checked out and returned to Lowell Observatory to trek around the grounds in daylight – quite the contrast from the previous evening’s “stumble in the dark”… We met “Big John” performing some of the morning chores around Lowell and he invited us into the Pluto Observatory for a private tour prior to the official visitor opening at 9am. “Big John” was a fount of information giving us the history of the site, including all the construction obstacles and the competitive nature of the academics in the race to discover planets in their predicted mathematical location. Once we’d had our fill of astronomy, we hit the road towards Page AZ. After an obligatory stop at my favorite Kachina site (kicking myself that I failed to take a geocoded photo with my iPhone), we bounced our way up Highway 89 towards the detour around the sinkhole (check out :next: and ... lapse.html ), via Hwy 160 through Tuba City to Hwy 98 near Cow Springs to approach Page AZ from the SE. This detour easily adds another hour onto your drive from Flagstaff to Page. We elected to do the Upper Antelope Slot Canyon tour rather than the Lower Slot Canyon, only because of the flat terrain. I recalled multiple ladders and rock butt slides when exploring the Lower Antelope Slot Canyon. Our Navajo Guide, Frankie, was full of facts about the canyon formation and pointed out the mostly unnoticed features within the slot canyon. Unexpectedly, Frankie is quite the digital photo buff and helped set up shots for most of the visitors. He knew my Canon cameras beyond any of my abilities. After Antelope Canyon we drifted into town to find a late lunch/early dinner joint – Big John’s Texas BBQ fit the bill. We checked into our rooms at the Lake Powell Resort and Marina (NPS Annual Pass came in handy once again to gain entrance into the Wahweap section of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area), freshened up prior to some sunset exploration around Glen Canyon Dam and Horseshoe Bend Overlook.

    Sunday May 12th
    7:30am to 1pm boat tour to Rainbow Bridge – confirmation # 80002356O
    2pm drive from Page AZ to Winslow AZ via Hopi Lands – 241 miles, 4hrs 22min per Google Maps
    La Posada Hotel, 303 E 2nd St, Winslow, AZ 86047 - Confirmation#72185 for Rm115, #72184 for Rm125
    7:30pm Mother’s Day dinner reservation at Turquoise Room in La Posada per Jonny
    Lake Powell boat tour to Rainbow Bridge :next: ... idge-.aspx
    Rainbow Bridge via Lake Powell :next:
    Walpi Hopi Village :next: and
    La Posada Walking Tour :next:
    Turquois Room :next: Mother’s Day, 3 people, $235 including tip…

    Mother’s Day – Up at dawn to catch an early breakfast and check out of our hotel rooms prior to boarding our Rainbow Bridge tour boat at 7am :next: . Besides our Captain’s Derek and Theresa, I think I may have been the only other Arizona resident on that boat that day. Had a chance to chat with visitors from France, Germany, and England – many who had seen the bridge on previous vacations. Interesting that there was instant recognition by our fellow boaters – we all were on the Upper Antelope Canyon trek the day before and were all staying Saturday evening at the Lake Powell Resort! I failed to note the time extension for the tour :next: “The Castle Rock Cut is currently closed due to low lake levels. This tour will last approximately 7 - 7.5 hours total.” Hopefully this won’t impact our 7:30pm dinner reservation at the Turquoise Room in Winslow AZ… The lower lake levels also tacked on an additional half mile for the hike to Rainbow Bridge (hope I didn’t burn out my parents’ wheels tackling Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend the day before). Mission accomplished :next: . Upon returning to Wahweap Marina, we grabbed some cold refreshments and jumped in my F-150 for the backcountry tour through Navajo and Hopi Lands. Didn’t have enough time to stop at Coal Mine Canyon ( ), but we did have just enough for a drive-by of Old Oraibi and Walpi on the Hopi mesas. We arrived at La Posada in Winslow before 6:30pm – plenty of time to freshen up prior to another gastronomic gem served up by Chef John in the Turquoise Room :next: and ... _McClendon’s_farm_prepare_for_Mother's_Day_Special_Event/ . After dinner we had a chance to explore the eclectic La Posada then sit out back to do some trainspotting…

    Monday May 13th
    8am drive from Winslow AZ to Ahwatukee via Mogollon RIm – 183 miles, 3hrs 16min per Google Maps
    La Posada Walking Tour :next:

    Mother’s Day – The Day After… Gathered at 8am in the Turquoise Room for morning breakfast (don’t know where I found the space for breakfast after that huge Sunday meal) and a daylight stroll around the hotel grounds before taking the Hwy 87/Mogollon Rim route home through Payson.

    More photos to follow... ;)
    Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop
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    Up in Flagstaff for an Arizona Bioindustry Association (check out and had some free time to do a wildflower hunt up on Mars Hill. As always, the wildflower gardens around Lowell Observatory are outstanding...
    Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop
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    Late day stop-off with a bag of burgs we picked up at the local hamburger joint after hiking along Hart Prairie. Flagstaff was starting to get socked-in with rain clouds as the sun set...

    Skippy (aka "desert puppy") certainly enjoyed the forests and gentle rain more than our local blistering desert environs!
    Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop
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    A quick stop with Hannah, Aunt Marion, Mom, and Dad. This was part of a 431 mile "day trip" to Sedona and Flag that included mini-hikes to Red Rock Crossing, Palatki Ruins, Humphrey's Summit Trail at Snow Bowl, and Lava River Tube. Think we also saw all 4 seasons as we saw elevations between 1000 ft and 9500 ft...
    Mars Hill via Lowell Observatory Loop
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    A 351 mile day trip with Fabian. Hi-lite had to be the guided tour of the observatory. Check out for more information. $5 for adults, $2 for children.

    Nice combination of nature and science exploring Mars Hill and Lowell Observatory.

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    Paved - Car Okay

    To hike
    From Phoenix: Take Hwy I-17 north 140 miles to Flagstaff. At the junction with Hwy I-40, continue north through Flagstaff on Hwy 89 (aka Milton Rd) about 2 miles. Hwy 89 will become Historic Route 66 and bend underneath the BNSF railway line. Turn left immediately after the underpass and travel west along Santa Fe Ave. In about half a mile, Santa Fe Ave will become Mars Hill Road. Continue up Mars Hill to the Lowell Observatory parking lot located on Observatory Mesa.

    My GPS noted 160 miles traveled from my home in Ahwatukee to the trail head near the Lowell Observatory parking lot. Travel time was just under 3 hours including a couple of stops for gas and refreshments. GPS coordinates for trail head are 35o 11.961'N, 111o 39.733'W.
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