Signs Put Hikers Hot On The Trails

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Hikers, bikers and horseback riding enthusiasts will soon find it easier to negotiate the Rim country's intricate network of trails thanks to a trail sign project initiated this week by the Gila County Trails Alliance.

The project includes the installation of sand-blasted wooden signs to mark parking areas and trailheads. Additional directional arrow signs that will be placed along the trails where needed were hand-carved by trails alliance members out of weathered boards so they blend with the surrounding forest.

The group installed its first signs on Tuesday at the Monument Peak and Boulders trails at the end of Granite Dells Road near the old Longhorn Ranch. A parking area also is marked for the two trails where the road dead ends into the ranch.

Ben Hitzhusen, a member of the trails alliance board of directors, said the sign project is part of a master trails plan the group is coordinating with the Town of Payson and the Payson Ranger District, which approved the design of the signs.

"Those two trails are proposed for inclusion into a trail system that's part of a network around the Town of Payson," said Walter Thole, who supervises the recreation trails for the Ranger District.

"The sandblasted trailhead signs for just these two trails cost us about $280," Hitzhusen said, "so considering the hundreds of miles of trails in the Rim country, this is going to be a project that takes some time to complete."

The trails alliance, a group of equestrians, hikers and non-motorized bikers whose mission is to preserve and maintain the Rim country's trails, is funding the project through member dues and donations.

The organization also tries to educate its membership and the public on trails ethics and etiquette. In conjunction with that function, the alliance has been working with a group of ATV enthusiasts to try and help them find safe places to ride where damage to the trails will be minimal.

The alliance also is working to restore a historic mail trail, often referred to as the Old Mail Trail, that stretches from Camp Verde to Payson and was in use from 1882-1914.

"It serviced Strawberry, Pine and all points between Camp Verde and Payson including several ranches," said Ron Gilbert, president of the trails alliance. "There are parts of the trail that are still there, and there are portions that are not there anymore. Parts of it are on private land."

The trails alliance, which is coordinating the project with officials from the Prescott, Coconino and Tonto National forests and trails organizations in Yavapai and Coconino counties, hopes to keep as much of the original trail intact as possible.

"Besides our educational activities, we also try to keep a number of these kinds of trails preservation and maintenance projects going," Gilbert said.

Assistance from groups like the Gila Country Trails Alliance is vital to Forest Service efforts, Thole said.

"There is an inventory of 245 miles of approved trails that go through the Payson Ranger District, including over 70 miles of the Arizona Trail," he said.

"We have a real backlog in trail maintenance, and that's why we welcome the support."

The Arizona Trail is a 750-mile-long trail project that, when completed, will run north and south from Utah to the Mexico border.

"It utilizes quite a bit of existing trails," Thole said.

In the Rim country, The Arizona Trail comes off the Rim, runs along the Highline Trail and then works its way through the Mazatzal Wilderness.

According to Gilbert, the Gila County Trails Alliance has "been around for about 10 years, but both membership and participation have declined in recent years."

Individuals interested in joining can attend one of the group's meetings, which are held at 7 p.m. the first Monday of each month at the Gila County Courthouse.

"We usually have some pretty good speakers on subjects of interest like maps and compasses," Gilbert said.

For more information, call 472-8756.

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