No visitors guide to the Rim Country could be complete without providing information about the proverbial elephant in the living room -- the Tonto National Forest.
The Tonto National Forest is one of the largest in the country, with almost 3 million acres and elevations that range from 1,300 feet to nearly 8,000 feet. Within the Tonto National Forest you will find rugged, scenic landscapes from cactus to scrub oak to pine.
It is also one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country, according to information published by the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees our forests.
The primary access to this part of the Tonto National Forest is provided by State Highways 87 and 260. To get deeper into the forests there are forest roads marked with numbered routes.
A horizontal route marker on a forest road means it is generally suitable for passenger cars, provided they are operated in a safe manner suitable for the condition of the road. Vertical route markers indicate it is better to use a high-clearance of 4-wheel drive vehicle on it.
These roads are not paved and in wet weather become difficult and sometimes impossible to traverse.
This part of the Tonto National Forest is home to three different wilderness areas: the Mazatzal Wilderness, to the west of Payson, the Hellsgate Wilderness, to the southeast of Payson, and Pine Mountain Wilderness, southwest of Pine. There are a total of seven designated wilderness areas within the Tonto National Forest, with approximately 589,000 acres. The state's first designated Wild and Scenic River Area -- portions of the Verde River -- is also within the boundaries of the Tonto National Forest.
Wilderness areas are rare, wild places where one can retreat from civilization.
In 1964, in a nearly unanimous vote, the United States Congress enacted the Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System to "secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.
Over half of National Park Service lands are designated as wilderness.
Wilderness areas are places of refuge for plants, animals and humans. Wilderness areas exist on public lands around the country for observation, contemplation and exploration.
Visiting wilderness areas
To some people, wilderness can be a forested back yard or a park down the street.
However, Congress, through the Wilderness Act, defined wilderness and designated specific areas across the country to be protected as wilderness. The Wilderness Act established a National Wilderness Preservation System. This system of wilderness areas has grown to more than 105 million acres within four federal bureaus: National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service. The wilderness areas remain a part of a park, refuge, or forest; yet, they are distinguished by their congressional designation as wilderness, and they are managed according to wilderness legislation.
To set foot in wilderness, one should be prepared for a primitive experience. Knowledge of the area and possible risks leads to a safer experience that also protects wilderness resources. To find out more about how to safely and responsibly explore wilderness through the Leave No Trace program at the Web site www.lnt.org additional information is available on the site, www.wilderness.net. (information from these Web sites was used in this article)
Exploring wilderness areas offers many recreational opportunities, from sightseeing to expedition backpacking and from bird watching to white-water rafting.
Some people believe that wilderness is a "lock-up" of land that keeps people out. In reality, more than 12 million people visit wilderness each year on their own or with a guide to climb mountains, ride horses, hunt game, fish blue-ribbon trout streams, ski snow-capped peaks, raft rivers, canoe lakes, watch birds, take pictures and stargaze.
Many types of recreational uses are allowed in wilderness, except those needing mechanical transport or motorized equipment, such as motorboats, cars, trucks, off-road vehicles, bicycles and snowmobiles.