Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Pine Mountain (Passage 21), Boulder Creek Trail

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

NOTE: THIS SECTION OF THE ARIZONA TRAIL HAS SINCE BEEN CLOSED AS A RESULT OF THE BUSH FIRE IN SUMMER 2020 AND IS EXPECTED TO REMAIN CLOSED UNTIL APRIL 2021, AT WHICH POINT THIS WARNING WILL BE REMOVED.


Hiking south from Sycamore Creek, the Arizona Trail enters Passage 21 (Pine Mountain) and begins to climb into the southern Mazatzal Mountains through Boulder Canyon on the rugged Boulder Creek Trail dominated by Interior Chaparral landscapes. The warmer and drier features observed on the lower slopes of the north-central Mazatzals yesterday continue today. Sycamore Creek, near the northern end of this passage at Sunflower, offers an excellent camp spot with flowing, relatively reliable water. The climb to the top of the ridge from here is prolonged, exposed, and rugged; it’s recommended to drink up before setting out. The next best opportunity may not come again until the opposite end of the passage at the Pigeon Forge Trailhead. Rocky Mazatzal foothills dominate the early miles of the passage, with their tan rock accented by splashes of green. Views of Crabtree Butte, Boulder Mountain, Mount Ord, Eagle Peak, and more can be enjoyed on this stretch, as can the northern Mazatzals across Kitty Joe Canyon, particularly Saddle Mountain as one backpacks closer to the ridgeline ahead and looks north toward the northern Mazatzals. Mount Ord, the source of cell service in the area, rises to the east. Depending on the time of year and recent rainfall you may spot wildflowers among the rocks as well. Small forests of sugar bush can be found on the more gradual lower slopes but fade away into other shrubs as the grade picks up. It’s easy to tell that seasonal Boulder Creek flows in this valley – looking down on it from the mid-to-upper slopes, there’s significantly more greenery in the valley than on the surrounding slopes.

As I noted in my past entry, 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; I now decide that I will probably try to push through to Roosevelt Lake and then return to Tonto Basin for the package, since I might be needing it more at that point, although I have another box going to Roosevelt Lake so I’ll probably wind up mailing some stuff ahead to Superior or Kearny, two of the next main resupply points I’ve either considered or planned on, It seems like it’ll be easier to get there from Roosevelt, so rather than cut across to Tonto Basin from here, which could slow me down a day or so – at a time when a substantial storm, the first major front of the winter, is supposed to hit – and only add to the load I’m carrying. Plus, with the chance for storms, I may need to take a zero or two in town given that areas like the Superstitions were badly burned in the Woodbury Fire and therefore carry a significant flash flood risk (considering the trail that the Arizona Trail uses to climb into the Supes follows the route of a creek known for flooding.) And Tonto Basin only makes sense as the logical place to pause and rest should that occur. (In retrospect I might have skipped the box to Tonto Basin altogether but we’ll see how that turns out.)

(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.)

Moon over southern Mazatzal foothills
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of moon over southern Mazatzal foothills
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Mt Ord rises over northern Boulder Canyon backpacking into the foothills of the southern Mazatzals. To the right, Eagle Peak, Mt Ord and Little Mt Ord dominate the scene. In the distance to the left is Pine Butte and Mazatzal Peak.
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Moon over Crabtree Butte & southern Mazatzal Mountains foothills
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Moon above the Arizona Trail & Crabtree Butte, hiking into the central Mazatzal Mountains south of AZ-87
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
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Moon above the Arizona Trail & Crabtree Butte, hiking into the central Mazatzal Mountains south of AZ-87
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking the Arizona Trail into the southern Mazatzals
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Wildflowers seen hiking into the southern Mazatzal Mountain foothills on the Arizona Trail
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking through sugar bush clusters on the Arizona Trail in the southern Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Wildflowers seen hiking into the southern Mazatzal Mountain foothills on the Arizona Trail
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Saddle Mountain and the central Mazatzals, seen across Kitty Joe Canyon backpacking the Arizona Trail ascent into the southern range
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), perhaps best seen on the far northern and southern segments of the range, around the Mazatzal Divide and the Four Peaks. 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. Unfortunately the area was greatly impacted by the Willow & Sunflower Fires in the northern range and the Lone Pine Fire in the southern range, 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. The Mazatzals remain one of the most significant and dominant stretches of the AZT, with the proper range and Red Hills occupying 5 passages of the entire trail, more than any other single mountain range across its entire length, and more than any geographic feature other than the Colorado Plateau, which is crossed by passages occupying 1/3 of the entire trail. Bagworms spin magnificent webs in the higher elevations here, and temperatures are relatively tolerable outside of winter, when snow can make stretches impassable for those without adequate preparation, though Passage 21 is less impacted than the rugged and higher elevation Divide and Four Peaks (passages 23 and 20.)

Note: Since this hike, the Bush Fire burned this area again in 2020. While the area will eventually rebound – slowly, this being a desert – the images here now serve as documentation of the area as it was before the fire. It’s important to note that unlike the ponderosa forest in the north, chaparral is not a fire-adapted (let alone fire-dependent) landscape, and is extremely vulnerable during times of high fire danger. Please keep fire warnings and regulations in mind and don’t put these landscapes, as well as the communities – of humans and animals – that live in them at risk. This section of the trail remains closed as a result of the Bush Fire and is expected to stay closed until April 2021.

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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
Passage 21 Logistics
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Interior Chaparral Semidesert Grassland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Birchleaf Mahogany
* Ceanothus
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Manzanita
* Shrub live oak
* Silktassels
* Stansbury cliffrose
* barberry
* Catclaw acacia
* Desert hackberry
* Graythorn
* ocotillo
* One-sided juniper
* velvet mesquite
Common grasses* Curly mesquite
* fluff grass
* grams grasses
* slim tridens
* tanglehead
* Three awn
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
* banana yucca
* barrel cactus
* beargrass
* beehive cactus
* brown spined prickly pear cacti
* cane cholla
* Englemann prickly pear cacti
* Golden-flowered agave
* hedgehog cacti
* pancake prickly pear cacti
* Parry’s agave
* soaptree yucca
* stool
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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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 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.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

It’s here. The Mazatzal Divide represents the heart of the longest stretch of the Arizona Trail within a designated wilderness area. To that end, a reminder on the meaning of wilderness. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is “an area where man is but a visitor and does not remain.” Consequently, motorized access as … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 47: Red Hills, Part II/II

Second day hiking through the Red Hills toward the Mazatzal Mountains. Earning their name through the red rock colors, the Hills also provide hikers with wildflowers and diverse vegetation, in addition to showing the scars of recent wildfires and spectacular views of the range north toward the Mogollon Rim.

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

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.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – FR 194 to Pine Spring (Passage 45, Whiterock Mesa)

I got started around 10, heading down Passage 25 toward the East Verde River.
I hike through a gate and enter the Mazatzal Wilderness. Following cairns, the surface alternates between the basalt and more dirt – like walking through a wash. As the trail skirts the rim briefly, a magnificent view of the Mazatzal Mountains and Red Hills opens up to the hiker, then the trail experiences yet another spectacular sunset as it and the backpacker fall off the Mesa to Polk Spring near the East Verde River.

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Pink ribbons spread across the bluish/purple sky at sunset

Fossil Springs Wilderness – FR 708

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

Fossil Springs Wilderness – Waterfall Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

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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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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Saddle Mountain, Part I (Day 53, Passage 23)

Featured

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 the Mount Peeley Trailhead past Thicket Spring to McFarland Canyon. The views of the central Mazatzals, including Mount Peeley & Sheep Mountain, are magnificent. Framed views of the Four Peaks in the southern Mazatzals also present themselves. The trail climbs out of McFarland Canyon and back onto the mountain slopes, revealing more magnificent views of other sub peaks and ranges of the Mazatzals – including Mt Ord, Cypress Peak, and Edwards Peak. From McFarland Canyon for about 6 miles south the trail returns to the Mazatzal Wilderness before exiting it for good and descending from the mountain flanks to AZ-87.

One of my favorite wildlife encounters on the trail occurred at the end of the evening following this day. I was lying in my sleeping bag under the stars after a classic Arizona sunset when I heard a sound near the foot of my sleeping bag. I picked up my headlamp and turned it on to see a Mazatzal fox scurrying around the campsite and trail. When it saw my light, it looked up a then lay down on the ground as if it thought that would get it out of the light and make it invisible before running off. The cycle repeated several times; it seemed quite playful.

(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.)

Relive route for today
Rounding the eastern flank of Mt Peeley, Sheep Mountain around corner. Backpacking view on the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 22 (Saddle Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Mt Peeley, backpacking view from the AZT.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Snake encounter at Textile Spring, backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Sycamore Creek backpacking view from the Arizona Trail below Thicket Spring
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Fall foliage hiking in the bed of Sycamore Creek below Thicket Spring
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Arizona Trail view in the central Mazatzal Mountains along Sycamore Creek ravine; Sheep Mountain at left
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
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Crossing bed of Sycamore Creek hiking on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Fall foliage along Sycamore Creek, backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Sheep Mountain view backpacking away from Sycamore Creek on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Central Mazatzal Mountains, viewed hiking the Arizona Trail. Sheep Mountain at left, Mt Peeley at right
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Arizona Trail crossing the rolling Mazatzal hills below the spine
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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One of two potential halfway points of the Arizona Trail, depending on routing
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking across rugged canyon-carved foothills of the Mazatzal Mountains on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking view out of McFarland Canyon in the central Mazatzals to the Four Peaks in the southern Mazatzals. Brown’s Peak, the highest of the Four Peaks, is the highest mountain in the range.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Wildflowers backpacking along the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 22 (Saddle Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Lingering survivor pine trees in the central Mazatzal Mountains backpacking the Arizona Trail near McFarland Canyon
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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Impressively, fall colors continue to linger in the central Mazatzals, hiking the Arizona Trail in McFarland Canyon
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Indian Paintbrush backpacking the Arizona Trail in McFarland Canyon
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Central Mazatzal Mountains, hiking out of McFarland Canyon on the Arizona Trail. Sheep Mountain at center.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Central Mazatzal Mountains near sunset backpacking the Arizona Trail. Sheep Mountain at left, Mt Peeley center, Mazatzal Peak at right.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saddle Mountain at sunset backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Edwards Peak (left center) and Cypress Peak (right center), viewed backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Mt Ord at sunset, seen thruhiking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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Sunset panorama backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunset hiking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunset backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

About the area: This stretch of the Arizona Trail lies within the Mazatzal Wilderness in the Tonto National Forest. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” The Wilderness, which the trail will remain within now until just shy of Sunflower in the central Mazatzals, 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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Fossil Springs Wilderness – Fossil Springs Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. The Wilderness has 11,550 acres with 30 species of trees and shrubs and over 100 species of birds. Fossil Creek itself is one of two Wild & Scenic Rivers in Arizona as well, designated by Congress in 2009 after the Fossil Springs Dam was decommissioned by Arizona in 2005. Fossil Springs, the source of the creek, release 30 million gallons of water per day, incredibly prolific for its location in Arizona.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Pine Ridge to FR 194 (Passage 26, Whiterock Mesa)

I finally get off around 11:30 & run into Matt and a female friend near East Tank. I’m glad for the company and we walk together for a while. The road condition is terrible – lots of loose basalt – and the going is slow. I finally reach the split to Strawberry and encounter them again, and their friend who picked them up flags me down and brings me a beer. Some more trail magic! I think my biggest challenges are becoming the pack weight and the solitude. I head for a short side trip to Fossil Creek.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Pine to Pine Ridge (Passage 25, Whiterock Mesa)

The trail first rolls through the pines and passes Pine Creek (dry) and Bradshaw Tank on its way to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa, which provides an excellent overlook of Oak Spring Canyon, the highlight of the passage, before dropping to the bottom. Like on the Highline, foliage still lingers in the warmer Canyon. I also spot some cool geology in what appears to be dikes in some of the rocks.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 41, Part II – Highline Trail (Passage 27, Highline)

Having filled up on water and eaten lunch, the trail ascends from Webber Creek and the Geronimo Trailhead toward Milk Ranch Point, jutting out from the Mogollon Rim. This is a much more consistently wooded & shaded stretch that appears to have been spared by the Dude Fire of 1990 and February Fire (2006). It also seems to be wetter here – there are still touches of green in the ferns as the trail ascends. Gamble oaks, maple and ponderosa dominate the trail through this stretch, and the light filtering through the canopy and the leaves is magical.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 40-41 – Highline Trail (Passage 27, Highline)

The trail continues to roll across the eroded foothills of the Mogollon Rim, the impressive and distinctive southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau, where the elevation jumps around 4000 ft in elevation. The Highline continues to define itself as a diverse landscape where the species of the desert below and the pine forests above mingle.

The Mazatzal Mountains – the next major hurdle once I make it to Pine – loom in the distance as well, and ironwood line the more open stretches of path across the Highline, where the Dude Fire burned the forest in 1990.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Highline Trail, Part II (Passage 27, Highline)

The Arizona Trail continues west toward Pine, curving around parts of the Mogollon Rim that reach out, and segments that sit farther back, rolling across the eroded foothills beneath the parapets that’s tower overhead. The diverse plants continue to amaze. How often do you find blue spruce growing next to agave cactus!

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Clear Creek to Mogollon Rim (Passage 28, Blue Ridge)

The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing. I was told that there may be water in one direction near the crossing but didn’t need it and therefore didn’t check. Climbing out the other side, the northern aspect of the slope is apparent – while ponderosas covered the southern slope opposite, the northern one featured Douglas fir and blue spruce. Obviously the different sides show different microclimates depending on the sun aspect, the temperature and moisture levels on each side given the orientation and angle of the slope. The trail rises back to the ponderosa forests on the Mogollon Plateau and traverses them, the site of my first human sighting in 3 days, then reaches General Springs Canyon. Dipping into General Springs Canyon, silence and quiet take hold. I passed a nice campsite near the end of GSC, but the pools nearby were still frozen at the end of the day, suggesting it would get colder in the canyon overnight (and that solar exposure during the day was limited) than on the Rim, so I continued forward to the rim itself. Lights can be seen in the distance, but I’m not sure which town. Likely Pine or Strawberry. Tomorrow begins the descent off the rim at long last.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 38 – Blue Ridge Ranger Station to Mogollon Rim (Passage 28, Blue Ridge)

Managed to push through the entire Blue Ridge Passage today, one of my best days on the trail. I left the Blue Ridge Ranger Station this morning and headed south for the Rim. Saw a herd of elk near the Blue Ridge Campground and Elk Tank while climbing Blue Ridge itself. The trail also passed through an active prescribed burn, though it was low intensity so probably not considered a public hazard at this point. I’m familiar with them anyway, having worked as a PIO (public informations officer) on one over the summer at Grand Canyon. The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing.

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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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