Juniper Mesa Wilderness, Prescott National Forest
By Robert Stieve
This is the best hike you've never heard of. People in Prescott are probably familiar with it, but the rest of the population ... probably not. There's a reason for that. The Oaks & Willows Trail is located in the remote Juniper Mesa Wilderness Area, which sits in the northern part of the Prescott National Forest. Ironically, despite the trail's secluded nature, it's relatively easy to get to. And the drive that takes you there — along Williamson Valley Road — is one of the most scenic in Central Arizona.
The trail begins at the north fork of Walnut Creek. Just before you get to the creek you'll pass an enormous alligator juniper. The vegetation in this wilderness area varies according to exposure. On the southern slopes you'll find mostly piñon pines and Utah junipers, while the northern slopes feature alligator junipers and ponderosa pines. And, of course, the wilderness is home to a variety of oaks.
When you cross the creek, veer right and scale the small embankment. A few minutes later you'll come to an intersection with the Bull Springs Trail, from which you can see Aztec Peak, an important early pioneer route. From there, the well-maintained trail climbs gradually onto a small mesa. As the name implies, the Juniper Mesa Wilderness is essentially a broad, flat, juniper-clad mesa; however, most of the Oaks & Willows Trail keeps to the woods.
About 20 minutes into the hike, the trail leaves the small mesa — not to be confused with Juniper Mesa, which is yet to come — and drops down into George Wood Canyon. After crossing a small creek, the trail passes a pair of ancient alligator juniper twins. There will be others, along with some hefty ponderosa pines, followed by a nice grove of oaks. Just beyond the oaks, the trail merges into a creekbed and begins a series of steep but moderate switchbacks. This is where most of the elevation gain occurs. The last switch marks your arrival on Juniper Mesa. From there, the trail winds through an open forest of mostly evergreens. There are a few places on the mesa where the trail is hard to follow, but there's a nice contingent of cairns to point you in the right direction.
Continuing across the mesa, the route passes an intersection with the Happy Camp Trail, and a little farther on, an intersection with the Juniper Mesa Trail, which heads eastward into the wilderness area. Along this stretch, the Oaks & Willows Trail follows an old fence line — the wire is mostly gone, but many of the old fence posts (dead trees) remain. In terms of elevation, the Juniper Mesa intersection marks the high point of the hike. Normally, when you hit the apex, your work is done. But not on this trail. From the intersection, the trail parallels Pine Creek and heads downhill for a little more than 2 miles, losing about 800 feet in elevation. Of course, those are feet you'll have to reclaim on your way back out.
It's worth it, though, especially when you're sitting at Pine Spring, which marks the end of the trail. It's a lush area dominated by ponderosas and oaks. Like the trail itself and the surrounding wilderness, you've probably never heard of Pine Spring. But once you've seen it, you'll never forget it.
PHOTO: On the early part of the Oaks & Willows Trail, hikers will see the blue ramparts of the Juniper Mesa Wilderness in the distance. | Nick Berezenko
Length: 11.5 miles round-trip
Elevation: 6,019 to 7,065 feet
Directions: From Prescott, go north on Williamson Valley Road for 22 miles, at which point the pavement ends and the road becomes Forest Road 6. Continue north on FR 6 for 14 miles to the junction with County Road 125 (Forest Road 95). Turn left onto CR 125 and continue for 1.5 miles to the Walnut Creek Ranger Station. From there, continue west on Forest Road 150 for 3.7 miles to a fork in the road, veer right, and continue on FR 150 for 2.8 miles to the trailhead.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes.
USGS Map: Juniper Mountains
Information: Chino Ranger District, 928-777-2200 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/prescott