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Prairie Home Companion
Before relocating to Arizona about three years ago, I was a frequent visitor to the state on business. During one of these business trips, I was taken on a weekend trip up to Flagstaff to go mountain biking. I can vividly recall Mount Humphreys and following a little-traveled forest road through a mix of pine and aspen forests. I remember being told that the forest road was also a stagecoach route used to ferry tourists from Flagstaff to the lip of the Grand Canyon. I also remember being completely gassed, struggling to get oxygen into the lungs due to the elevation gain and altitude! I don't know precisely the mountain bike route we took some ten years ago, but piecing my memories together with some old photos, I'm convinced it was Hart Prairie Road (aka FR151).
Researching Hart Prairie, I discover that FR151 follows much of the original Moqui stagecoach route used to transport some of the first Grand Canyon tourists from the railhead at Flagstaff to the South Rim beginning in 1892. The stage charged a pricey $20 per passenger for the 12-hour trip. The stage ceased operation when the Grand Canyon Railway was constructed from Williams to the South Rim in 1901. Today the 75-mile route is a popular mountain biking challenge starting from Mars Hill in Flagstaff to Grandview Point at the South Rim. The route is also a proposed section of the Arizona Trail.
I find it interesting that the Coconino Cycling Club challenged the Moqui Stage Line to a race in 1897. The bikes completed the distance in 10 hours while the stage took its standard 12 hours. There are frequent charity events organized for present-day bikers to complete the challenge. Reference Arizona Highways Magazine February 2005 issue for a complete story.
I debated how best to present this "outdoor opportunity". I've mountain biked it, hiked various sections, and driven it end-to-end. Without an obvious answer, I will describe this historic, scenic, back-road route as a shuttled mountain bike adventure.
At Mile 0.0, you can leave one of your shuttle vehicles at the trailhead parking lot near the intersection of Hwy 180 and the southern entrance to FR151 (Lower Hart Prairie Road). You are at 7750 feet elevation... get ready for a steady grade uphill!
At Mile 1.0, you pass the 8000-foot contour as you wind your way through a ponderosa pine forest. There are a couple of deeply rutted turns in this area with loose rocks. These could pose a hazard to an unaware mountain biker (or frustrate some down-shifting maneuvers).
Near Mile 2.0 the road begins to level providing some of the first clear views of Mount Humphreys. FR9005L branches off to the left. Although we didn't explore this side forest road, my GPS map shows a "Crater Lake" about 0.65 miles along the road. Back on FR151, the clearing on the west side is Hart Prairie Tank. There are remains from an abandoned cattle operation along with some convenient logs to sit on and take a rest. You've gained about 500 feet of elevation in a little more than 2 miles.
At Mile 2.5 the forest will transition into a thick aspen grove. This area must be spectacular for fall colours! I'll have to pencil in a return visit for October next year...
Around Mile 3.0, while aspen dominates the forest to the west, on the east side pine forest seems to carpet the ground and most of the slopes of Mount Humphreys.
At Mile 3.4, the forest thins, and open fields of tall grass begin to dominate the view. This is Hart Prairie. On the west side an old forest road has been blocked by a log fence. This is old FR9004L that traverses through a fine stand of aspen forest. There's parking at the trail head near the log fence. We explored this side trail for about half a mile turning back after hearing repeated gunfire from nearby elk hunters.
Continuing along FR151, near Mile 4.5 the Hochderffer Hills become visible to the north. The open fields of Hart Prairie are on both sides of the road. The fencing surrounding the prairie is unique and very photogenic.
At Mile 5.5 you will encounter the "Hart Prairie Preserve". The owners of the Homestead at Hart Prairie donated the property to the Nature Conservancy in 1994 when it was discovered that the area held thickets of globally rare Bebb willow trees. Although Hart Prairie has the largest Bebb willow community in North America, 95% of the willows are older than 80 years, and regeneration by seed is not occurring. Scientists from around the world are studying this puzzling situation. The Homestead was built in the 1870s and also served as a stagecoach stop on the route between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. The Mariposa Lodge and four additional cabins were added later, and all the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Nature Conservancy offers free guided nature walks and photography workshops every Sunday from June to October. Note: no pets are allowed at the Preserve. Unfortunately, the Preserve was closed for the season when we made this trek. We'll have to pencil this in too for that return visit next October!
Near Mile 5.9, you will circle the base of Fern Mountain. Near the intersection of FR794, there is a marked trail on the east side of FR151 that will take you to the top of the mountain, providing some panoramic views of Hart Prairie and Mount Humphreys. This half-mile side trek climbs about 250 feet.
As you approach Mile 8.0, you will reach the junction of FR151 and FR627. Take FR627 about half a mile east to the Bismarck Lake Elk Preserve trail head. Follow the remains of an old Jeep trail in an easterly direction for about 1 mile while gaining about 250 feet in elevation. As you head uphill towards a grassy ledge, you will top out onto a sizeable meadow surrounded by aspen, fir, and pine. The meadow has a small body of water, just a few feet across, hardly worthy the designation of "lake". Listen for any bugling elk that make this primo habitat their home. Dawn or dusk is the optimum time to view elk near Bismarck Lake.
Return to FR151 at Mile 10.8. You head north through the Hochderffer Hills. It's all downhill from here. At Mile 12.7 you pass FR418 and enter a burned area. This is a result of the 1996 Hochderffer Fire that consumed 17,000 acres of pristine forest. You can see aspen saplings beginning to regenerate the area. The road will rejoin Hwy 180 at Mile 14.3.
Hart Prairie is a potpourri of hiking and mountain biking options. Mix and match to suit your desire.
Hart Prairie Road - FR151 is 9.8 miles long, traveling from the south TH at Hwy 180 near MM226 and connecting back to the north TH at Hwy 180 near MM235. Hart Prairie Tank to Crater Lake - Travel past FR151 MM2 and head west on FR9005L about 0.65 miles to the junction with FR9004L and Crater Lake.
Hart Prairie via FR9004L Road Closure - Travel past FR151 MM3 and head west on FR9004L to the road closure TH. The track will loop around, joining FR9005L at Crater Lake and continuing to Hwy 180.
Hart Prairie Preserve, Homestead, and Nature Conservancy - Located between MM4 and MM5 on FR151, the signed driveway continues north to a cluster of buildings within an aspen forest. The Nature Conservancy offers free guided nature walks and photography workshops every Sunday from June to October. Call 928-774-8892 for more information.
Fern Mountain Vista - Near FR151 MM5 take the signed footpath to the top of the hill.
Bismarck Lake Elk Preserve via FR627 - Travel past FR151 MM6 and head east on FR627 to the road closure TH. Continue east on the old road topping out at an open meadow containing Bismarck Lake.
There are additional intersecting forest roads along the route I haven't had a chance to explore. Some of these can be combined to create loop-back opportunities for endless variety. Enjoy!
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
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.