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Evergreens and aspens are everywhere along this trail in the Pinaleño Mountains, but it's the golden aspens that stand out most this time of year.
By Robert Stieve
Cyclophobia. That’s the word that’s used to describe a fear of bicycles. It’s not a clinical term, but the affliction, apparently, is real for some people. And maybe some of those people are hikers. Although there’s a kindred spirit among nature lovers, sharing the trail doesn’t always come naturally to hikers and bikers. The reasons are obvious; however, there’s usually enough room for both. That’s the case on the Grant Hill Loop. In fact, this trail was designed specifically for mountain-biking. It’s wide, it’s easy to follow and there aren’t a lot of technical ups and downs. Cyclists love it, but it’s a great route for hikers, too.
Like most loop trails, this one can be done either clockwise or counterclockwise. Unlike most loops, Grant Hill isn’t a single trail. Instead, it’s a series of loops made up of old logging roads and connecting trails. It can be confusing on a map, but if you stick to the outer loop, as this listing is written, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t get lost.
From the trailhead, go left (clockwise) on the well-worn jeep road — you won’t see a traditional trail for a while. Almost immediately, the road climbs into a forest of ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, white firs, Engelmann spruce and aspens. On this stretch, the trail follows the ridge of a small drainage. Then, after about 30 minutes, it intersects with a short side trail that leads to a scenic overlook. The views include Sulphur Springs Valley, Fort Grant and the Galiuro Mountains.
Make the side trip, and then continue into the woods, where the jeep road transitions into a typical trail. You’ll experience several segues like that during the course of this loop. In addition to the change underfoot, you’ll notice that the forest changes, too. It’s thicker, and so are the groves of aspens. If you’re lucky, this is where you might see some mule deer or a black bear. If you’re especially lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a Mount Graham red squirrel, an endangered subspecies (there are only about 200 left) that lives exclusively in the Pinaleño Mountains.
Where the forest gets thicker, the incline ratchets up, and after another
10 minutes, the hike arrives at the first of several side trails (shortcuts) back to the trailhead. Veer left to continue on the outer loop.
Just beyond that junction, the earth levels off and the trail passes through what is arguably one of the most beautiful aspen groves on the Coronado National Forest. The area is reminiscent of the Escudilla Trail before the Wallow Fire stole its identity. In early October, when autumn is making a bold statement in the Pinaleños, this stretch will be the high point of the hike. Figuratively. About 10 minutes later, the summit of Grant Hill marks the literal high point (9,477 feet).
The rest of the loop is downhill, with some gradual switchbacks at the outset. Then, an hour into the hike, there’s a sharp switchback that leads to another jeep road. That’s quickly followed by another shortcut to the trailhead. Again, keep left for the outer loop.
Continuing downhill, you’ll come to a second eye-catching aspen grove and a third shortcut. Keep left. They’re followed by a beautiful grassy corridor, which surrounds the trail as it heads up and over a small ridge. The aspens fade a little after the grass, but the forest is still thick with evergreens on the final run back to the trailhead. If you’re on foot, the homestretch takes about 10 minutes. On a mountain bike, it shouldn’t take more than a minute. Either way, remember to share the trail. There’s enough Mother Nature to go around.
Trail Guideclick to expand/contract
Length: 4.2-mile loop
Elevation: 9,066 to 9,477 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 32˚40.090’, W 109˚52.811’
Directions: From Safford, go south on U.S. Route 191 for 7.3 miles to State Route 366 (the Swift Trail). Turn right onto SR 366 and continue 23.4 miles to the trailhead on the left.