FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Bare winters in Flagstaff can be endured -- providing you are willing to change equipment.
That was my motto on Feb. 22 as I switched out skis for a mountain bike at 9,000 feet on the Arizona Trail. It's a February ride I had never expected to take -- and probably won't ever take again.
But there I was rolling down an old snowmobile track from the Snowbowl parking lot onto upper Hart Prairie, the Special Olympians skiing alongside me for a few hundred yards inside the fence on the artificial snow.
But then I was free and clear and pedaling through the brown, dry grass as though it were late June -- only 40 degrees cooler.
My destination was the new, 4-mile section of the Arizona Trail that traverses the prairie from Aspen Corner north to Bismarck Lake. In summer it is a popular hiking and biking highway. But in winter, because vehicle access from both ends is restricted, cross-country skiers have a hard time reaching it.
This winter, though, the blanket of white that normally coats the prairie through March and into April has been gone for several weeks. That has left enough time for the ground to dry out, making for a passable biking track.
I say only "passable" because those sections of the Arizona Trail that were in the shade of pines were still snowbound, and my bike tires weren't wide enough to stay atop the slush. That meant several dismounts and walk-arounds -- but I was enjoying the views far to the north and west and in no particular hurry.
The highlight of this trail section for me is Alfa Fia Tank below Aspen Corner. It is an old stock tank that retains water year-round, a high-elevation treat for wildlife, dogs and small children.
Despite a month of warm winter afternoons, Alfa Fia was still frozen, an obvious disappointment to Skye the border collie. I circumnavigated it on my bike, searching for elk and deer tracks but found very few.
Most descended long ago to warmer climes, and the word apparently has not gotten out that spring has come very early to the Peaks this year.
As I noted last week, however, I am hoping this is a false spring and that March roars in like a wintry lion and stays that way through Easter -- which doesn't arrive this year until April 20. Without more moisture, what spring grass that does manage to sprout on the prairie and in the forest will dry out fast. That's a prescription for extreme and prolonged fire danger -- and a closed forest for much of June.
At least I've had my first high-elevation Arizona Trail ride of 2014. Let's hope it's not my last.
If you go...
Arizona Trail on upper Hart Prairie
Hart Prairie Road (FR151) is closed to motor vehicles in winter, so there is no easy access to the trailhead at Bismarck Lake or farther north at Forest Road 418.
And at the south end, there is no winter parking at Aspen Corner on Snowbowl Road, which is the other popular access point for this section in summer and fall.
Instead, I recommend parking at the lower Snowbowl lot and either hiking down the Aspen Loop Trail or biking down an old snowmobile track. You'll reach the Arizona Trail in about a half-mile. Bismarck Lake is to the north, Alfia Fia Tank to the south -- both are about 200 yards off the trail.
Either return the way you came or, for those who headed south, intersect with Snowbowl Road and hitch a ride back up the hill to your vehicle.