Red Butte • Central Coconino County
• Coconino Plateau, S. of Grand Canyon


Red Butte from near the paved highway
 

And a little closer
 

Sign at the trailhead
 

The upper mountain
 

The top
 

Blurred shot of the lookout
 

The exposed red cliffs, "Shinarump"
 

As seen from the Grandview Lookout tower

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Date: July 9, 2011 • Elevation: 7,326 feet • Prominence: 950 feet • Distance: 2.5 miles • Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes • Gain: 900 feet • Conditions: Warm and humid, with storms developing

I was on a day-long trip up on the Coconino Plateau north of Williams, west of Flagstaff, heading north toward the Grand Canyon. Earlier today I had climbed Sitgreaves Mountain. Afterwards, I drove into Williams, then started north along state route AZ-64, the main highway from Williams to the South Rim. Although the Grand Canyon was on my agenda, I wanted to stop along the way and hike Red Butte, a notable landmark summit rising about a thousand feet above the surrounding plateau.

Red Butte is a hold-over from ancient times, when (as the sign at the trailhead explains) the plateau was as high as this peak’s top. While the rest of the land slowly eroded over the eons, a hard basalt caprock prohibited erosion of this immediate area, leaving behind a fascinating little peak all by its lonesome, way beyond the other summits of the Coconino Plateau, which are all invariably pumice domes or formed by other volcanic events.

The drive north out of Williams is pretty in general, but not spectacular. This is high-elevation rangeland, with spotty forests of pinon and juniper, mixed with meadows of tufty grass. About 15 miles north of Williams, the highway crests some rises and Red Butte first appears, still about 20 miles distant. Along the way I passed through the junction community of Valle, where highway US-180 from Flagstaff comes to meet AZ-64. Valle features a couple hotels, minimarts, gas stations and the dumbest attraction in the world, Bedrock City, an homage to the Flintstones. So yes, I had to stop and tour the grounds. After saying hello to Fred and the gang, I continued north.

The turn-off to Red Butte is Kaibab Forest Road 320, at milepost 224. I drove 1.5 miles east, then north along FR-320 to FR-320A, which ends at a small parking area at the trailhead. The total drive from the highway was about 3 miles. I was the only one here. The weather was unsettled, with big thunderheads looming above the big peaks to the south and some active storms out west, but above Red Butte, the big puffy clouds just blew on past, the little peak apparently not big enough to generate its own micro-climates. Nevertheless, I knew this was a calculated gamble, since the weather could go to hell in moments.

It was just before noon when I started the hike, and somewhat warm in the sun. The hike follows an excellent trail all the way to the top. The initial half-mile or so winds through the meager foothills, through open pinon and juniper woodland, before gaining up a low western buttress. The pitch of the trail is never more than slightly steep, and I made very quick time. The trail surmounts this buttress and then bends east, dropping slightly to a saddle just below the main summit massif. I took a water break here.

The final segment of the trail gains steeply up the west-facing slopes, the trail being parsed into long switchbacks. A couple of turns come near the red cliffs of Shinarump sandstone. As I neared the top, the weather seemed to drop a notch in quality: the sun was now hidden behind the clouds, and a big thunderstorm was kicking up west, dropping a lot of lightning. The rumbles were muffled and distant, and I surmised the storm was 15 miles west, although utterly gigantic. The whole western horizon was hidden in the clouds and sheets of rain. This motivated me to basically run the final portion to the top.

The trail emerges onto the flattish summit between two large cairns. A manned lookout is on the eastern end, so I jogged to it and sought the highpoint, which the map said should be very nearby. It all looked flat so I kicked a few rocks and called it good. The lookout man came out to say hi and invite me up, but I declined, stating I wanted to hustle on down this peak before the lightning came near. He seemed like a nice guy, probably a little bored. Normally I stick around to visit with the lookout people, but not today. The weather was looking ugly and I figured I'd already pressed my luck enough.

I ran back to the switchbacks then jogged down them, figuring I was ever so slightly statistically safer every foot I descended. The lightning was still distant, but there was no more sun. I didn't truly feel home free until I was down below the buttress, and even then, I jogged back to my truck, taking haven in the shell. The rain started to fall, sprinkling at first, then slightly heavier. It had taken me one hour, 15 minutes for the round trip, and although I rested a little back at the truck, the roads looked like they could get slick when wet, so I exited back out to the highway without much delay.

From here I drove into the Grand Canyon National Park, the rain now falling as a steady drizzle. I spent the remainder of the day touring the South Rim overlooks, plus visiting an easy summit, Grandview Lookout.

(c) 2011, 2016 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.