Hiking Mars to Pluto
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 http://www.lowell.edu for more information.
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.
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.