What a view!
We assembled in Payson in the early morning light. The destination? The Derrick Trail #33 on the Fish Hatchery Road.
Carpooling east about 17 miles outside of town, we met two other intrepid Tuesday hikers at the trailhead parking lot. A civilized lot, the Forest Service maintains an actual toilet there. Luxury! It was already warmer, so many of our gang-of-20 peeled down to T-shirts before we made our way across and up the road to the actual trail.
Finding the trailhead is pretty easy — on the eastern edge of the parking area a sign says “Derrick TH Parking” — just look over the top of the sign, across FR 289 and spot the hiker sign 50 feet along the road. Walk a few feet up the path and you’ll see a sign confirming that you are indeed on Derrick Trail 33, which is essentially one of those minor “feeder” trails or “access” trails, which leads to something more significant, in this case, the Highline Trail.
This beginning portion of the hike was some of the steepest on the trip as it went switchbacking easterly up a hill. The Upper Tonto Creek Campground was just a couple hundred yards out of sight down to the left. After about a third of a mile, we reached a cattle gate in a fence and continued following the trail as it zigged off to the right. The forest so far had been an open and pleasant mix of the usual trees and foliage: oak, juniper, pine, et al. There was some interesting smooth, gray rock and a few very large trees. The climb was both gentle and relentless.
After 1.75 miles we began to see manzanita in great quantity, including some the fattest and tallest you’re likely to have seen. The forest wasn’t as open from here on, tending to close-in near to the trail. However, there were a few spots where the views opened up toward the left/north, providing excellent scenes of the Mogollon Rim and areas below. When you go, stop to breathe at each of these, the view is just stunning. At one point, we had fallen behind the others. Just standing, looking south and west, we could see the Mazatzals and North Peak underneath a blue sky covered in thin, white clouds. There wasn’t a peep out of any bird; it was so quiet we could hear our own hearts beating.
You’ll know when you meet the Highline Trail because of the big brown sign and a white diamond on a nearby tree, about 2.7 miles from the parking area. On today’s hike this was our turnaround point, but the hiker looking for further adventure could go westerly on the Highline Trail 2.5 miles to Horton Springs or hang a right to eventually attain the See Canyon trailhead.
Enjoying our mid-hike snack amongst the big, shady trees, two of our number strung up hammocks and munched in stylish comfort, suspended above the jagged rocks and dubious tree stumps.
The return trip was half an hour faster than the trip up. We slid a few times on rolling rocks, but no one actually fell. Disappointing was the lack of wildflowers though we did see one type, a very low-to-the-ground, daisy-type flower we didn’t know the name of. There weren’t very many of them — the dry winter and spring had apparently curtailed the growth of flowers this year.
After we reached the parking lot, having hiked about 5.5 miles in all, we were ready to have a sit down in the car. Another enjoyable day in the woods.