Sedona, Flagstaff, Prescott and extra

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Fall is perhaps the best season for hiking in Arizona, and that has nothing to do with the changing leaves. October is simply a formal invitation to go outside and play. Due to the weather, no corner of the state is closed during these early autumn weeks.

Clear skies and soft, sloping sunlight give the red rocks of Sedona and the layered cliffs of the Grand Canyon a distinct wealth. The deserts have finally started to cool off. Even so, there is still enough daylight warmth to make looking at leaves at higher altitudes an unforgettable excursion.

With most of the people flocking to the aspen groves, there are some other amazing Arizona fall walks here far from the crowds.

More:Arizona’s 10 best hikes are beautiful. Here they are and how to do them

Sunny sides: Cochise Trail

The Dragoon Mountains rise from shaggy meadows east of Tombstone. They are a long, narrow stretch, a chaotic jumble of rough granite blocks. Twisted pines, mesquites, yuccas and oaks with devoutly curved limbs give the angled stone slabs a green edge.

These walls once provided refuge for the Apache leader Cochise. In the mountains, Cochise and his followers could find food, water, and medicine, and had sweeping views of the valleys below.

The Dragoon Mountains were a stronghold for Cochise and the Chiricahua Apaches.

From the Cochise Stronghold Campground, a lonely path leads up the eastern slope to the Cochise Stronghold. For the first mile, the trail winds through a lush canyon floor with manzanita, bear grass, and yucca.

Clustered boulders often interrupt the dense vegetation screen. After a few moderate switchbacks, you’ll reach the Halfmoon Tank, a storage pond that supports a small riverside community with granite peaks.

It is 3 miles to the saddle that marks Stronghold Divide, a rough but peaceful little meadow. Most people use this as a turning point, but the trail continues and falls steeply down the western slope another 2 miles. The rocky cliffs and bare domes are even more striking before the trail ends on a 4WD road amid oak and juniper forests.

Where: From Tucson, take Interstate 10 East 72 miles to US 191. Turn south and travel 17.5 miles to Ironwood Road. Turn right and travel 9 miles to Cochise Stronghold Campground. Parts of Ironwood Road are dirty but suitable for all vehicles.

Entry: Free.

Difficulty: Moderate.

Length: 10 miles round trip.

Details: 520-364-3468, https://www.fs.usda.gov/coronado.

Flagstaff: Sandy’s Canyon Trail

At this time of year, most visitors to Flagstaff will climb the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks to look for the golden aspens, so this beautiful trail is less used. Make the most of it. Surprises lurk in this slender canyon just off Lake Mary Road. The path follows the edge of the small canyon before falling through a mixed forest overgrown with undergrowth.

Mountain bikers take a break at the base of the cliffs at Sandys Canyon in Flagstaff.

Upon reaching the canyon floor, it becomes an idyllic stroll through grassy fields framed by towering stone walls. Below are amazing sunset-colored cliffs. These petrified sand dunes add a touch of the exotic to this intimate place.

The trail is only about a mile but ends at an intersection with the Arizona Trail, so theoretically you can walk another 800 miles if you’re feeling agitated. Or just bite off part of it. Travel north on the Arizona Trail to Fisher Point or east to Marshall Lake.

Where: Travel southeast of Flagstaff 5 miles on Lake Mary Road. Follow signs to the Sandys Canyon Trailhead.

Entry: Free.

Difficulty: Easy.

Length: 2 miles round trip.

Details: 928-526-0866, https://www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.

More:These restaurants in Flagstaff, Sedona, and Prescott are open for takeout

Prescott: Watson Lake Loop

A series of interconnected paths surrounds sparkling Watson Lake and winds through the Granite Dells, a stony wonderland made of massive boulders that have been weathered and piled into exotic formations.

Free parking is available south of Watson Lake Park. Follow the path down the hill and turn right. Large poplar trees cradle the southern toe of the water and wrap around Granite Creek. That lush place is Watson Woods Riparian Preserve. The 126 hectare reserve is home to the largest stretch of alluvial forest in Prescott.

A number of hiking trails make a 4.8-mile loop around Watson Lake.

You leave the nature reserve on the Peavine Trail, a wide thoroughfare on the east bank that is popular with bikers, joggers and mothers pushing a car. At the first opportunity, retire to the Lakeshore Trail. This dirty, single track stretch runs along the water’s edge as it spins between the dells.

An alluring wildness reigns on this side of the lake, a labyrinth of stacked rock domes decorated with yucca and cactus, oak and pine. The Over the Hill Trail runs right through the Dells, in and out of rocky canyons, until it crosses a swampy strip at the base of Watson Dam. Water gushes from the central part of the dam, creating a corridor of tangled wetlands shaded by poplars and willows.

Then the Northshore Trail climbs up a steep rock face and offers breathtaking panoramas. Follow the water’s edge back to your starting point.

Where: From downtown Prescott, travel north on State Route 89 approximately 5 miles to the parking lot on the right.

Entry: Free.

Difficulty: Moderate.

Length: 4.8 mile loop.

Details: 928-777-1122, http://www.prescott-az.gov.

Dolan Springs Trail System

A Joshua tree is part majestic, part sad, and looks like something Dr. Seuss created. Some of the best hiking trails in a Joshua Tree Forest are on the edge of Dolan Springs, a touch of a town north of Kingman. An army of volunteers carved a six-mile network of interconnected trails out of the high desert at the base of Mount Mitten.

Joshua trees line the Dolan Springs Trail System in northwest Arizona.

Three starting points offer easy access to mature and mostly flat paths. Even when you are near the city there is a nice feeling of loneliness. The densest groves of Joshua trees are along the T&C loop and the cholla loop.

Before you arrive, print out a map from the website to help navigate your route. The T&C loop cuts between low-shouldered hills and along the slopes you’ll find some impressive Joshua tree specimens, a riot of green daggers. Early Mormon settlers named them. The shape of the plant reminded her of the biblical story of Joshua raising outstretched hands to heaven.

Where: From Kingman, travel north on US 93 for 28 miles. Turn right on Pearce Ferry Road and continue 7 miles. Turn right on 13th Street just past Mount Tipton School and go to a small parking lot. Further starting points are on 14th and 15th streets.

Entry: Free.

Difficulty: Easy.

Length: Up to 6 miles.

Details: 928-716-3362, http://www.dolanspringstrails.com.

Sedona: Sketch Ridge Loop

Since the trailhead is tucked away on Chavez Ranch Road, this loop is rarely crowded. From the parking lot, head back down the road to the Ridge Trail and turn right to stroll uphill. Turn off on Sketch as it enters from the left. Then hold on to your hat.

As the Ridge Trail climbs over the middle of the plateau, Sketch pushes itself to the edge. The early part of Sketch is an exposed trail that hangs on the eastern edge of Carroll Canyon. With nothing but air on one side, views are epic. You’ll especially get a good look at the distinctly triangular pyramid, one of Sedona’s lesser-known formations.

The characteristic shape of the pyramid can be seen on the Sketch Trail.

The sketch follows the contours of the rim, and soon the subsidence seems to be less pronounced. As the trail curves east, take in a panorama of Thunder Mountain and Coffee Pot Rock. Soon you will reach another intersection with Ridge. Turn south on the ridge as it meanders through scrubby woodland and then slopes downhill amid sweeping views of Cathedral Rock and the Oak Creek floodplain.

Where: From the State Route 179 / 89A roundabout in Sedona, travel west on 89A (toward Cottonwood) 4.2 miles to Upper Red Rock Loop Road. Turn left and travel 1.5 miles to Chavez Ranch Road. Turn left and drive 1 mile to the locked gate where you will find several parking spaces. Walk back 200 yards to get to the Ridge Trail on Chavez Ranch Road.

Entry: Free.

Difficulty: Moderate.

Length: 2.7 mile loop.

Details: 928-203-2900, https://www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.

More:Best easy walks in Sedona

Find the reporter at https://www.rogernaylor.com. Or follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/RogerNaylorinAZ or Twitter @AZRogerNaylor.

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