The Pine Canyon Trail (Forest Service #26) can be accessed from two points: Just west of the town of Pine at the Pine Trailhead, or from a short dirt road off Highway 87 at the top of the Mogollon Rim. It is an excellent route for setting up a shuttle at either end of the trail. It affords a visitor, whether hiker, biker or horseback rider, the opportunity to explore Pine Canyon, which is located above and to the northeast of Pine.
Several similar side trails, along with the main Highline Trail, can be reached from this trail at various places along its route. Excellent views of the Rim, Pine Valley and Canyon, and beyond are available along the trail.
In many places, the trail parallels Milk Ranch Point, which is a large promontory of the Rim that rises a few hundred feet above it.
The vegetation along this trail is typical of that found both on the Rim and the terrain lying below it. Tall ponderosa pines are interspersed with juniper, scrub oak, and the chaparral common to this part of Tonto National Forest.
From the Highway 87 side, the trail quickly drops below the Rim and follows Pine Creek, as it makes its way down its side. From the Pine Trailhead side, it drops and rises as it passes through ravines and over ridges that lie along the base of the Rim. In places, the vegetation is very dense, while in others, it is sparse and low. Some sections pass by recently thinned areas where the Forest Service is taking measures to reduce the amount of fuel, in case of potential fires.
Two identified springs (Dripping and Parsnip) are encountered along its path. Neither produces a great deal of flow, but both usually have some water trickling out of them. Dripping is about 2 miles from the Pine Trailhead and Parsnip is about the same distance from the upper end of the trail. Both are in secluded hollows that are surrounded by greener, denser vegetation than found on the rest of the trail.
The hike up from the Pine Trailhead is the more strenuous of the two and constitutes an elevation gain of about 1,800 feet. However, it is also the easiest to reach from Payson and provides more parking, as well as access to other trails not available above the Rim. In any case, both offer restrooms and horse-staging areas for visitors.
Potable water is, like most of this part of the forest, unavailable and you should make certain you have sufficient quantities with you.
Starting from the Pine Trailhead, head up the slope while watching for the #26 signs. This trail climbs a small knoll and switches switches around to the northeast, while skirting private property that lies just below it. There are other trails that branch off to the south and west, so pay attention to the signage. You will always want to be heading north to northeast.
After half-a-mile, you will reach a fork in the trail. Continue left to follow the Pine Canyon trail to the north. A sign is located at this fork that indicates that the other branch heads off to the right to join the Highline trail. For the next mile, the trail winds along the beginning of Pine Canyon, as it begins to climb up the side of the Rim. In places, it follows an old double-track road that probably provided access to the spring during the years when this area was part of open range for cattle. Sections of the abandoned pipeline can be seen lying near the trail.
About a quarter-mile before reaching Dripping Springs, the trail changes to single-track and turns steeply up the side of the Rim before leveling off. After reaching the spring (watch for a small sign on the left side of the trail), it levels off again and begins to traverse the side of the Rim until reaching Parsnip Spring. From here on, it starts uphill again until it reaches the trailhead at the top.
To get there
From the intersections of Highways 260 and 87, travel east towards Pine for 15 miles. Watch for the turnoff to the Pine Trailhead on the right side of the road. The trailhead and parking lot are about .25 miles up this road. The trailhead sign is just above the parking lot. If you want to set up a shuttle vehicle at this point, return to the highway and continue on east through Pine and Strawberry for another 10 miles, until you reach the intersection where Highway 260 turns left toward Camp Verde. Continue on Highway 87 for another 1.2 miles and watch for the turnoff to Forest Service Road 6038, which is on the right side of the road. The trailhead is at the end of this road. If you reach the turnoff to the Rim Road (FSR300), you've gone too far.