Hikers Find Happy Trails In Rim Country

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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. 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 9 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 more 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.

It should be mentioned that one of the three hikers interviewed admitted a desire to keep a few of his or her very favorite hiking routes a secret but he or she did manage to come up with some viable alternatives.

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," said Roberts. "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 tip as well: the chances of seeing large wildlife are greatest before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

Walt 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."

Kay 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 farther. 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 have been whetted, the Payson Packers meet every Tuesday at 8:45 a.m. in the parking lot in front of the Rim Country Mall. There are three groups: fast, moderate and slow walkers, and each takes a different hike each week.

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