Hiking Happiness Not Happenstance

The moderately steep trail is both man- and dog-friendly. The trail crosses over a stream several times, offering a place for four-legged hikers to cool down.

The moderately steep trail is both man- and dog-friendly. The trail crosses over a stream several times, offering a place for four-legged hikers to cool down. Photo by Alexis Bechman. |

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The panoramic view from Milk Ranch Point off the Donahue Trail is well worth the effort.

After a week at the computer, I slumped into Saturday morning.

If I let my inertia get a hold of me, I can wallow a whole weekend away sleeping, eating, napping and sitting some more in front of the computer screen. Then comes Monday and I start it all over again.

Humans were not designed to sit all day and have surely not adapted to cubicle-based lifestyles.

Experts agree that too much sitting spawns a sour mood.

But one thing can always pull me out: Lacing up my boots and kicking myself out of the house for a good hike. And I’m not imagining that I feel better: Countless studies suggest that regular exercise not only boosts mood, it can prevent depression.

University of Arizona professor Andrew Weil and author of “Spontaneous Happiness” writes that rising rate of depression in the United States stem in part from inactive lifestyles.

“Note that behaviors strongly associated with depression — reduced physical activity and human contact, overconsumption of processed food, a desire for endless distraction — are the very behaviors that more and more people now can indulge in, or are even forced to embrace by the nature of their sedentary indoor jobs,” Weil writes.

While I certainly won’t ever sprain an ankle sitting at my desk, I also won’t risk seeing something amazing.

Determined to stretch my legs and find something to write about, I decided to stop at the Pine Trailhead, which I have driven past countless times.

The Pine Trailhead, roughly a quarter mile south of Pine on the east side of Highway 87, connects with a larger network of trails that offer hours of wandering enjoyment.

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The northern end of the Mazatzal Mountain range is visible across the valley from the Donahue Trail in Pine.

At the parking area, a section of the Arizona Trail bisects the Highline National Recreation Trail. The Highline has more than 100 miles of trails and six trailheads offering numerous backpacking possibilities.

The Pine Trailhead sits on the far west end of the Highline Trail system.

On the agenda for the day was the Donahue Trail, which maps promised would top out near Milk Ranch Point and provide expansive views of the valley, but at the cost of a steep elevation gain.

The trail starts out easy. Meandering along the base of the Mogollon Rim, the trail rambles through one of the Rim Country’s best features — the largest stand of ponderosa pines in the world. After only a few hundred feet, the forest closes in more tightly, leading to a small creek, which the trail crosses several times.

As I skipped over the creek, I felt my mood lifting already.

My new mood was only slightly deflated five minutes later when I looked up and realized the trail was making a beeline for the Rim up a series of steep switchbacks. Because horsemen cut most of the trails in the area in piecemealed sections to link homesteads and ranches, they are generally steep, rocky and rugged, with elevations ranging from 5,000 to 8,000 feet.

Luckily, even on a weekend, not many use the trail, so my grimaces were only shared with my dog and hiking partner.

The going got tougher, however, when the Donahue Trail split from the Highline Trail, to ascend to the top of the Rim. The Highline Trail meanwhile continued east along the base of the Rim for another 50 miles, ending at the 260 Trailhead.

For the average hiker, the Donahue Trail will take at least several hours to complete.

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IF YOU GO DONAHUE TRAIL No. 27 From Payson, drive 18 miles north on Highway 87. Just before Pine, turn east at the signs for the Pine Trailhead. The hike begins easterly out of the parking area on the Highline Trail. For the first half mile, the trail is flat and easygoing. The trail follows a small creek to a signed junction where you continue right, crossing the creek. After another half mile, a small sign for the Donahue Trail points north up the Mogollon Rim. From there, the trail is well marked and follows a series of switchbacks before leveling off in a rocky area. Stop here or continue north, where the trail eventually connects with a Forest Service road. Distance: From parking lot is about 3 miles one way. Elevation: 5,600 to 6,700 feet Difficulty: Moderate

Fortunately, my mood rose along with the elevation. With each turn in switchbacks, a more expansive view of pine trees emerged.

To the south, the canyon leading into Tonto Natural Bridge State Park cut through the horizon.

Flanking the path were tangled red shoots of Manzanita and scrub oak.

After two miles of huffing up some slick, steep sections of trail, the path leveled out, with a bluff offering panoramic views of the Rim Country.

Sitting near a patch of swaying yucca to savor a Snickers, I felt content.

Even though my cubicle legs had resisted every step, my mood had caught the updraft.

Riding the high, I breezed the downhill.

Now only if they would just make a hiking app for the computer, I would never have to leave my desk again.

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