Spring Is Prime Hiking Time In Rim Country

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Where do all those little roads off Highways 87 and 260 lead? Take a hike and find out.

The Rim country offers a patchwork of trails with varying degrees of difficulty to take residents and visitors with wanderlust to some of the most magnificent scenery in the state.

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Avid hiker Dave Engleman shows some of the ancient petroglyphs hikers in the Rim country can discover, if they know what to look for. Engleman and the Payson Packers hiking group make regular forays into the many special places that can be found around Payson.

Probably the area's top trails are the General Crook on top of the Rim and the Highline below it. Both run east to west, and are relatively level in comparison to others that can change hundreds of feet in elevation in less than a few miles.

Take any of the Rim country trails through the Tonto National Forest, and you're in for an invigorating hike through breathtaking landscapes.

The General Crook Trail, (named Forest Road 130 by the Forest Service) runs 114 miles from Fort Verde to the Cottonwood Wash through the Long Valley, Blue Ridge, Chevelon and Heber Ranger Districts. Rated "more difficult," it is a lightly used trail that is usually open from May to November.

If you're into hard-core hiking, Crook is for you.

Originally used by trappers, prospectors and settlers, the trail eventually became a way for General George Crook to travel from Fort Apache in the White Mountains to his headquarters at Fort Whipple near Prescott. For two decades, the trail was used to resupply Fort Apache.

Hikers can still find blazes on oak and pine trees that were used to mark the trail when settlers first used it.

The Highline Trail begins at the Pine Trailhead and weaves 51 miles through the Rim country before ending at the intersection of Highway 260 at Forest Road 300, east of Christopher Creek.

The trail was named Highline because of its location on a high contour of ridges below the Rim. In 1979, the Highline was designated a National Recreation Trail.

Visitors searching for a short, but scenic outing might want to hike the 2.5-mile Forest Road 98 trail that actually is a winding, old Jeep road that leads to lush, riparian grounds at Fossil Springs. The trailhead is located off Forest Road 708, 4 miles from Strawberry. There is a parking lot at the trailhead.

The trail descends 1,320 feet into the springs that have been nurtured for years by the often rapidly following Fossil Creek.

There is another route, the Flume Trail, which can be found 5 miles down Forest Road 708, near Childs Power Plant.

At the springs, swimming, picnicking and exploring the pools are popular pastimes. The 1.5-mile Ellison Creek Trail that leads to a camping area and beautiful cascading waterfall also is very popular for those wanting to hike along waterways. Located 10 miles north of Payson at an elevation of 5,200 feet, the trail is well used from April until October.

The falls are an easy hike from the campground and trailhead located near Forest Road 199, off the Houston Mesa Road.

Wading in the shallow pools and frolicking in the about 40-foot waterfalls are popular pastimes.

Dave Engleman, a former park ranger and avid hiker, has a wealth of knowledge about the trails throughout the Rim country and some of the wonders they can reveal if hikers know what they are looking for.

A hike to West Clear Creek offers a refreshing experience, he said.

Do you like caves? Native American ruins? Native American writings? Payson and the Rim country has them all if you know where and how to look for them, Engleman said.

There are trails like the City Creek Trail off Doll Baby Road. There is the Spanish Ruin hike, the Hell's Gate trail, and the Horton Spring trail. Explore Preacher Canyon Cave. Towel Canyon Indian Ruins, in Coconino National Forest, is a rewarding, but difficult hike on a trail covered with volcanic boulders. The trail offers spectacular views of Towel Peaks and Hackberry Mountain.

Then there is the Oak Spring Trail, now a part of the Arizona Trail.

Hot summer days lead us up the Mogollon Rim to a cool 7,000-foot plus elevation of the Coconino National Forest. There are so many beautiful areas up there that you can create your own hiking trails, Engleman said.

One of the forest trails is the 10-mile Pine Trail located near Beeline milepost 279. It ends south of the community of Pine. Make your own trail by bushwhacking into Kehl Canyon, Miller Canyon, Dirty Neck, Kinder Draw, Toms Creek, Clover Creek, East Clear Creek, and the most spectacular West Clear Creek.

Take the old Stage Coach Trail to Strawberry. Stop and look out over Pine Canyon or drop down off the Rim to the unfinished railroad tunnel. Hit the Pivot Rock Trail and crawl into the rock cave.

Hiking on the Rim you may see herds of elk, deer, wild turkey, sometimes bear and mountain lions, Engleman said.

Other hikes you won't want to miss, according to longtime Christopher Creek resident and another avid hiker, Jim Hagen, include:

  • Box Canyon -- "Just west of the R Bar C ranch road on the first curve up the hill there's a place for cars to pull off and park," Hagen said. "It's pretty steep, but it's one of the most beautiful spots in the area."
  • Confluence of Tonto and Hagler Creeks -- "There's a little-known spot where Tonto and Hagler Creeks come together where the bridge goes across," he said. "There's a trail that goes west about a half mile to a little spring and stream that runs into Tonto Creek."
  • Canyon Creek --Go up on top of the Rim and take the Young Road about 5 miles," Hagen said. "Go past the campground 3 or 4 miles to Canyon Creek. There's a fish hatchery at Upper Canyon Creek, and fly fishing at Lower Canyon Creek. There's just some beautiful meadows up there."
  • Christopher Creek headwaters -- "Just past Tall Pines Market is a Forest Service road," Hagen said. "At the end of the road there's a trail that goes to the headwaters of Christopher Creek. It's about a 2-mile hike through some real pretty woods."
  • Horton Creek headwaters -- "My favorite hike of all is to go to the headwaters of Horton Creek, Hagen said. "Take the road that goes north just past Kohl's Ranch up to where the road crosses the bridge where Horton and Tonto creeks come together. Park in the parking lot and go up Horton Creek for about a half mile."

Horton is dry at that point.

"Years and years ago it ran year-round, but after a major storm it took a nosedive and went underground and it still does. After a half mile you hit the creek again and it's a beautiful hike. After about 3.5 miles you come to the headwaters where the water comes out from under the Rim. It's a real pretty waterfall."

Then there are the trails at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. Not only is the scenery wonderful, but the park, at this time of year, offers the opportunity for extraordinary bird watching.

Tonto Natural Bridge visitors are advised to come early for the best sightings.

"The natural bridge park is a riparian area unlike any other," Park Ranger Cathe Descheemaker said. Because of its wide elevation variations, a large number of birds can usually be seen in a very compressed tour.

The earlier you come the more birds you see and hear," she said. "Early in the morning is the best time to see birds."

Descheemaker said she has seen yellow warblers, violet-green swallows, white-throated swifts, Cassin's kingbirds, black phoebes, white breasted nuthatches, canyon wrens and phainopeplas.

"Those were in addition to the birds like the ravens and jays that people have all over Payson," she said.

While ravens are common in the Rim country, nesting ravens are not -- and the bridge affords an opportunity to experience that rare sight.

"There's an old Native American Eskimo legend that anyone who views a raven's nest is supposed to be extremely blessed because they are so secretive in where they nest," she said. "They are one of the most intelligent birds."

Besides the time of day, the time of year is a critical factor for birdwatching, and this is prime season, according to Descheemaker.

"Spring is the best time for birdwatching because it's when the migratory birds come through."

Hikers and walkers should bring binoculars and water and wear hiking shoes.

For more information, call the bridge at (928) 476-4202.

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is located off Highway 87 10 miles north of Payson.

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