Trail of the Month: July 2010
To say that the rail-trails of Prescott and Prescott Valley are an oasis in sunbaked, north-central Arizona is no exaggeration. Wherever water touches this arid landscape—and it does along the Prescott Peavine National Recreation and Iron King trails—jade cottonwoods cluster, popping out against the desert's pale yellow and burnt brown pallete. And, at 5,200 feet above sea level, with cool breezes tempered by hot sunshine, the two communities are ideal for trail trips in the late winter and spring.
The 5.2-mile Peavine Trail begins just south of Watson Lake at the gravel parking lot by the lush Watson Woods Riparian Preserve (just off Prescott Lakes Parkway). The preserve is teeming with green along the crushed stone and dirt trail. Through the trees you may even hear the rush of Granite Creek after a bout of rain.
Past the preserve, you curve around the southern end of Lake Watson to reach the Granite Dells, a mile into the trail. These massive mounds of weather-beaten rock are a tourist draw in Prescott; you'll see the majority of fellow trail users here. It's no wonder: As you pass through the cool cuts in the granite, you're enfolded in a kind of desert castle of stone.
All along this route, water leaches from cracks in the rock walls and improbable, hearty flowers—red and yellow—pop from the crevasses. The temptation to scramble up the smooth, stony inclines for a scenic vista is keen, but no sight is more arresting than the perfectly framed view of far-off Granite Mountain over Lake Watson.
Once you've pulled your eyes and your camera away from the view, continue heading northward. The trail follows the former Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix Railway corridor that fed into Prescott, once the territorial capital of Arizona and famous for its copper mining. Wooden decking and railroad ties lie scattered along the trail. At Mile 3 and the "Point of Rocks," the railroad's ghost is impossible to miss. Here the trail passes through a cut made for trains in a tall, sheer rock cluster. A trailside historical marker shows the identical view, some 100 years prior. In the photo a hulking engine chugs through the same pass. It's a humbling reminder of how, in some places, time does stand still.
Beyond "Point of Rocks," you reach a fork in the trail. Head left to continue on the Peavine for one mile to its end point atop a gravel-covered railroad bridge near State Route 89A. A two-lane country road runs beneath you, and private property spreads in vast tracts beyond. As tantalizing as the call of the open range might be, don't consider trespassing. Instead, head back to that fork in the road, turn right, and give the four-mile Iron King a try.
The Dells dwarfed you with their massiveness, but the Iron King makes you feel small in an entirely new way. You're immediately engulfed in scraggily, desert woods. A fenced-in bull grazes near a lonely pond and grunts as you pass. Off-shooting trails disappear in the underbrush and every mile or so stands a haunting railroad relic.
Rusted, gutted, but plainly beautiful old train cars, smaller than most, are mounted at intervals along the trail. They're striking in their isolation, especially against the pale desert backdrop. For the Iron King soon breaks free of the forest and deposits you in an expanse of prairie.
While no view is as singularly stunning as the Dells, the vistas on this stretch of trail are just as impressive in scope. The trail meanders downhill and, on both sides, the land simply lays itself bare. Low, cream-tinted hills, bent prairie grasses and a haze of dust reach out toward distant mountain ranges. A tumbleweed rolls by, so perfectly placed you look around for the Hollywood props master.
In the distance, the town of Prescott Valley comes into view. About a mile before trail's end (and the miles stretch out deceptively on this trail) the railroad corridor merges into an extra-wide dirt trail to reach Glassford Hill Road and Iron King's somewhat unspectacular finish. But no worries—you have all that stunning trail behind you and nothing but time to soak it in. If this is how Arizona does rail-trails, you'll never want to leave.
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