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. It embraces the Rim Country with magnificent cliff faces, hidden meadows, forests and abundant wildlife. 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.
State Highways 87 and 260 provide the primary access to this part of the Tonto National Forest. 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.
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).
Visiting a wilderness area
Exploring wilderness areas offer many recreational opportunities, from sight seeing to expedition backpacking and from bird-watching to white water rafting.
Some people believe that wilderness is a "lock-up" "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 snowcapped 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.
Drought conditions in the Southwest
The Southwest is now in a drought of unknown duration. On average, there has been little snow for several winters and consequently only minimal spring runoff.
The national forest is very stressed from dry winter cold and above average spring temperatures. Combined, these things add up to a high risk of fire. For now, the danger is minimal, but whether or not rain and snow come to the Rim this fall and winter, that could change.
Always be careful with fire in the forest. Check with the Payson Ranger Station on fire conditions before an excursion into the backcountry.
The Payson Ranger Station can be reached at (928) 474-7900.