KNOLL AND POTATO TRAILS
By Tom Pfaendler
This month we wrap up our lengthy series exploring in and around the Escarpment Base Trail system with a look at The Knoll Trail and The Potato Knoll. I don’t know what possessed me to spend all summer hiking the Escarpment. You would think the occasional circling vulture would have tipped me off that maybe this was the wrong season to be out here, but you know how it is once you start something…
To reach the Knoll Trail, follow the scenic drive twelve miles around the loop and take the dirt road marked with the Oak Creek sign. You’ll find ample parking and even a restroom. One of the unique things about The Knoll Trail is that you’ll need to hike at least a mile from any direction just to get to it. (Most of the other trailheads within Red Rock start at or near parking areas.) I’ve found the best and most interesting access route from this parking lot is to follow the Arnight Trail one mile northwest where it intersects with the Knoll Trail.
The Knoll Trail then connects the northern end of the Arnight Trail with the Oak Creek Canyon Trail. It will take you up and down through every wash as you head south along the colorful base of Rainbow Mountain. (The Arnight is the official southern leg of the Escarpment Base trinity of trails, however it leads away from the mountains. The Knoll actually stays true to the Escarpment throughout its entire length. I’ve always felt that the Knoll should be the rightful southern leg of the escarpment base trails, but then, you tend to think about stuff like that when you’ve been out in the sun for a long time!)
The Knoll Trail continues south directly toward its namesake, The Potato Knoll. That’s the small hill in front of Mt. Wilson that strongly resembles a huge Idaho baker lying in the desert, although I read one guidebook that referred to this hill as the “Wilson Pimple”… go figure. My TOPO map wouldn’t settle the issue with any authority, so I’ll just refer to it as the Potato Knoll.
Once you’ve hiked the rocky two-mile Knoll Trail and arrived at the intersection of the Oak Creek Canyon Trail, things get a little strange. It doesn’t matter which map you’ve studied, they all indicate that you can continue hiking the Knoll trail south to the “Potato”. But here’s where Rod Serling steps out from behind a bush, takes a slow drag from his cigarette and says, “Meet Tom. A typical Red Rock hiker, about to get lost. He has no way of knowing that he’s just entered The Oak Creek Twilight Zone”. There is no trail where one should be according to your map. The problem seems to be the rather formidable Oak Creek wash separating you from the Potato Knoll. You are left with no choice but to forge ahead cross-country style, and drop down into the wash. (Rod crushes his smoke out in the dirt and disappears behind the bush.)
Actually, you have just entered what is officially called The New Oak Creek Trail System. Rod Serling calls it Hundreds of Unmarked Random Trails, or HURT for short. Imagine a spider’s web of unmarked trails throughout the wash and all around the Potato Knoll. Forget using a map, the only way to proceed is by dead reckoning. The more prominent equestrian trails follow the sandy wash and lead through groves of desert oak and pine trees. It’s quite beautiful, but watch your bearings because these trails tend to lead away from the Potato! With persistence, you’ll eventually find your way up to a trail that circles most of the “Potato”.
The east side terrain of the Potato Knoll is reminiscent of neighboring Blue Diamond Hill, with groves of barrel cactus and enough elevation to enjoy valley views from the Calicos to Blue Diamond. The west side of the Knoll is a lush forest nestled into the dark red Chinle layer of Mt. Wilson. There is an old road of sorts that switchbacks up the west side of the Knoll. It ends abruptly about three-quarters of the way up, and you’ll need to do some fairly easy bouldering from there to reach the top.
The top of the Potato Knoll is a real treat and well worth the price of admission. It’s forested with juniper and pine, features huge interesting sandstone boulders, has commanding views of just about everything Red Rock and is quite secluded. But, there are no trails up on top, so be sure to use your best “Leave No Trace” skills. Tip from the Boot Tracks guy: no matter how tempting it might be to go down the east face of the hill, don’t do it. It’s very loose rock and quite treacherous. Just go back down the west side the same way you came up.
The “Knoll” experience is confusing and beautiful and frustrating and satisfying all in one day! It wouldn’t be my first choice to show visitors, but if you’ve been around and seen some of the other trails, then by all means take a day and go explore the Knolls. Just keep an eye out for Rod. I’d give it an overall score of six boots out of ten.