Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 49: Whiterock Mesa, Part III

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

I camped at Polk Spring last night and woke up for sunrise this morning. A clearing with only scattered mesquite trees proved a good spot; on the far side, a little stream trickles down from the spring beneath towering sycamore trees golden with their fall plumage. Mesquite trees are really cool – their leaves are incredibly photosensitive. They actually fold up overnight (see below) and then open during the day as light levels increase until radiation peaks before beginning to close again and repeating the cycle the following day.

Mesquite trees with leaves folded, spotted camping at Polk Spring
Arizona Trail, Passage 25 (Whiterock Mesa)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Mesquite trees at Polk Spring, camping along the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 25 (Whiterock Mesa)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Polk Spring, a great camping spot along the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 25 (Whiterock Mesa)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

Departing Polk Spring, the trail continues to provide magnificent views of the northern Mazatzal Mountains and the neighboring Red Hills as it descends to the East Verde River. The trail will pass through both mountain ranges – first the Red Hills, then the Mazatzals. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” The Mazatzal Wilderness, which the trail will remain within now until just shy of Strawberry in the central Mazatzals, is about 390 square miles in size. It was one of the original Wilderness Areas designated upon the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

North Peak (ahead) and Red Hills (right) viewed from Arizona Trail hiking down to East Verde River
Arizona Trail, Passage 25 (Whiterock Mesa)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
North Peak, Mazatzal Mountains (left) & Red Hills (ahead), viewed from Arizona Trail backpacking toward East Verde River
Arizona Trail, Passage 25 (Whiterock Mesa)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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Bear scat. No bears seen yet on this backpacking trip, though.
Arizona Trail, Passage 25 (Whiterock Mesa)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of North Peak, Mazatzal Mountains (left) and Red Hills (ahead) above East Verde Valley, hiking toward the river
Arizona Trail, Passage 25 (Whiterock Mesa)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

On reaching the East Verde River valley, there’s a sign pointing the way to the otherwise unmarked crossing. Quite faded from the Arizona sun, the sign gives the distance to Mexico now as 440 miles. (Note: for someone heading nobo, the crossing point might be easier to identify since there is more of a bank on the north side and thus the point where the trail climbs the bank to begin the ascent up Whiterock Mesa). I greet two hikers going north as they cross, then do likewise. Note: this is the same river that I crossed several times and backpacked along the banks of during the descent off the Mogollon Rim to meet the Highline Trail at Washington Park. Needless to say, the River is much bigger here, and since there’s no fixed crossing as there is for the other three rivers that the Arizona Trail crosses, care must be made in the crossing.

Hiking across the East Verde River – 440 miles to Mexico
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
East Verde River Reflections
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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East Verde River panorama
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Arizona sycamores glow in the morning light backpacking south on the AZT after crossing the East Verde River
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

New plants crop up as well as the AZT follows the sandy floodplain of the East Verde River before winding its way through a tricky stretch (from a navigational perspective) and beginning to climb up into the foothills. The rest of the day will be spent climbing. I pass a trail volunteer out working on rebuilding a stretch, who says he gets out here twice a year to work, fall and spring, avoiding the summer. As we look up into the Red Hills, you can see the trail climbing up to the ridge line above. In addition to being steep, it’s also very exposed. Some exposed conglomerate rock is around, too, though I suspect that geology may change as we climb higher. Well, nothing to do but get hiking! Next time, we’ll see the ascent into the Red Hills and get ready for the backpacking traverse through them into the heart of the Mazatzal Wilderness.

Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Hiking out of the East Verde River valley toward the foothills of the Red Hills
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking into the Red Hills & looking back toward the East Verde River valley, tip of Whiterock Mesa, and the Mogollon Rim beyond, through the juniper and prickly pear
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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Red Hills, seen hiking out of the East Verde River valley
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Brilliant fall foliage seen backpacking the Arizona Trail in the Red Hills
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Geology of the area – representative rocks of the East Verde River valley & Red Hills foothills
Arizona Trail, Passage 24 (Red Hills)
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

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To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

When many individuals are first looking at getting into thruhiking, they face one crucial decision after trail selection – to section hike, or thruhike. Each has different advantages and challenges, and may be better suited for one trail than another. Today, we’re going to discuss these. First, we need to define each. For our purposes, … Continue reading To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Passage 25Passage 24
Trail SurfaceDirt trailDirt trail
Length (Mi)22.710.9
Elevation Change (ft)2411 ft
SeasonOctober-AprilOctober-April
Potential Water SourcesBradshaw Tank
Oak Spring Canyon
Whiterock Spring
Polk Spring
East Verde River
East Verde River
TrailheadsNorth: Passage 26 at Pine Trailhead (AZ-87)
Midpoint: FR 194
South: East Verde River (south). Inaccessible to cars
North: East Verde River (north). Inaccessible to cars (4 mile hike from accessible Doll Baby Ranch TH)
South: Red Hills Trail Junction
Trailhead AccessibilityNorth: Vehicular
Midpoint: Vehicular
South: Hiking only (4 mile hike from accessible Doll Baby Ranch TH)
North: Hiking only (4 mile hike from accessible Doll Baby Ranch TH)
South: Hiking only (5.75 mi hike from vehicle-accessible City Creek TH)
Ecosystems traversedRiparian
Great Basin Conifer Woodland, primarily
Rocky Mountain montane conifer forest (north end)
Riparian
Interior Chaparral (north end)
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
HighlightsViews of Mazatzal Mountains & Mogollon Rim
Sunsets
Views of the northern Mazatzal Mountains
Sunsets
Red rocks
Ecological diversity
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