Hey fellow hikers! My name is Joseph Cyr and in this article I will be introducing you to the Inner Basin Trail – the most beautiful autumn trail in Arizona. I live in Tucson, Arizona and during the work week I’m a high school language teacher (teaching the languages of French and Spanish).
I love the fact that nature is so accessible in Tucson. I live within ten minutes of several wilderness and national park trails, while at the same time I’m also within five minutes of gelato, Vietnamese food and tamales.
The Sonoran Desert is magnificent in all seasons, and with our mountains and canyons, the variety of microclimates and ecosystems that you can get to quickly is astounding. For example, there are times when I can drive up into the Santa Catalina Mountains and hike in the snowy evergreens, and come back to swimmable weather with palm trees – in just 45 minutes.
My Hiking Adventures on the Inner Basin Trail
I have been on the Inner Basin Trail three times. It’s a half-day’s drive from Tucson and in autumn it’s truly magical – you are up on the ‘roof of Arizona’ in a forested volcanic caldera with miles of aspen forest in golden glory – it’s like a piece of Colorado that has been dropped in the desert. Being so near to Flagstaff too – a college town with great microbreweries – is nice.
Last year, I was able to time a trip to the Inner Basin when the aspens were at their peak. The wind picked up that day and I was hiking through a golden rain of autumn leaves. By that evening, an early winter storm arrived and I woke up the next morning to snow. Just like that, autumn was done.
What the Inner Basin Trail is Like
The trail starts at Lockett Meadow in the middle of the San Francisco Peaks – the highest mountains in Arizona reaching over 12,000 ft. The official Inner Basin Trail itself is about 7 miles round-trip but it connects to other trails – you can easily spend days up here. A reasonably fit person can hike up and back in half a day but the air is thin – you will be hiking between 8,000 – 10,000 ft, so altitude sickness can be an issue for some people.
This trail begins in a mixed conifer forest, before heading into aspen. It’s a steady climb from 8,000 to 10,000 ft. You can’t see ‘out’ of the forest until you reach a meadow area at about 9,700 ft, but it’s beautiful the entire way. About two thirds of the way up, there is a “waterline trail” that follows a Forest Service road where you will have a brief respite of flat ground.
The Inner Basin Trail is labeled as ‘moderate’. Again, the elevation poses problems for some. Don’t underestimate what it will feel like hiking uphill over 8,000 ft. But if you pace yourself, there is nothing ‘technical’ about it.
Stay in Flagstaff while Hiking the Trail
Flagstaff is the best place to stay when hiking the Inner Basin Trail – it’s a quick drive down the mountain. It’s a major crossroads, the gateway to the Grand Canyon and also a college town (Northern AZ Univ.) on Route 66.
There are some great microbreweries and gastropubs in the compact downtown. As for lodging, there are lots of motels but they can feel overpriced for what they are. Compare reviews carefully and watch out for the hotels that are near the train tracks – they can be noisy at night.
Good to Know Before you Go
Summer is green on the Inner Basin Trail but of course fall is the best time to go – there is nothing like an aspen forest in October. The trail access is via a one-lane dirt road – I would never recommend going on a weekend. With the metro area of Phoenix just two and a half hours away, weekends can be very crowded as the desert city dwellers drive up for a taste of elsewhere.
Mainly, I would say, go mid-week and remember that the altitude can be a major factor. If at all possible, try to acclimate for at least a day or two to get used to the lower oxygen levels there. The one-lane road up the mountain is quite rough. I wouldn’t recommend it for low-clearance sedans – you don’t necessarily need a 4×4, but the higher the clearance, the better.
Bring plenty of water. Also, a spare tire and air compressor might be a good idea – this is wilderness, even if it is popular and well documented on Instagram. Lastly, I would say ‘pack-it-in-pack-it-out’. Unfortunately, some people leave litter near the trailhead. And you are allowed to bring your dog – just make sure it’s leash-trained and please, please, pick up after your pet!