If you are looking for challenging hikes in Flagstaff, AZ, Mt. Elden should be on your list. At 9,301 feet (2,835 m) elevation at its peak, and with 2,312 feet (705 m) elevation gain from the main trailhead, this might not be the tallest mountain in Flagstaff, or the longest trek. But Mt. Elden Summit Trail will push all but the most athletic hiker to huffing and puffing. That being said, the struggle is worth it. This mountain offers exceptional views of the surrounding terrain, and the summit trail will guide you through a variety of ecotypes as you travel up in elevation. Furthermore, since it isn’t as long as trying to summit Mt. Humphreys, Mt. Elden is a great training hike. And as one of the Arizona 20-20 summits, you can take in the sights, challenge yourself, and tick off a bucketlist item all at once.
Mt. Elden Summit Trail: Is It Right for You?
So, how do you know if the Mt. Elden Summit Trail is right for you?
You are looking for a challenge
If you want to challenge yourself physically (and emotionally), this trail might be for you. Now, I wouldn’t say that this is the hardest trail in the world. But for most of us normal people, it will be pushing the limits. That being said, there is something very satisfying about reaching the top. And something even more satisfying when you can back to your car.
You have some experience and fitness for hiking
Mt. Elden is not Mt. Humphrey’s, but that doesn’t mean that this trail will be fun or doable for beginners. This is among one of the more challenging hikes in Flagstaff, AZ. It is very very steep and not easy to navigate or pass at all times. That means that I think this trail would be very uncomfortable for most beginner hikers. It is a big physical challenge, and for those not used to narrow trails, it could be scary as well. Due to the steepness of this mountain, getting off trail is also dangerous, because you could become trapped on a cliff or fall. Overall, if you are looking for a hike to ease yourself or a friend into hiking, I would look elsewhere.
Not a family hike
While people with really skilled, hiking kids or dogs might disagree, I don’t think that this trail is good for dogs or kids. It is extremely steep for most of its length. It can also become very narrow. Which can make passing difficult and sometimes dangerous. And there are one or two spots that are hard to navigate. Bringing kids, especially younger ones, or dogs, will just elevate the danger to yourself on the trail, but also the danger to other hikers. I’d suggest that you keep this trail for adults and older children only.
Need to Know Information
Land manager: US National Forests
Trail length: ~6.5 miles (10.1 km)
Elevation gain: 2,312 feet (705 m)
Trailhead location: 35°13’49.1″N 111°34’45.2″W
4WD Needed for Access: No, the trailhead is a dirt parking lot right off of the 89 freeway. It is accessible by any car.
Bathrooms: I don’t believe so, however the trail is across from restaurants with restrooms if needed.
Crowding: Crowding is primarily a concern at the trailhead, which can fill up. Going early in the morning or in the later afternoon can help secure parking. However, if you go in the later afternoon, judge your turn-around time based on sundown. Make sure you can get back to your car before dark.
On the Trail
I’d suggest a couple things for navigation’s sake before you leave your vehicle. (1) Download an Alltrails map for the Mt. Elden Summit Trail or Elden Lookout. (2) Take a picture of the map at the trailhead.
I’d also suggest something else to keep in mind on the trail. Don’t become so tired that you don’t even take photos. This is a gorgeous trail, and it’s easy to miss the beauty of the forest and the mountain as you struggle upwards. Whenever you take a breather or see something beautiful, stop and take a photo. Or at least pause to take it all in.
Leaving from the Mt. Elden Summit trail trailhead off of the 89, you will follow the dirt path northwest through the forest. You will want to follow any signage for Elden Lookout. At your first junction, stay to the left, and then at the second stay to the right. You will be following the upper part of Fat Man’s Loop. Most of the hike up until this point are through a thick forest, with a more gentle incline than you will experience the rest of the way.
Finally, you will take a left-hand trail to separate from Fat Mans Loop. It is about at this point that you will hike through a more exposed part of the trail. It has less forest coverage than the bottom of the mountain or much of the way up. Once you are firmly on the Elden Lookout/Summit trail, you will experience a very steady and steep climb upwards with many switchbacks. Although you may be quite tired doing this section of the trail, please do not cut any switchbacks, as this damages the mountain and can be dangerous.
You will know that you have started to crest the mountain when you leave the forest of large trees and enter a thicket of smaller aspens. The summit is apparent because of the firewatch tower at its crest.
Remember, you will need to go back the way you came to get home. So, if at any point you are feeling exhausted, please turn around. The steep climb up makes for a steep climb down, and cutting any switchbacks is still something we ask that all hikers to avoid. So, be prepared for the walk back. And be careful about navigating the junctions so as not to get lost while you are at peak levels of tired. This steep trail is definitely one of the more challenging hikes in Flagstaff.
First, the thing I say in every hiking guide – your safety is your responsibility and yours alone. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety. Conditions on the trail change daily and your own physical condition is something only you can gauge.
In addition to the tips above, the Mt. Elden Summit trail has some other considerations.
This trail is on very steep terrain and going off trail can easily result in a dangerous situation. Of course, I typically remind all hikers (including myself!) to stay on trail for environmental reasons. But in this case, there is an additional safety concern. Hikers off trail can find themselves stranded on steep slopes that are hard to climb or backtrack on.
While Mt Elden is not above the treeline, its crown is sparsely forested, and exposed. This means that the weather is of particular concern. It can be very cold and windy on the summit, and lightning strikes are a concern during storms. Do not hike in lightning storms, especially on summits. People have died on nearby mountaintops from lightning strikes.
Furthermore, don’t underestimate the Mt. Elden Summit trail; by length it doesn’t seem all that extreme. However, the steepness of the trail is very taxing. You will need plenty of water and snacks to do this trail. And if you get exhausted on the way up, turn around. Remember that the top is only half way.
Finally, as with many challenging hikes in Flagstaff, you will want to avoid hiking this trail when there is snow and/or ice – unless you have the appropriate skills and tools. And if you are doubting that you have them, I would err on the side of waiting until the conditions improve. Otherwise, it is not safe to summit these high, cold peaks.
Wildfire on Mt Elden
In 2022, the large Pipeline Fire swept over Mt. Elden and the surrounding area. It was started by someone lighting their toilet paper on fire. It burned more than 5,000 acres of forest, threatening homes and lives of people and animals alike. And it forever changed the landscape that I and many others know and love. All for some toilet paper. Which you shouldn’t be burning, by the way? It is proper to pack out our own used toilet paper unless you are using a designated outhouse or bathroom facility.
Unfortunately, most wildfires in Arizona are caused by people (over 80%). And the state is primed to burn after years of drought and previous fire suppression which led to the proliferation of fuel across the landscape.
Furthermore, in the forested environment of Flagstaff, yes, fire was a part of the natural regime, but not in the way they burn currently. Now fires burn hotter, damaging the soil and slowing or preventing regrowth. And they can more easily become canopy fires, which kill more trees than the spotty ground-fires of the past. Besides threatening people, homes, and the environment, wildfires destroy challenging hikes in Flagstaff themselves.
Due to this, it is absolutely essential that anyone visiting Mt. Elden Summit Trail support the community by ensuring that they don’t cause any fires. Some quick tips:
- If you are traveling with the trailer, ensure that your chains are not dragging.
- If you are shooting, do not fire at metal or explosive targets.
- If you are camping, make sure that your campfire is completely out when you leave – that means using water to douse the fire and stirring the embers to make sure that everything is soaked through.
- During very dry parts of the year, avoid parking over dry grass or plants.
My Experiences on the Mt. Elden Summit Trail
The first time I did the Mt. Elden Summit Trail, it seriously kicked my butt. I was looking for a relatively short hike to do before showing up for a conference where I had been invited to speak. I barely made it to the top of the trail, after considering turning around multiple times. At one point, I also lost the trail at a switch back and found myself in a very precarious situation trying to find my way back. Exhausted, I had to try to scramble up the mountainside, as my hands slipped on dead leaves and loose rocks. And when I got to my hotel room, I had a splitting headache. This was a great reminder (1) not let yourself get dehydrated on the trail, and (2) don’t underestimate how challenging this trail can be.
The second time I went, several years later, I had a much better experience. It was still insanely steep. And definitely a challenge. But I didn’t lose the trail this time, and I didn’t let myself get dehydrated. So, I got to finish off my second trip up the mountain feeling good and accomplished. It’s always amazing to revisit challenging hikes in Flagstaff (or anywhere) and feel like you’ve made progress.
Planning a Trip to Arizona?
I spent the first 30 years of my life in Arizona, so I have loads to share about this beautiful state. Everything is collected in my Guide to Arizona, but I also have other hikes across the state, and more!
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