Here are the Vital Statistics:
..Start at 8:15 am from the trailhead at the north end of Midgley Bridge.
..Return at 5:00 pm to the same location.
..Total Car-to-Car Time = 8 hours 45 minutes.
..Total Distance (estimated) = 14 miles, about half of that distance on snowshoes.
..Low point = Trailhead at Midgley Bridge at approx. 4,520 feet.
..High Point = Wilson Mountain summit at 7,122 feet.
..Net Elevation Gain = approx. 2,600 feet.
..Weather = Partly to mostly cloudy; Temp. was fairly constant 35-45 deg. all day.
February 29th comes around only once every four years, so make the most of it! In a stroke of good luck, this leap year I found myself in Sedona, Arizona with the whole day to myself. I decided that Wilson Mountain, just a couple of miles north of town, would be a good challenge and a great way to spend the 2004 Leap Day. I'd driven up from Phoenix the previous evening, and had run into some pretty heavy rain, which had begun turning to snow at the higher elevations. But by the next morning the weather had cleared, and the day started out with partly cloudy skies and temperatures around 30 degrees. Within five minutes of leaving my hotel in Sedona I was driving across Midgley Bridge, and pulled into the parking area at the north end of the bridge just after 8:00 am (Trailhead Photo #1)(Trailhead Photo #2). The upper part of Wilson Mountain was hidden in the clouds, and would remain hidden. In about three hours I would walk into the cloud zone without ever having seen the top part of the mountain.
The hike started out on a good trail, with patchy snow only a few inches deep. After 15 minutes of brisk walking, I came to a sign designating the Red Rock/Secret Mountain Wilderness. There is a fork in the trail at this point, and the sign indicates that the Wilson Canyon Trail and the Jim Wilson Trail continue down to the left. A few yards farther up the hill is the Wilson Mountain trailhead register mounted on a post. I was somewhat surprised to find that no one had signed it in the last three days. The next mile or so beyond the register is an easy uphill grade that crosses a small creek drainage. Then the trail gets steeper as it begins to switchback up the side of the mesa. The snow was steadily getting deeper, so partway up the switchbacks I stopped to put on my snowshoes. The trail was easy to follow despite several inches of new snow. The views across Wilson Canyon to the rock formations on the other side were very impressive (Rock Formations). At about elevation 6,200 feet, I reached the top of the slope and came onto a large plateau. A little farther on, at 10:30 am, I came to a sign identifying the plateau as the "First Bench of Wilson Mountain", which is also clearly labeled on the Topozone map. There is a fork in the trail at this point, and the sign indicates that the North Wilson Trail is to the right, and the Wilson Mountain Trail is straight ahead. Route finding could have been an issue if the snow had been any deeper across the plateau, but the trail was still fairly obvious to anyone paying close attention.
I continued up the Wilson Mountain Trail for about a half mile across the relatively flat terrain of the First Bench. Then the trail again becomes steeper, and makes the final climb up to the top of the mountain. I stopped beside the trail just before reaching the top to have lunch and enjoy the views out across the First Bench and further into the distance to the east. While eating lunch, I was passed by two guys with two big dogs, headed up the hill. They didn't have snowshoes, and I think they were grateful to have me breaking the trail for them. After my break, I continued on up the hill until I reached the "Pass" between Peak 7045 and Peak 7122, just after 12:00 noon. For all practical purposes, I had reached the top of Wilson Mountain, which is a large, flat-topped mesa roughly two miles long by one mile wide. The average elevation on top is about 6,900 feet. From most vantage points there appears to be no real summit, but the Topozone map does indicate three distinct high points, identified as Peaks 7076, 7122, and 7045.
At the Pass is another fork in the trail with a sign that reads "Wilson Mountain". The sign indicates that the "Canyon Overlook" is to the right, and the "Sedona Overlook" is to the left. There is also a large USFS metal storage locker nearby, which apparently is used for fire-fighting tools. The guys ahead of me had taken the trail to the left, so I decided to go to the right. The snow beyond this point was well over two feet deep, so I stopped to put the tails on my snowshoes to get better flotation of my 220 pounds (including pack). I followed the trail for about a quarter-mile in a generally northwest direction, but eventually the trail disappeared in the deep snow. I expected there would be great views at the edge of the mesa, so I continued on in the same general direction for another half-mile or so. The terrain was flat and featureless, and visibility through the trees was not very good, despite some fairly open areas (Clearing on Top). The sun was often behind the fast-moving clouds, which were starting to look ominous at times, and I was becoming a little disoriented. I knew that I could not walk more than 45 minutes in any direction without coming to the edge of the mesa. Or if I really got turned around, I could just backtrack in my own footprints to the Pass.
After checking my watch, I realized I wouldn't have time to complete my mission of exploring the entire mesa. I still had to walk out, preferably in the daylight, and drive back to Phoenix that night. So I decided to change course and try to hit the edge of the mesa just north of Peak 7076, traverse across to Peak 7122, and then head downhill and intercept the trail near the Pass. So I got out my compass to make sure I was properly oriented, and made a beeline for the edge of the mesa. The going was pretty easy, despite not being on a trail. The deep snow covered most of the obstacles, so I just had to wind my way around the occasional fallen timber or rock outcropping. Eventually I came to the edge of the mesa and turned to the right to follow it on around. I never positively identified Peak 7076, as the visibility wasn't very good through the trees, and it's basically just a little bump anyway. But as I continued on around the edge of the mesa, I was definitely climbing uphill, and soon I came to the point that I was fairly certain was Peak 7122, the true summit of Wilson Mountain. The high point was actually a rocky formation out on the edge of the rim, and someone had erected a small cairn of red rocks near that location (Summit Photo #1)(Summit Photo #2). Because of the deep snow and the proximity to the steep drop-off on the rim, it was difficult to investigate the summit area too closely.
After taking in the views from the summit for a while (Summit View), I started downhill, and intercepted the trail just below the Pass at 2:40 pm. The guys and their dogs had already passed by on their way out. In a few more minutes I came to the place where I'd stopped for lunch on the way up. The sun had been shining on the exposed slope, and the snow was melting rapidly. I took off my snowshoes and strapped them back onto my pack. I made good time going down the hill, but it was getting slushier by the minute. I was soon down and across the First Bench, then over the edge and heading down the switchbacks. By this time the trail was a muddy, slushy mess, and if I hadn't had my trekking poles for balance, I would have slipped and broken my neck for sure.
I stopped again at the trailhead register, and saw that a total of six people had signed in for the day. I was the first one in and the last one out. There were a total of 72 parties signed in for the month of February, and the average party size was about two. I'm sure that not everyone signs the register, so I'd guess that maybe about 200 people had gone up the Wilson Mountain trail during the month of February 2004. As I started down the home stretch to the trailhead, I turned around to get a good look at the mountain that had been hidden in the clouds all morning (Wilson Mtn). By 5:00 pm I was back at the parking lot, feeling pleasantly tired, but nowhere near exhausted. It was reassuring to see that I'd stayed in somewhat decent shape through the winter, and that I should be ready to tackle some more serious hikes in the Sierras later in the spring. But the only thing on my mind at that point was getting into town for a hamburger.
To sum it all up, this was an excellent outing that went off without a hitch. The hike up in the morning in the new-fallen snow was real Christmas card-worthy winter wonderland stuff (Winter Scene #1)(Winter Scene #2). I was slightly disappointed that I didn't see any wildlife to speak of. And I don't think I saw the best views that the mountain has to offer from the top of the rim. Maybe some future explorer can identify the best overlooks and provide us with detailed directions out to them.