jenn April 24th, 2011
This trail is supposed to be 7.5 miles long and according to the forest service, it should take about 4.5 hours to complete. That’s like 1.6 miles an hour. They rate it as Easy/Strenuous. In reality, The hike is easy/moderate if you are traveling in one direction. I you are traveling in the other, the trail becomes difficult at around the 5 mile mark when you start the 1800′ elevation trek up Bald Hill (understatement!).
Our experience was a bit different. After about 3.75 hours of hiking and four stream crossings, we had gone about 4.5 miles. That’s around 1.2 miles an hour. Not too bad considering the elevation changes and the scenery that constantly beckons you to stop and try to take it all in. The trail is very diverse. We started out at Bull Pen Dispersed Camping area (car camping). The first part of the trail was a flat and sandy white sycamore forest situated along the creek. There are hike in dispersed campsites all along the trail. If you stay on the main trail, which can be hard to do with all the the offshoots to campsites, it will eventually open up to a flat, grassy/shrubby valley where you will walk past the old bull pen ranch house.
The trail makes it way back down to the river. When it does, it takes you to a very special place. I couldn’t capture the beauty of this part of the trail on my camera phone. The pictures don’t do it justice. There are crystal clear swimming holes with red rock sunning areas. Here, the red rock canyon walls are decorated with yellow columbine, prickly pear, scarlet monkey flower, and other plants that create a hanging garden and gives the area a tropical feel. Soon, you will find yourself wondering if you will be able to edge along the canyon wall. That’s when you will spot your first rock cairn which signifies the first creek crossing. Watch for those cairns. Otherwise, it can be easy to get turned around at creek crossings. They are rocky and you cannot see the trail as well. The trail crosses the creek again shortly after the first crossing.
The trail then moves away from the creek and you are once again exposed to the sun. Eventually, the trail crosses the creek for a third time. It then takes you high up on the side of the valley’s southern wall. You stay here for most of the trail. Great views are provided as you continue on. Occasionally, you will dip down into ravines and the landscape will become sycamore and juniper trees… shade! If you are like me, every time it dips down, you are hoping that it’s on it’s way back down to the creek. At around mile 4.5, it eventually does. This is the location of the fourth and last creek crossing. This one is the deepest. It’s the only one where we had to carry our packs above our heads.
This is where we turned around, but not before we enjoyed the picturesque swimming hole that looked like it came off a Hollywood movie set. Supposedly, the trail follows the creek for a short while before making it’s way up 1800′ in 2.5 miles to the parking area at Bald Hill. We will probably never know. We went back the way we came. On the way back we were wondering if it was ok to raft downstream back to camp and why we didn’t bring a blow up boat.
Overall, I would describe the trail itself as rocky and sandy but mostly rocky. You are walking in the sun a good 80% of the trail and only about 10% the trail is actually next to the creek. I would do this trail again but differently. I would start at the other trail head and do a trough trip. Or, perhaps we would start at the same trail head, bring a tent along with stocked backpacks and spend a of nights camping in the wilderness. But heck, if we are going to do that, we might as well do the multi-day hike, by the same name, where you swim through miles of canyon.
Drive 40 miles south of Flagstaff on Interstate 17. Leave the highway at the AZ 179 exit and turn east under the freeway. Drive about 9 miles on FR 618 to FR 215 and turn east about 3 miles to the Bullpen Ranch trailhead.
Or turn east off FR 618 on FR 214 about 8 miles from the highway and turn east 4.7 miles to the Bald Hill Road. Follow this primitive road about 1 mile to a rock-pile cairn that marks the trailhead.