by Blake Herzog
Just off Heritage Park in Prescott you can reach a series of loop trails that take you back in time — billions of years back.
The Willow Dells Slickrock Loop Trails are exactly what the name implies, letting you traverse the ancient granite formations created by layers of magma formed some 2 miles beneath the Earth’s surface, then pushed up to the surface and sculpted by wind and water into the otherworldly shapes, arches and angles we know today.
All this weathering has smoothed the granite into an often slippery plane that requires a keen sense of balance.
When the trail goes off the dirt paths and invites you onto the rock outcroppings with the famous white dots, you see boulders in all shapes and sizes standing tall and proud, stacked in intriguing columns and leaning out to the side. They’re dotted with mesquite trees and other vegetation that break up the surface and stand as a testament to the power of survival.
Many portions of the trail have striking overlooks onto the north end of Willow Lake, even as they travel farther back onto the rock surfaces that make the Granite Dells a playground for rock lovers.
If you bring surefooted kids onto this trail you can expect them to have a blast exploring all the side canyons and crevices. You can plan to spend some extra time on the trail in this case and make some great memories in the process.
Because of the extensive slickrock surfaces on this trail, the City of Prescott recommends it for advanced mountain bikers only and against riding horses onto it. Bikers who have reviewed this trail have warned others to expect incidents like “slow-speed crashes,” but most seem to relish the challenge.
All users should consider bringing water whatever time of year it is due to the sun’s intensity and the reflective nature of the granite — those who aren’t accustomed to the summer heat that can descend on the area might want to wait until the fall to enjoy this adventure.
These circular trails are conveniently located next to the boat docks at Willow Lake; the trailhead for the Approach Trail is just to the north where the Willow Loop Trail turns into the Approach Trail for the rockier trails on the east side of the lake.
After about 1.4 miles, you reach the loop, known as the Canyon Trail, as it splits off to the north. It includes two spurs, the Apex Trail soon after the split and the Ron James Approach Trail at about the halfway point. Before it finishes circling back to the Approach Trail, it connects to the ECOSA Trail, which travels almost a mile higher into the Dells and includes interpretive signs as it makes its rocky way.
Parking fees: $3 in Heritage Park
Uses: Hiking, mountain biking
Distance: 3.3 miles
Level of difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Elevation: 5,070 feet to 5,213 feet