Coconino National Forest

If you want to get to Coconino National Forest from Flagstaff, Arizona, it’s hard to get it wrong. Drive in nearly any direction, and within minutes, you’ll be surrounded by a diverse landscape of forests, deserts and mountains. This display of alpine tundra, sprawling ponderosa pine forests and ancient volcanic peaks is Coconino.

Sunset in Coconino National Forest
Sunset in Coconino National Forest – Photo by Catherine Hughes on Unsplash

Coconino was originally established as San Fransisco Mountains National Forest Reserve. In 1908, it was designated as a National Forest. There are ten wilderness areas within Coconino, although some of them lie mostly inside other National Forests. Coconino borders four other national forests—Kaibab, Prescott, Tonto, and Apache-Sitgreaves. The forest surround the towns of Sedona and Flagstaff.

About the Forest

There are three ranger districts in Coconino. Because the elevation of the forest varies so widely, each district is distinctly different. From the plants that grow to the animals that thrive, each district has it’s own unique personality.

Flagstaff District

Flagstaff is the northernmost district. This district actually used to be two separate districts—Peaks and Mormon Lake. In 2010, Coconino National Forest consolidated them into one district called the Flagstaff District.

There are several noteworthy features within Flagstaff District. Mormon Lake, the largest natural lake in Arizona is one of them. The volcanic mountain range known as the San Francisco Peaks is another.

The San Francisco Peaks include Humphreys Peak, the highest peak in Arizona. Humphreys Peak tops out at 12,633 feet. The San Francisco Peaks are part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. This volcanic field has over 600 volcanic features, and covers more than 1,700 square miles. Since much of this volcanic field is within the forest, there are plenty of tree-covered cinder cones and lava flows. There are also a number of lava tubes (like Lava River Cave) within Coconino.

Red Rock District

True to it’s name, the Red Rock District is a land of red rock-pinnacles, vistas, canyons and buttes. The town of Sedona is in the center of the Red Rock District. Many of the famous red rock mesas and bluffs are within this district. In fact, Sedona became famous as a resort town largely because of these formations. Elevations in this part of the forest are significantly lower. This makes temperatures higher year-round.

Mogollon Rim District

The third district is Mogollon Rim. Mogollon Rim District is located along the Mogollon Rim east of the Red Rock District. and . It’s landscape is similar to parts of the Flagstaff District, with thick ponderosa pine forests and several small lakes and streams. Like the rest of the forest, evergreens dominate the landscape. This is partly because of the dry climate. Deciduous trees are mostly found in more moist areas along streams.

The Geographical Diversity of Coconino

Although much of the forest is a high altitude plateau, the landscape varies significantly. The variation in elevation is responsible for much of this. In the lowest parts of the forest, mostly sagebrush and shrubs thrive. Actual trees are uncommon.

At slightly higher elevations, you will begin to see trees. Juniper, manzanita, and pinyon pines grow between 4,500 feet and 6,500 feet . These forests are often classified as “juniper-pine woodlands”.

Between 6,500 feet and 8,000 feet is where you’ll find the sprawling ponderosa pine forests. These pines are part of the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the Southwest. Gambel Oak, Quaking Aspen and Rocky Mountain Juniper are also found here.

The highest elevations in Coconino are found in the San Francisco Peaks region just north of Flagstaff. Here there are large conifers like blue spruce, bristlecone pine and limber pine. Islands of quaking aspen stands grow across the mountain. After a wildfire, Quaking Aspen is one of the first trees to regenerate.

The only Alpine Tundra in Arizona is above 11,000 feet. Here, vegetation is sparse. Other than a few small bristlecone pines, there are no trees. Lichens, alpine wildflowers and small grasses are the bulk of plant life here.

Wildfire—a common event in Coconino National Forest.
Wildfire is a common event in Coconino National Forest — Photo by Sippakorn Yamkasikorn from Pexels

Fire in Coconino National Forest

Wildfire is common across the forest. Coconino is classified as a high desert, even though there is a lot of greenery. This comes with strong winds and high temperatures. Over the early summer, fire danger is categorized as “very high” or “extreme”. Fire in the forest is of extra concern because there are quite a few cities and towns nearby. To lower the risk of catastrophic fire, the Forest Service uses prescribed burns and forest thinning more frequently.

During peak fire season, restrictions on smoking and campfires are common. In fact, the Forest Service prohibits public entry at times when fire danger is especially high. The Forest Service website has current information regarding closures.

Recreation in Coconino National Forest

Coconino has dozens of campgrounds and several cabins available to rent throughout the forest. Many of these are only available seasonally. They are also subject to wildfire and weather closures, so check before you go.

There are many hiking trails to choose from including the famous Arizona Trail. There are reference sheets that divide the trails by ranger district. These are really helpful, and can be found on the USFS site.

If you spend time in Coconino, please be very careful with fire. In some locations, campfires are never permitted. In others, they are depending on the fire danger. If you have a campfire, be extremely careful. Fires in Coconino, especially human-caused ones, are a concern. In 2018, the Tinder Fire burned over 16,000 acres in and around Coconino. You can find current fire danger levels and fire restrictions on the Forest Service website.

Visit Coconino National Forest

See the beauty of the Southwest for yourself; visit Coconino National Forest. Spend time in one of the ten wilderness areas, or fish for Northern Pike in Mormon Lake. The diversity of Coconino makes creates an experience that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

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