A quiet hike to a Northern Arizona mountain summit, topped with a historic lookout tower.
Bill Williams Mountain Trail Guide
MAP: Kaibab National Forest – South
DESIGNATION: Kaibab National Forest
BEST SEASONS: spring, summer, fall
DISTANCE: 7.6 miles round trip
WATER: none reliable
ELEVATION: trailhead ~6,900ft – summit ~9,256ft (gain ~2,300ft)
ACCESS: paved roads to trailhead
DRIVING DIRECTIONS: From Williams AZ, drive west on Railroad Avenue for about one mile. Turn left on Frontage Road and continue for about a half mile to the parking area for the Williams District Ranger Station. Find the trailhead at the north end of the parking lot. The phrase Williams Ranger District registers in Google Maps.
Bill Williams Maps
Here’s a few maps that show the trails on Bill Williams Mountain.
This first one, courtesy of the US Forest Service, is pulled from a PDF file that’s viewable here.
This next one is simply a photo of the schematic map that’s posted at the trailhead.
Camping and General Info
When compared to the more popular trails surrounding the city of Flagstaff, Bill Williams offers a mountaintop hike where you’ll only see a handful of other hikers, if any.
The path makes its way up the north face of the mountain, lending to thicker vegetation and utilizing a cut in the landscape formed by West Cataract Creek (usually dry).
Abundant aspen and oak make this trail a wonderful place to view the fall colors, peaking from late September through early October.
Camping is permitted here in the National Forest, but it’s not very popular along this trail. The mountain’s summit is significantly developed, there’s no water, and a graded forest road goes up the mountain.
Dogs are allowed, but should be kept on a leash.
Some websites claim that mountain biking is allowed, but since the Bill Williams Mountain Trail is not listed here we must assume that it’s forbidden.
The first mile of trail climbs up a series of eight switchbacks, through a forest dominated by Ponderosa Pine, oak, and Alligator Juniper. You’ll encounter two intersections with the Clover Spring Loop Trail #46 – the first after only 0.15 miles, and the second at 0.9 miles.
Clover Spring is a short link to Trail #124 and downtown Williams. The spring itself is merely a seep, and not recommended for drinking.
The second mile of the Williams Mountain Trail levels out, but begins to climb again after the 2-mile mark. It doesn’t let up very much from here for the rest of the way to the top, going up a series of 12 switchbacks.
In the midst of these switchbacks, you’ll intersect the Bixler Saddle Trail #72, which approaches the mountain from the west. This trail is 2 miles one-way, accessible via FR 108 and FR 45.
Soon after this junction you’ll reach FR 111, the main road to the summit of Bill Williams Mountain. Before turning left up the road, be sure not to miss the view down the road to the right (west).
If you were to continue a short distance down FR 111 you’d encounter the top of Benham Trail #48, which climbs the mountain from the east. The Benham Trail is 4.5 miles one-way, accessible via Fourth Street from downtown Williams, turning right on FR 140.
To continue from the Bill Williams Mountain Trail to the summit, simply walk up the road, passing radio and cellular towers to take in the views from the historic fire lookout.
The Lookout Tower
The tower on top of the mountain is your classic 1930s-era fire lookout, with a posted warning that no more than 4 people should be on the tower at the same time. The uppermost room is kept locked, as usual.
Here’s some more information about it, quoted from the signage on the mountain:
“This steel lookout tower, erected in 1937, is 45 feet tall and has a 7 foot by 7 foot steel cab on top. It replaced an earlier wooden lookout tower. Before that, a lookout tree stood here.
“As guardians of the our nation’s vast timber reserves, the U.S Forest Service has always given fire detection and control a high priority. In the first years after the Forest Service was established in 1905, fire guards patrolled the forest on horseback. The earliest form of lookout structure was simply a platform mounted in a tree. The fire guard would climb the tree, spot the fire, and then report it.
“Eventually, permanent lookout stations and towers were established on prominent points. These early towers were built with local materials, usually logs or lumber. The lookout used a device called an Osborne fire-finder to pinpoint a fire’s location. Telephones enabled lookouts to quickly report fires, speeding response time. Today, radios are the most common form of communication.
“In the early 1930s, the Forest Service developed a region-wide plan for fire detection and control. The plan included suggestions for lookout tower design and locations to ensure complete visual coverage of the landscape.
“Largely as a result of this plan, and the influx of labor from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the 1930s became the most active period for lookout tower construction in the nation. Steel towers and cabs were built to standard Forest Service architectural plans. Bill Williams Lookout Tower, completed in 1937, is typical of others built during that era.
The mountain and nearby town are named for mountain man William Sherley Williams. William Williams! Stop calling me Shirley!
He was a classic trapper and mountain man of the American West, similar to more recognizable names like Kit Carson and Jim Bridger.
It’s said that the Bill Williams Trail was constructed in 1902 by a man named Esau Lamb. It was operated as a toll road for riders on horseback, similar to what Ralph Cameron did with the Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon.
My Trip Notes and Photos
I hiked this trail up to the fire tower and back on July 10, 2013.
There were so many lady bugs near the summit!