We visited one of the original 13 states, Virginia, this summer, and it was beautiful.

The countryside was lush green, interspersed with timbered ridgelines and meandering creeks in almost every draw. I had a desire to hike into some of this country and do a little exploring just to see what was there.

Much to my surprise, most of the entry points were posted no trespassing, hunting or fishing because it was private land. I was a bit disappointed as I looked from the country road and saw whitetail deer and wild turkeys in the adjoining meadows.

The trails open to the public were very limited and busy with many hikers, joggers, and bicyclists all wanting to enjoy the outdoors and a wilderness experience. This is especially true now, as folks stay close to home.

A cross-country hike or following a creek with a fishing rod in hand was not the norm. I was quick to make a mental comparison of where I had been just a couple of days before picking blackberries and wading a small stream watching trout vanish near rocks and undercut banks.

The entire afternoon I had not seen a soul and the only other living creatures were a mule deer buck and a couple of cow elk.

Living in Payson in the Rim Country is hard to beat. Tonto National Forest surrounds us, and the wilderness experience may be only a canyon away.

Just a short drive from town and one can be hiking in literally any direction on public land. We don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, because we, the public own it.

The Tonto National Forest was created in 1905, in part to protect the watersheds of the Verde and Salt rivers under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Tonto is the largest national forest in Arizona and the seventh in acreage of the 154 national forests in the USA. Our national forest is 56% of Gila County, which is a true example of the wide open spaces of the West.

It is hard to fathom that there are over three million visitors annually from the desert lowlands to the forested mountains of the Mogollon Rim.

Living in Payson, I am sure we all understand the Tonto’s popularity with the high volume of traffic on any summer weekend. Metropolitan Phoenix residents trying to escape the Valley heat make a beeline to the Rim Country.

Even with the high volume of summer visitors to the area, it is easy to hike to the next hill or drainage and not see another person in the entire journey.

My longtime friend, Dean Pederson says he can walk for 50 miles in any direction from his home in Pine and not have to cross private property.

This is what an Easterner, Teddy Roosevelt, who went West to improve his health and stamina realized. He wanted future generations to enjoy what we have and thus the national forests of the West were greatly expanded under his presidency.

His passion of hunting big game 120 years ago is still a reality on public land in Arizona as well as many other Western states. We don’t have to ask permission when we pursue elk, deer, bears, and other game on any of the national forests provided we have a license to hunt.

Once one leaves the town limits of our small communities, it becomes the wilderness. The wide open spaces and the terrain can be hostile, so always be prepared when hiking the Tonto or any of the other national forests of Arizona.

I encourage you to leave it a better place because you were there. It is the public’s land, our land, so take the personal responsibility so that others may enjoy the Tonto National Forest, a multi-use domain.

This weekend take a friend hiking, fishing, or just exploring the Arizona outdoors, God’s creation.

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