Located a few miles southeast of the center of Payson is an area known locally as the Granite Dells. The Stewart Pocket geological structure lies at the heart of this picturesque site. As a deep, wide ravine stretches for several miles, both north and south of the area, the pocket marks the trailhead for the loop. Stewart Creek drainage is contained within the pocket and the creek is evidently the natural force that created this unique place. This is a great hike for spring, fall or early winter, but may be too hot during the summer months, unless taken early in the morning.
The Dells themselves are part of a high ridge directly west of the pocket. They alone are worth the short drive to the area. Steep, rocky buttresses that provide a prominent backdrop to the pocket, they are surrounded by outcroppings of various unusual formations of natural design. These outcroppings jut out and above stands of juniper, pines, firs and a variety of ground cover common to the Payson area. Elk, deer, wild boar and many smaller species of animals can be found here. Often, during the mating season, one will hear a bull elk calling from somewhere beyond the trail.
The north section of the Boulder Trail begins at the end of the road leading to the pocket. There is a sign there that describes the loop, but it recently fell victim to vandalism in the form of paintballs. The trail actually begins across the pocket on its north side.
It can be seen leading off into the trees. There is a sign near that point indicating the direction taken for either the north or the south portion of the trail.
Starting out on the north part, a visitor will be following the west side of Stewart Creek as the trail proceeds along the natural ups and downs of the surrounding topography. This part of the trail has sections that are somewhat steep and, as the surface is mostly decomposed granite, it requires caution when traveling on it. It is easy to slip or fall if one is not paying attention. Good hiking boots or shoes are a must on this trail.
The trail follows the creek bed north for a mile, sometimes moving away from it for a short distance before returning to it. After that, it takes a definite turn to the west and continues to follow the creek for another quarter mile before reaching the junction with the south portion of the loop. Watch for the sign, as this part turns almost immediately to the south.
Close to this spot is the beginning of the Cypress Hill Trail that leads off to the northeast for two miles until it reaches the road that leads into the Dells area from Payson.
Another car could be left where the trail meets the road, if it were to be included in a day hike. However, there is only room for one or two vehicles to park near the road and a deep ditch separates it from the road. Watch for a sign indicating this east end of the trailhead, as you drive toward the pocket area.
Continuing on the south loop of the Boulder Trail, one passes through both open sections of land and those that are densely covered with vegetation.
From here, there are excellent vistas of the Dells and many of the hills and outcroppings that make this place special. In many places, the trail drops down into sandy washes and meanders over ridges and ravines, as it makes its way back to the pocket. There are several rock cairns marking the trail along the way, but there are also places where there is little to indicate its route. Should you get off the trail, keep in mind that it will always be heading south and parallels the ridge to the west.
Toward the end of the south loop, the trail rises up out of the ravines and turns southeast where it becomes a narrow road. This part eventually enters a flat, wide, meadow-like area covered with a variety of native grasses. Stands of trees outline much of this meadow.
This part of the trail/road is easily accessible to ATVs and is quite popular for that type of use. At times, there is a great number of them in the Stewart Pocket. Most of the rest of the loop is too narrow and steep for them, but could be traversed by an experienced mountain biker.
Beyond the meadow, the trail/road returns to trees and soon comes out overlooking Stewart Pocket, a short distance southwest of where the loop began. You can either cross over the pocket at this point, or continue on to the east until you return to the original starting point. A large, fenced-in ranch is located just to the south of the parking area for the pocket. Its arena and riding area are just beyond the fence. Great views of the Dells are here and, at the right time of the day can provide a special backdrop for a snapshot or two.
To Get There
From the intersection of highways 87 and 260 in Payson head east on 260 for a half mile. At the second stop light (just beyond the Safeway Supermarket parking lot), turn right on Granite Dells Road (FR435). This 3.2-mile, partly paved and partly gravel road, ends at the parking area for the trailhead. It winds along parallel to Highway 260 and travels through both residential property and open forest. It also passes by the maintenance yard for the Tonto Forest Service Ranger District.
Additionally, from the Highway 260 side, and about a mile from the Granite Dells turnoff, is the Payson ranger office for the Forest Service. The office is on the right side of the road. Its sign is visible from the highway. The office can provide maps and other information about the forest to visitors. It is open daily Monday through Friday.
The Gila County Trail Alliance works on the maintenance of the North and South Boulder Trails. As you hike them, do your part and pick up any trash you might find along the way. And always, what you pack in, you must pack out.