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

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

Cresting the climb up Boulder Creek, the Arizona Trail emerges onto FR 422 and begins to roll through the south-central Mazatzal Mountains. The vast majority of the route is in shrubland and allows magnificent views of the Mazatzals as well as Tonto Basin and the Sierra Ancha to the west. Sandstone spires rise above the trail, reminiscent of the landscape of Joshua Tree (albeit without the namesake trees). The rock seems to glow somewhat. The trail rolls through a basin and then the legendary, magnificent Four Peaks emerge over the ridgeline ahead. As the trail winds along the crest, the whole mountains appear, and one can look down off the mountains to the west into the Valley of the Sun and Phoenix, and to the east into Tonto Basin. I reach Pigeon Spring trailhead and encounter a couple from Phoenix out camping for the night. They refill my water to get me to Roosevelt Lake and invite me to eat with them while sharing stories from the trail. As night falls, I head partway back and find a pull off along the trail to sleep for the night. It’s striking how exceptionally dark the sky on the mountains and the Tonto Basin side remains despite how bright the light in the Phoenix sky is and how sprawling the development in the Valley is. I’m guessing that in addition to the topography helping block the light pollution, the lack of humidity in the air helps contain it as well (clouds tend to absorb and reflect/reemit light pollution, which is why light pollution is worse on cloudy nights than clear nights). Going to be great to see the views as the trail wraps around the Four Peaks themselves tomorrow.

Metro Phoenix can be accessed off of FR 422 and provides the main resupply option on this passage, though there’s also a way to cut across to AZ-188 as well on the northern segment of the passage, which provides the potential opportunity to cut to Tonto Basin as well. Water supplies is limited on the crest along 422; especially in the fall it’s probably best to assume it will not be available. There are quite a few spots to camp along 422 as well, though.

(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.)

Roosevelt Lake in Tonto Basin, viewed backpacking in the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail through the Mazatzal Mountains as the Four Peaks peek over the hill Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail beneath sandstone spires
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking the Arizona Trail through the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail beneath the rocky southern Mazatzal Mountain ridgelines
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
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Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking the Arizona Trail beneath the rocky southern Mazatzal Mountain ridgelines
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail beneath the rocky southern Mazatzal Mountain ridgelines
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail toward the Four Peaks, the highest peaks in the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Four Peaks, the highest peaks in the Mazatzal Mountains, backpacking view from the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
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Sandstone boulders beside the Arizona Trail hiking south through the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Boulder Mountain panorama, backpacking view from the Arizona Trail
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
View through the Mazatzal Mountains and across Tonto Basin to the Sierra Ancha
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
North backpacking panorama across the central Mazatzal Mountains (center) and Sierra Ancha (right) Mountains visible include Boulder Mountain, Mazatzal Peak, Mt Ord, Baker Butte, Houston Mesa, Gibson Peak, Edwards Peak, Neal Mountain, McDonald Mountain, and Sheep Basin Mountain
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
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Four Peaks at sunset, hiking view from the Arizona Trail
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Sunset over the Valley of the Sun, backpacking view from the Arizona Trail near Pine Mountain
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Phoenix at night from the Arizona Trail in the Mazatzal Mountains south of Pine Mountain
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest

The Mazatzal Mountains, themselves are an incredible place. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” 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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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

National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

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 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.

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.

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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 21 (Pine Mountain)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack (Sunflower to FR 422 near Circle M Spring)
Dirt forest road (just north of Circle M Spring to Pigeon Spring Trailhead)
Length (Mi)19.8
SeasonAll year, but snow can make sections impassable in winter.
Potential Water SourcesSycamore Creek (mi 384.8 NB, 403.9 SB)
Boulder Creek (mi 382.5 NB, 406.3 SB)
Stock Pond (mi 382.3 NB, 406.4 SB)
Boulder Creek (mi 380.8 NB, 407.9 SB)
Boulder Creek pools (mi 380.5 NB, 408.2 SB)
Boulder Creek (mi 380.1 NB, 408.6 SB)
Boulder Creek (mi 379.7 NB, 409 SB)
Circle M Spring (mi 377.8 NB, 411 SB)
Little Pine Flat (mi 376.2 NB, 412.6 SB)
Pigeon Spring (mi 367.1 NB, 421.6 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Sunflower
South: Pigeon Spring Trailhead
Trailhead AccessNorth: Vehicular access; immediately off paved AZ-87.
South: Vehicular access via graded dirt road
WildernessNo
Possible resupply pointsPhoenix
ATA-Rated DifficultyDifficult (Boulder Creek segment)
Moderate (FR 422 segment)
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Sycamore Canyon is ideal near the start. Options are limited to virtually nonexistent in places on the rugged climb thereafter. There are good options along the ridgetop traverse once the climb abates but you may have competition from Phoenix residents at times since that stretch follows a dirt forest road with a direct connection to suburban Phoenix.
Ecosystems TraversedInterior Chaparral
Semidesert grassland
HighlightsViews of Mazatzal Mountains, Sierra Ancha, Roosevelt Lake, and Phoenix
Geology
Passage 21 Logistics
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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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