Stepping out of my Jeep, at the parking area at the beginning of the Barnhardt trailhead, I shield my eyes from the bright morning sunlight five miles up a rutted dirt road, leading up from Highway 87. Cactus and stands of juniper crowd together on the mesa, jockeying for space in the rocky soil beneath a hazy, blue sky.
My companions, all members of the Payson Packers, have been here before, but we keep coming back because we know this four-mile trail never disappoints.
A petite woman in her early 60s, adjusts the visor clasped on her head of graying hair, her ponytail bound by a pink band. “I’ve hiked this trail maybe 10 times over the years, but I always see something I missed. It’s one of the reasons I keep coming back.”
Easy access and rewarding vistas makes the Barnhardt Trail one of the most popular in the Mazatzal Mountain Wilderness. It climbs through stands of junipers and oaks, hugs the steep sides of a canyon then bottoms out in the streambed of Barnhardt Creek. The Willow Fire roared through here several years ago, leaving hundreds of charred and broken trees as testament to its fury. Ruined stumps and snags protrude from the ground on both sides of the trail, fallen warriors gone before their time.
One hiker waves toward a burned out snag. “The first time I hiked this trail was before the big fire,” he says.
“It looked a lot different then. Those trees provided a lot of shade during warmer months.” Removing his baseball cap, he adds, “Kinda miss ’em.”
Another 300 yards up the rising trail, some of us stop for a moment to catch our breath and the view. We’re now high above the creek, and angular outcroppings jut out in every direction. Millions of years ago, these mountains reared up from below and left a ravaged and landscape behind. Upended layers of sedimentary inland seabed lay scattered and broken, witness to the power of that ancient assault.
Other members of the group push ahead. They don’t look back, lost in their own reverie. We’ll catch up with them later, since there’s only one way up to the top. No chance of getting lost or sidetracked.
The creek below ripples and dashes as it cascades into small pools isolated from one another by stretches of travertine-clad boulders, some as big as a small house. Darker pools indicate depths of several feet.
Composed of many layers of sandstone, shale and other deposits left behind on the ancient seafloor of the inland ocean that filled Tonto Basin millions of years ago, the skyscraper walls of the canyon tower high over our heads. Anti-clines of twisted and torn layers of quartz intrusions scar its surface in many places.
Here, the trail narrows on a steep slope filled with chaparral and more burned trees where a misstep could send one plunging down into a snarl of dense undergrowth.
Three-and-a-half miles up its many switchbacks, we arrive at a grotto in the mountainside. A shallow pool of cool water, often dry in the summer, flows out of the almost hidden waterfall a few yards back in the narrow opening in the grotto. We climb over the boulders strewn along the water’s edge until we come to the point where the waterfall drops from the slippery side of the mountain into a pebble-strewn pool at its base. The water is cold snowmelt. The air is frigid in this confined space. The sound of the water gives visitors to this grotto a sense of solemnity and serendipity.
Reluctantly, we eventually climb back down from our perch by the waterfall and continue. We pass out of the shade of the grotto into the bright sunlight as the trail crosses the open slope of a north-facing peak. After another half-mile we stop at our destination for a snack and the view. The rugged flanks of one of the Mazatzal Mountains offers a bruising lesson in geology. Layer after layer of sedimentary rocks of various shades of red, tan and gray are stacked one upon another, interspersed by ragged intrusions of white quartz and dolomite
This higher section of the trail remains exposed to the elements — including an ever-present breeze. Sometimes, the wind makes the trail untenable.
We reach our cars physically weary, but mentally refreshed.
We will come here again as often as we can, marveling in its majesty as though it was our very first time.