Pine Mountain Wilderness, Prescott National Forest
By Robert Stieve
If you think the Road to Hana is a long and winding road, take away the pavement, and throw in a creek-crossing, long stretches of washboard effect and a lifetime supply of deep ruts, and you've got the road to Pine Mountain.
The Pine Mountain Trail, as this hike is called, is actually a series of four trails leading up to and around Pine Mountain, which rises 6,814 feet above the wilderness of the same name. The first of the four trails is the Nelson Trail, which takes you into the Pine Mountain Wilderness, an isolated area that was established in 1972 and encompasses 19,569 acres. The lack of foot traffic is something you'll appreciate as you make your way through the shaded riparian area fed by Sycamore Creek. This stretch is a wonderland of trees dominated by Arizona sycamores, ponderosas and alligator junipers.
After about 15 minutes, the trail arrives at the remains of the old Nelson place, an abandoned homestead that includes a series of impressive stone walls. If you've ever been to Virginia, you can envision what it looks like. From there, the trail winds along Sycamore Creek, crossing back and forth, for about 20 minutes until it reaches an intersection with the Pine Flat Trail, which veers right into Beehouse Canyon. Don't let the name fool you. This isn't your turn. Instead, continue following the creek upstream for another 45 minutes to a junction with the Willow Springs Trail. You'll be on that trail later in the hike, but for now, stay right on the Nelson Trail and look around. In addition to the inherent beauty and quiet splendor that's typical of most wilderness areas, this part of the trail is marked by waves of young 10-foot-tall ponderosas that are reclaiming the land after a fire burned the west side of Pine Mountain in 1989.
Literally, you'll be rubbing elbows with these lime-green trees as you make your way uphill to the Cloverleaf Junction, where the Nelson Trail meets the Pine Mountain Trail. This is the second of the four trails, and it angles left along Bishop Creek for about 45 minutes to an intersection with the Verde Rim Trail, about a half-mile southwest of Pine Mountain. Before you get there, you'll see more remnants of the fire, and you might see some snow as well, depending on the time of year. Although this is considered a year-round hike, you should call the U.S. Forest Service ahead of time to check on the conditions.
At the Pine Mountain-Verde Rim intersection, turn left and continue northeast. As the name implies, the Verde Rim Trail hugs a narrow ridge that even mountain goats might appreciate. What the name doesn't tell you is that the views from the ridge are superb and include panoramas of Humphreys Peak, the Verde River Canyon, the Mazatzal Mountains and even Horseshoe Lake near Phoenix.
Moving north, just beyond a short side trail that leads to the summit of Pine Mountain, the Verde Rim Trail descends a series of steep switchbacks that lead to a saddle at the head of Sycamore Creek. Turn left onto the Willow Springs Trail, the fourth of the four trails, and follow it for a half-hour to its intersection with the Nelson Trail, and then another hour back to the Salt Flat trailhead. In all, the route winds up and down for almost 10 miles. It's rated as moderate, but it'll seem easy compared to the long and winding drive back to civilization. Not to worry, though. It's a beautiful drive.
PHOTO: A series of four trails offers premium views of the Pine Mountain Wilderness. | Shane McDermott
Length: 9.6 miles round-trip
Elevation: 5,110 to 6,814 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 34˚19.577', W 111˚50.177'
Directions: From Phoenix, drive north on Interstate 17 for 57 miles to the Dugas Road exit. From there, take Forest Road 68 southeast for 18 miles to the trailhead for the Nelson Trail at the boundary of the Pine Mountain Wilderness.
Vehicle Requirements: High-clearance vehicle required
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes
USGS Map: Tule Mesa
Information: Verde Ranger District, 928-567-4121 or www.fs.usda.gov/prescott