Review Feature

Enjoy cool weather during a fall hike


Take a nonscientific poll of local hiking enthusiasts, and you'll find that they only agree on one thing:

The Rim country is a veritable paradise for those who love to beat feet through its 240 miles of Forest Service system trails.

Beyond that, you're not going to get a consensus of any sort. Not even on the question of what it is, exactly, that makes the area so perfect for hiking.

"For me, personally, the reason is that there is so much hiking immediately accessible to me," says U.S. Forest Service Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts, a self-described "avid hiker" since 1986.

"In most other places, you have to drive long distances to get to a trail you like," he said. "But here, they are everywhere. Just on days off last year, my wife, Terri and I hiked over 317 miles in the Rim country."

Now you see why he calls himself "avid."

Walt Thole of the Forest Service's district recreation staff wasn't a hiker until he moved to Payson eight years ago. Now he can't get enough.

"I think the biggest thing you can get in this part of Arizona is a real diversity of forest and desert, as well as a lot of opportunities to see elk, deer and even bears sometimes," Thole said.

Kay Rigney, a longtime member of the local hiking club, the Payson Packers, has a general view of her favorite pastime in her favorite area.

"I just love everything about it," she said with an audible swoon. "The air, the woods, the beauty, wildlife, the camaraderie of other hikers."

That's quite a series of sales pitches. But what newbie and would-be Rim country hikers really want to know, of course, is their tips on the best places to hit the dirt.

To that end, your intrepid pollster made up a list of four reasons one might want to take a hike to see wildlife; to experience absolute beauty; to enjoy peace, quiet and perhaps some spiritual introspection; and to absorb a sense of the area's history.

Here are some of their answers:

"We almost never fail at seeing large wildlife at the top of the Rim, more in the Apache-Sitgreaves or the Coconino, where it's really good for Rocky Mountain elk," Roberts said. "You get on that Forest Road 300 up towards Woods Canyon Lake, and hang a left or head west, and it's pretty hard not to spot elk up there."

Roberts offers this helpful hint as well: the chances of seeing large wildlife are greatest at before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

Thole suggests that animal lovers trek along the Highline Trail, in particular near springs and streams.

And Rigney is keen on the critter-littered trails "on top of the Rim around Potato Lake and Jones Crossing."

What about breathtaking beauty?

"The Fossil Springs Trail is really nice," Thole said. "I call it the Grand Canyon of the Payson area. But it's pretty tough. It's easy going down, but coming out is difficult."

Rigney votes for the Oak Springs Trail.

"For fall colors," she said, "that's about the best. There are a lot of maple trees down there, and it's just gorgeous."

For peace and quiet, Roberts is especially gung-ho on any place where the throngs don't go.

"Generally speaking, I find that most Phoenicians come as far as Payson and maybe they might just make the edge of the Rim," he said. "But they don't really want to go a whole lot further. For me, especially in the summer months when it's hotter, I just find that if I get on top of the Rim, anything north of Forest Road 300 will give me a whole lot of seclusion.

"It's really important to me to be able to hike for a long time without encountering other people," Roberts adds. "Most of the time, I can get that in Rim country."

Thole casts his vote for the See Canyon Trail in the Christopher Creek area, and Rigney opts for "The far sides of either Willow Springs Lake or Woods Canyon Lake. Being a good New Englander, I grew up near the ocean, and to this day I find something very relaxing about water."

Roberts doesn't hesitate when considering the area's best wilderness walk for history buffs.

"The Highline Trail, which in the 1880s was a link between homesteads and ranches that were located just beneath the Rim," he said. "But actually, it was a game trail for a couple of thousand years before that. It's kind of neat, too, to know that Zane Grey used to hike that same ground."

Meanwhile, Thole directs folks to the Colonel Devin Trail, located at Washington Park Trailhead. "It leads up to the old railroad tunnel and the site of the Battle of Dry Wash, one of the last Indian battles."

For those whose appetites for hiking the Rim country has been whetted, the Payson Packers meet every Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the parking lot of the old Wal-Mart building. There are three groups: fast, moderate and slow walkers, and each takes a different hike each week.

Some of the best places to hike in Rim country, and how to get there

Deer Creek

Length: 8.0

Difficulty: Moderate

The Deer Creek Trail #45 is an enjoyable hike through a beautiful riparian area. The trail crosses Deer Creek numerous times as it winds its way along the creek though the Mazatzal Wilderness. It ends in a Ponderosa forest at the Mount Peeley Trailhead.

Directions: Trailhead is at junction of Arizona SR 87 and SR 188 Trailhead is well marked on a well maintained dirt road.

Description: From the trailhead, the trail rises gently to the north. Within the first halfmile you will encounter the signed junctions for the Gold Ridge Trail #47 and South Fork Trail #46. Keep right at both junctions for the Deer Creek Trail. The trail then passes through a gate and descends to Deer Creek. The trail follows along the south side of the creek in a beautiful riparian forest. The trail is a gentle climb but has a few sections that switchback over some natural obstacles.

At 3.3 miles the trail enters the Mazatzal Wilderness. At this point, the noise from Highway 87 dissipates and you can enjoy the solitude of the wilderness. From here on the trail gets narrower and more overgrown.

The trail crosses the creek nearly 20 times in the next 4 miles. In several sections, you must walk in the rocky bed of the river. Keep an eye out for cairns to help find the trail.

Although the cairns are numerous, it was easy to miss one and get off track. If this happens, retrace your steps to last cairn and look around for the next one.

After about 7 miles the trail enters a mature ponderosa forest. The trail continues its gentle climb until it reaches the Davey Gowan Trail #48. Stay right at this juncture. The last mile is a moderate to steep switchback that climbs out of the canyon and the trail ends in a forested parking lot at the end of Forest Road #201.

From the end of the trail, you can either return the way you came or walk west on Forest Road #201 and return on either the South Fork Trail or the Gold Ridge Trail.

Horton Creek

Length: 5 miles round trip

Difficulty: Moderate

A rocky spur trail that connects to the Highline Trail #31.

In Payson, turn right (east) on SR 260. Continue east until your reach FR 289 the turn off for the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery. Turn left. Continue north for 2 miles. Parking is available at the Horton Creek Picnic Site, at the bridge on the right. The trailhead is located behind the Upper Tonto Creek Campground, on the left.

Description: The Derrick Trail #33 is a rocky, rugged, and, at times, indistinct trail that connects to the Highline Trail #31. The trail begins at the campground and begins to switch back uphill for the first two hundred feet. Then it flattens out as it meanders through ponderosa pines. As you approach the junction for the Highline Trail, the trail becomes more exposed. Watch for cairns to help you find the trail; there are times that the trail is so rock that it is difficult to follow. Return the way you came, or you can continue along the Highline Trail to the Horton Creek Trail and complete an eight-mile loop.

Fossil Springs

Length: 8 miles round trip

Difficulty: Moderate

A hike to a beautiful area where a spring pumps 100,000 gallons a minute of 72 degree water year round.

Directions: From Payson go north on AZ 87 to Strawberry. Turn left on FR 708 (at the Strawberry Lodge) and go west 5 miles to the trailhead. Accessible by car.

Description: The trail descends continuously, dropping nearly 200 feet in four miles. Some parts are very rugged and difficult to walk on. Near the bottom, you will come to a junction with the Mail Trail. Stay left on the Fossil Spring Trail and follow it west until it crosses Fossil Creek. Once across, the spring is about .3 miles ahead.

Although the trail is nice, the real beauty here is the spring. Coming out of the ground near a large cottonwood tree, the water is warm and clear. The swimming hole just downstream from the spring is 8 feet deep and a joy to play in.

Hellsgate Ridge

Length: 6.5 miles one way

Difficulty: Difficult

A wonderful, challenging hike to the junction of Tonto and Haigler Creeks. Last half mile is VERY steep.

Directions: From Payson drive east on AZ SR 260 for 11 miles to Little Green Valley. Turn south on FR 405A and drive 1/2 mile south to trailhead. Trailhead is marked and easily accessible by car.

Description: This trail follows a series of old jeep roads and trails to the wilderness boundary.

From the trailhead, pass through the gate and follow the old road . The road climbs steeply over a ridge and then follows a fence line. Stay on the road, do not go through any of the gates on the fence. After 1 mile the road forks take the left one and follow along the creek.

In April of 1999 the snow melt was really strong and there was water everywhere. The trail crossesthe creek about 7 times. After 2 miles the trail comes to a corral. From the corral the trail turns right and climbs a very steep hill to the ridge line. There is a fork on top of the ridge; take the left one and continue on the trail as it descends and climbs several small mountains to the top of Hellsgate Ridge, where it enters the wilderness (4 miles). The trail in this section is sometimes a trail and sometimes an old jeep road. The two criss-cross each other several times. So if you miss the trail, the road will get you to the same place but it is usually steeper.

From the wilderness boundary the trail descends for the next 2.5 miles. After 1.5 miles you will come to a large stock tank. The last 1/2 mile is extremely steep. Be very careful in this area as it is very slippery and you are a long way from help. Depending on the water flow, you may or may not be able to cross Tonto and Haigler creeks. The return trip is arduous due to the steep grade and long uphill climb.

See Canyon - Tonto Fish Hatchery

Length: 11.0 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

A long trail beneath the Mogollon Rim from SR 87 south of Pine to SR 260.

Directions: From Payson, go east 20 miles to Christopher Creek. Go North 2 miles on See Canyon road to trailhead.

To get to west trailhead, go 17 miles east of Payson on SR 260. Turn north on Fish Hatchery road and go 4 miles to trailhead. Both are accessible in a sedan.

Description: From the See trailhead, the trail climbs viciously for the first mile. The trail then passes in and out of some open areas. The views here are good. After four miles the trail junctions with the Derrick Trail. Turn right for the Highline Trail.

From the junction with the Derrick trail, the Highline T

rail turns north and climbs and climbs and climbs. Although the grade is moderate, the length of the continuous climb will challenge you. About 1 mile from Horton Spring, the trail tops off and descends to Horton Creek. We found small pools of water here. From the creek, the trail climbs up and over a small ridge before dropping into beautiful Horton Spring. This is a good source of water, but even after filtering it has a distinct aftertaste.

From Horton Spring, the Highline trail climbs away to the west. It then crosses several ridges before dropping down to the High Voltage power lines. This area is a very pretty meadow. It also marks the beginning of the Dude Fire area. This area was devastated in 1990 and has not fully recovered. The remaining 2 miles to Tonto Creek are without shade. The trail is difficult to find and is cluttered with burned trees. There is water available at Tonto Creek, but it too has an aftertaste.

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