Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Saddle Mountain, Part II (Day 54, Passages 22 & 21)

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

This stretch takes me from just south of McFarland Canyon past Saddle Mountain and down, completing Passage 22 and entering Passage 21, Pine Mountain and the southern Mazatzals. The trail traverses the mid slopes of the south-central Mazatzals, which seem more separated from one another than the continuous chain that made up the mountains until now. The views remain incredible, probably partially as a result of the fire resulting in a much more shrub-based vegetation community predominating. Sheep Mountain and Saddle Mountain make notable appearances, and there are glimpses of Tonto Basin as the backpacker (or hiker) makes their way along the trail. Multicolored cliffs – appearing to be sandstone – rose above the trail. Backpacking south, the trail exits the Mazatzal Wilderness for the final time and descends toward Sunflower and AZ-87, passing another mid-passage access point on the way. As it does, the vegetation changes – barrel cactus make an appearance, showing the warmer and drier ecology of the lower slopes of the mountains. Sunflower is more a community than a full town, it appears, at least from a services perspective. If you need supplies from here, your best options are probably metro Phoenix, Payson, or Tonto Basin. I had a box shipped to the latter; now the question becomes whether it is best to stop there now, or try and hitch a ride from Roosevelt Lake at the south end of the Mazatzals? After consideration, I opt for the latter. We’ll see if it proves to be the right choice. There’s a resupply box at AZ-87 before crossing through a tunnel under the road and entering Passage 21; I took advantage and then made the crossing. Camp comes near Sycamore Creek, a great water source just south of 87 before beginning the climb into the southern Mazatzals. Unlike yesterday, there are no playful foxes – but there’s another beautiful sunset to wrap the day.

(If you missed my description of the Mazatzal Mountains, you can find that as well as logistics and ecology reports for the passage after the photos.)

Camping in the shadow of Mazatzal Mountain cliffs
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Arizona Trail hiking toward the col connecting to Saddle Mountain. Can you spot the mountain through the pass?
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saddle Mountain rises above the Arizona Trail & its connecting col
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Central Mazatzal Mountains & surrounding foothills, viewed backpacking the Arizona Trail on the slopes of Saddle Mountain. Pine Butte at center. Relict conifer forest predating the Sunflower Fire in foreground.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saddle Mountain peak rises above, viewed hiking the Arizona Trail on the midslopes
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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Backpacking views of the central Mazatzal Mountains from the lower slopes of Saddle Mountain on the Arizona Trail. Pine Butte rises center-left; Tonto Basin visible at left.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Cliff outcrops rise above the Arizona Trail hiking through the central Mazatzals
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Multicolored outcrops of sedimentary rock are seen backpacking through the central Mazatzals near Mormon Grove Trailhead
Arizona Trail Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Fall continues to linger in spots, hiking through the central Mazatzal Mountains on the Arizona Trail near Mormon Grove Trailhead
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Barrel Cacti make a debut as the Arizona Trail descends toward Sunflower
AZT Passage 22, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
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Sunset hiking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Pine Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking views of the rugged southern Mazatzals at sunset. Boulder Mountain in background.
Passage 21, Pine Mountain
Tonto National Forest
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About the area: Part of this stretch of the Arizona Trail lies within the Mazatzal Wilderness in the Tonto National Forest, and all lies within the Mazatzal Mountains. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” The Wilderness is about 390 square miles in size and surrounds the Mazatzal Mountains. It was one of the original Wilderness Areas designated upon the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

The Mazatzal Mountains themselves are an incredible place. Formed during an orogeny (a term referring to the process that creates mountains) when Arizona was a coastal region on the margin of what became North America, the Mazatzals gained their rugged nature as tectonic collisions compressed rock, lifting it and thrusting it above other rocks (overthrust). We’ll see the resulting folding in the next entry during a short side hike on the Barnhardt Trail. Mazatzal Peak, the highest point of the Northern Mazatzals, towers 1700 ft above the trail with a jagged west face that makes it appear as though half the mountain was simply cut away. This passage passes through the northern half of the full range. Unfortunately the area was greatly impacted by the Willow & Sunflower Fires, which burned much (though not all, as we will see) of the old ponderosa forest that had made the mountains one of the most popular long-distance stretches of the Arizona Trail. Yet the incredible geology, solitude, sunsets, and views remain for the hardy and prepared souls who venture into this special place. Bagworms spin magnificent webs here, and temperatures are relatively tolerable outside of winter, when snow can make stretches impassable for those without adequate preparation.

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Pine Mountain (Passage 21), FR 422 to Pigeon Spring Trailhead

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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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 51: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23), Part II

Disruptive event today, an F-16 that flew over while I was packing. It flew extremely low and around a mountain – possibly North Peak – and made me think very seriously about why that would be allowed over a designated wilderness area. Still, I manage to knock out a few miles to Chilson Spring before dark, with spectacular views of Deadman’s Canyon, the Verde Valley, and the western Mazatzal foothills along the way. The mountains are jagged and rugged and the trail traces steep slopes nearly the whole way across precipitous terrain.

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Passage 22 (Saddle Mountain)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack
Length (Mi)24.3
SeasonAll year, but snow can make sections impassable in winter.
Potential Water SourcesThicket Spring (Mi 402.3 NB, 386.4 SB)
Sycamore Creek Canyon (mi 400.6 NB, 388.1 SB)
Creek (mi 392.5 NB, 396.2 SB)
Wash (mi 391.5 NB, 397.2 SB)
Stock Pond (mi 390.5 NB, 398.2 SB)
Rock Spring (mi 388.9 NB, 399.8 SB)
Hiker box at AZ 87 (mi 386.7 NB, 402 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Mt Peeley Trailhead
South: Arizona 87 near Sunflower
Trailhead AccessNorth: Foot & 0.5 mi hike on Cornucopia Trail from dirt road trailhead
South:
Wilderness50%
Possible resupply pointsNone
ATA-Rated DifficultyModerate
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)There are a number of options, particularly on the southern third of the passage. There are also good sites in the area around McFarland Canyon and a few sites just south of that point.
Ecosystems TraversedInterior Chaparral
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
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Interior Chaparral Great Basin Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Birchleaf Mahogany
* Ceanothus
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Manzanita
* Shrub live oak
* Silktassels
* Stansbury cliffrose
* Arizona alder
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Junipers
* Oaks, including Arizona oak, canyon live oak, Emory oak, Gambel oak, scrub-live oak
* Piñon pine
* Red barberry
* Serviceberry
* Silktassels
* Skunkbush
* sugar sumac
* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* Buckwheats
* Globemallows
* Lupines
* Penstemons
* Sego-lily
* Wormwood
* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Common succulents* Agaves – golden flowered, Parry’s, Toumey’s
* Banana & soap tree yucca
* Barrel cactus
* beargrass
* beehive cactus
* buckhorn cholla
* Cane Cholla
* hedgehog cacti
* prickly pear cacti
* Rock echeveria
* Sotol
* Whipple’s cholla
* beehive cactus
* Claret cup hedgehog cacti
* Golden-flowered agave
* Parry’s agave
* Prickly pear cacti
* Whipple cholla
* Tonto Basin agave
Passage 23 & 22 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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