Thursday, March 3, 2016

Hike Report: Foothills Loop Trail, Kartchner Caverns State Park

The Foothills Trail is, for all intents and purposes, the only hiking trail at Kartchner Caverns State Park. Now, there is a trailhead at the west end of the park that accesses the Guindani Trail in the Whetstone Mountains of the Coronado National Forest, but the Foothills Trail is the only trail entirely within Kartchner Caverns SP.

We began the hike late in the day, at roughly 3:00. The map indicated the trail was only 2.5 miles, so I thought we would knock that out in roughly 1 to 1.5 hours. I was wrong. This trail is rated moderate to difficult. No bicycles or motorized vehicles are permitted. The trail is clearly marked, and numerous information kiosks and benches are located along the trail. The trail is well maintained considering the terrain, and there is no trouble following it.

Trail is well maintained and defined near the start. Once away from the campground and Discovery Center, it loses the border and surface, but is still a good trail.
We walked to the trailhead from our campsite. Actually, there are 4 access points to the trail. We hiked in a clockwise direction, so we began by following Guindani Wash, which we crisscrossed numerous times. Near the west perimeter of the park, there is a junction. The left (or west) trail goes to the Guindani Trail mentioned above. We took the other fork and began heading north, climbing the hill at the back of the caverns. There is some gentle ledge-walking along this section of the route, and there are numerous exposed rocky areas that I was sure to keep an eye on in case rattlers might be warming themselves.

Guindani Wash

Gentle ledge walking on the west side of the hills.
Eventually the trail turns sharply back to the east and climbs to a ridge that offers good views to the east. Just to the north is a taller hill blocking views to the north, but to the east you can see the highway, some of the park buildings, and the mountains to the east, including the area around Tombstone and Cochise’s Stronghold.

Views to the east. I believe the ragged area on the left is known as Cochise's Stronghold.
The trail dips for a while, then begins to snake up the taller hill. Footing along this stretch is sometimes challenging, and there is quite a bit of ledge walking. We met another couple about our age along this stretch, and the man remarked that the trail was fit only for mountain goats. Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it gives some idea of the rocky trail. There is loose rock as well as exposed rock, so you have to watch every step you take. And all the time, you are either going up or going down.

Our back trail along the middle portion of the trail.
Eventually, the trail reaches a ridge to the east of the taller hill. At this point, there is a spur trail heading west up the taller hill to what the map calls the Mountain Viewpoint. By this point, we had been on the trail longer than I had anticipated, and the sun was racing towards the mountains in the west. I wanted to go up the Mountain Viewpoint, but I didn’t want to get caught in these mountains after dark with temperatures falling. So, we continued on the Foothills Trail Loop and headed east. The trail gradually worked its way down the mountain. I actually thought this stretch of the trail was less challenging than the middle portion.

View of the Discovery Center and other park buildings from our higher elevation.

Bedrock mortar near the end of the trail used by native Americans.
Soon, we were down on fairly level ground. As we neared the Discovery Center, the trail passes beneath a bridge that the park’s trolley system uses to ferry visitors to and from the cave. We eventually worked our way back to our camp.

For a 2.5 mile hike, this is a good challenge. The trail almost constantly goes up and down, so your legs get a good workout.

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