Alan Miller, the Pied Piper of the Payson Area Trails System, stood in the parking lot at the end of Granite Dells Road Feb. 15, patiently passing around a sign-in sheet.
“Got to make sure we know who to look for,” he quipped in his English accent. I wondered what type of hike I was getting myself into. The town website described it as an easy 3.25-mile loop around the base of Monument Peak.
Because of weather, other town-sponsored PATS hikes have been canceled this winter. So when we arrived at the parking area it surprised me to see 22 hikers ready to go despite the chilly temperature and patches of ice along the trail.
By 8:40 a.m., the frost had retreated and we set off just 10 minutes late for the two-hour meander.
Miller is one of the last standing from the PATS. His official title: trail guide.
“We created the system in the early 2000s to draw people who never left town,” he said.
At one time, the town committed to building an accessible trail system. A town employee oversaw the project, the council supported the master plan and Miller had 24 volunteers at his beck and call.
Then the recession hit, trail building grants dried up and so did town revenue. The town cut the trails position. Miller’s volunteers left because of age-related attrition.
Now, the trails in the Granite Dells area and others in the PATS system suffer under the relentless impact of off-road vehicles. Runoff and spinning tires have created gullies and exposed granite boulders making footing difficult.
The latest version of the Forest Service’s Travel Management Plan offers an opportunity to repair those torn up, poorly signed trails without seeing them deteriorate again — but the council so far remains focused on other things.
I held my breath watching older hikers slip on the loose granite covering the trail and boulders. Once I pulled out my phone to call for help, so sure a member of our group would need an evacuation. Miller’s list would come in handy for sure.
Yet Miller continues to offer tours of his beloved trails. Each month, he sends out emails announcing his guided tours on PATS trails like the Monument Peak Loop, the Peach Orchard Loop, Boulders, Cypress and others.
He stops often to make sure everyone keeps up.
“Pace good for everybody?” he asked.
What’s wonderful about the Monument Peak Trail is that it meanders through forest surrounded by houses from The Rim Club and The Knolls, yet it feels like a solo hike in the wilderness. With all the houses, it’s hard to get convincingly lost — lost.
“You wander through here, but end up finding habitation,” said Miller.
As our group cautiously moved forward on a 45-degree angled gully slope, I appreciated our guide because I didn’t see many signs.
That unleashed a cascade of stories.
Hikers admitted they had wandered out onto the Monument Peak Loop Trail cold turkey only to regret the lack of signs and the spider web of trails.
One hiker started out on the Monument Peak Loop Trail, but ended up finding a lake near Star Valley.
Another had taken an unmarked side trail that seemed to lead them farther and farther away. On the brink of calling search and rescue, they found their car.
Miller showed the group the brown, stick-like signs the Forest Service has either stuck in the ground or hammered onto a tree.
The sign for the Monument Peak Loop Trail said MP 4.
“What do you suppose ‘MP’ means?” asked Miller.
“Mile post?” I offered.
“Monument Peak,” deadpanned Miller.
“Doesn’t seem like we’ve come four miles,” I said.
“We haven’t. This is the fourth sign,” he explained.
Miller said the greatest value of the signs is that search and rescue has the GPS coordinates to each. So if you break an ankle, suffer a medical problem or get lost — remember the number on the last sign when you call for help because there won’t be a sign up sheet.
The three-mile trail circled Monument Peak, looming through the cypress, juniper and pines throughout the hike. We hiked through fields of 1.4-billion-year-old granite boulders, formed as molten blobs of rock two miles beneath the surface back when life on the surface had finally hit upon organisms with more than one cell. Titanic forces eventually forced the mass of granite to the surface, where the freezing and thawing of water in the layers of quartz, feldspar, mica and magnetite flaked off. This caused the rounding of the boulders along fractures and fissures — leaving the great rounded monoliths of stone that grace the landscape today.
The trail wanders through this beautiful landscape, sometimes on a narrow path, sometimes broad where hikers have avoided the most damaged bits.
Mireille Green and her 4-month-old standard schnauzer named Odin, didn’t care if the trail offered challenges.
“This is his first hike in the woods,” she said in a French accent as Odin criss-crossed the trail at the end of the leash, nose to the ground.
Odin couldn’t decide if the different plants were more interesting to sniff, the rocks or the ice-rimmed puddles.
Didn’t matter to Green, she just marched right through water, sometimes towing Odin, sometimes keeping him in check.
“It’s good for him to learn,” she said.
In the end, we all got to our cars safe and sound — Miller’s check-in sheet still safely stowed in his backpack.
The next PATS hike is on March 21. Miller will lead a 5.5-mile hike on the Houston Loop from Star Valley. The hike starts at 8:30 a.m. Miller sends out an email with the location to meet.
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