It hugs the underside of the Mogollon Rim, running more than 50 miles connecting highways 87 in the west and 260 in the east a breathtaking national treasure of a trail, but it has seen better days.
A Valley organization, the Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona (VOAZ), has taken up the cause of rebuilding the Highline Trail, qualifying for grants from the state and federal government totaling more than $150,000.
Originally created by ranchers in the 1880s to ease travel between winter grazing grounds below the Rim and summer pastures on top, the Highline Trail snakes through pristine woods, meadows and streams. It offers hikers awe-inspiring vistas of the Mogollon Rim and the forest below.
Early 20th century author Zane Grey wrote about the trail in his novels and built his hunting cabin close to the thoroughfare to find inspiration from its beauty.
In 1978, the federal government designated the trail a National Recreational Trail. It is the second longest such trail in the state.
The Highline Trail sits a short 60- to 90-minute drive from the Phoenix area and offers visitors many ways to enjoy a day hike or take off a week and hike the complete 50-plus miles.
Nonetheless, the trail has some significant problems. Runoff from the Rim, the original builder’s disregard for fall lines and fire damage from the Dude Fire — all make many parts of the trail treacherous.
Nonetheless, VOAZ Director Michael Baker decided to focus his group’s resources on rehabilitating the trail. “Our interest was, No. 1, the proximity to the Valley, and two, the spectacular location of the trail and its importance in economic development,” said Baker, “but parts are wretched.”
Modeled after a group in Colorado, VOAZ originally organized under the estate of Dorothy M. Garske in 1999, then became a non-profit in 2003, said Baker.
“We’ve been doing projects ever since,” he said.
At a meeting in 2011 hosted by the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, Baker met with members of the Forest Service and offered to help rebuild the trail — part of which includes the Arizona Trail.
“The AT goes from Pine to Washington Park, then there are three segments east of there,” said Baker, “Washington Park to the fish hatchery, this includes most of the burn area, the fish hatchery to See Canyon, and a leg from See Canyon to Highway 260.”
Already, VOAZ has had six volunteer workdays on the trail.
Baker said VOAZ decided to focus on one of the few loop trails in the system, the Horton Creek to Derrick Trail loop.
“A lot of Horton Creek was an old road,” said Baker. “We did 11 new realignment sections. The Derrick Trail entrance used to be at the campground and we realigned that and moved it down the road farther.”
Unlike many trail organizations, VOAZ is an organization with resources, but only enough to improve the projects it is involved in now. VOAZ does own small earth-moving equipment, which makes trenching new trail segments possible.
March was the last volunteer day of this year, but Barker said the hot weather and remoteness of the current repairs has stopped him from organizing another volunteer day. Instead, he has hired Youth Corps workers to work over the summer. Baker does not see holding another volunteer workday until the fall.
Baker said he has had a difficult time connecting with local volunteers.
“Most of the volunteers come from Phoenix,” he said.
VOAZ does have a Web site: www.voaz.org for anyone interested in getting involved.
Baker did not mention a timeline to complete the restoration of the trail, but the Web site lists the ambitious work VOAZ hopes to accomplish on the Highline Trail, its most ambitious project to date:
• Pine to Geronimo — Best maintained reach especially toward Pine TH. Between Red Rock Springs and Geronimo there are about six locations requiring short realignments.
• Geronimo to Washington Park — Several serious problem areas due largely to poor alignment — Bray Creek in particular. Additional survey work needed.
• Washington Park to Hatchery — The heart of the Lone Fire burn area has seen dramatic change due to spread of non-native grass introduced to retain soil. Substantial realignment and rehabilitation work required.
• Hatchery to See Canyon — Wide range of conditions from sections requiring only light maintenance to realignments over one mile in length. Some beautiful deep canyons as yet unscarred by major fires.
• See Canyon to 260 — A beautiful forest trail has degraded due to lack of maintenance and some poor alignment.
VOAZ also plans to create more loops and entrances to make day hikes more attractive.
“One of the most beautiful areas of Arizona is in the middle of the Highline Trail,” said Baker. “It just needs to be more accessible.”