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White Mountain Weekend
September 15-17, 2017
by Tamar Gottfried
Thompson    GPS Map 
Baldy GPS Map
Knoll GPS Map
Bill Zimmermann

Eight Trailblazers left various points in Phoenix early on a Friday morning and met up at the What’s Cooking Cafe in Show Low. A hearty brunch was consumed and enjoyed by all, and we headed back to our cars to go farther East and meet our other two hikers at the Sunrise General Store. The caravan then proceeded down the 273 to Forest Road 116 and, after a 6-mile trip on a fairly well graded dirt road, arrived at the Thompson trailhead and kiosk. The strong wind that we noted upon arrival in Show Low followed us to the trail and let us know that we weren’t in Phoenix anymore.

Thompson Trail/Trail 630 Loop

The Thompson Trail 629 is a beautiful path alongside the West Fork of the Black River. It meanders close to the river at times and through the grasslands at other times, sometimes mushy, but never wet and always lush and green. We saw garter snakes and fuzzy caterpillars as we made our way along the 2.5 miles of the path until the end of the trail. At that point, a few hikers crossed the river to see the beginning of the West Fork Trail on the other side. The rest of us sat and pondered the calm and beauty.

Bill proposed an exploratory loop of the less well known Trail 630 before we started back along the river trail. He had mapped out the waypoints on the GPS. Two of the group decided to head back the way we had come, while the rest of us felt adventurous enough to join Bill on his journey. We easily found a trail veering away from the river and off into the hills and grasslands. After a bit, we knew we had to climb a hill, but missed the trail junction. We therefore easily bushwhacked up the hill and found not only a trail, but a road there. From that point, we followed the old road until it intersected with the Thompson Trail again. At that point, we elected to stay on a path above the river, paralleling the trail until we reached the trailhead. This provided a different perspective, but was still pretty and had some interesting rock formations to boot.

I can dream, can’t I? [photo by Tamar]
Watch your step on those water crossings. [photo by Tamar]
Thompson Trail, here we come. [photo by Bill]
This trail has its ups and downs. [photo by Bill]
Rocks and rilles of the Thompson Trail. [photo by Bill]
The trail goes by meadows and woodlands. [photo by Bill]
Colorful lichens adorn the boulders. [photo by Li]
Trailblazers on the Thompson Trail. [photo by Bill]
Mark, Cecilia, Tom, Ken, Sandy, Bill, Laurie, Tamar, Li, Michelle

We reconvened at the cars and headed back the way we had come. We decided to take the “Greer Shortcut”, Forest Road 87 from Sheep’s Crossing to Greer. It is a dirt road, but saves both time and mileage from the other way to Greer, which is 273 to 260 to 373. We found the road to be well graded and quick. It became our route of choice to Sheep’s Crossing. In Greer, we found our house to be perfect for the eight of us staying there – 4 bedrooms, most with 2 double beds; 2 bathrooms, full kitchen and a nice big porch. We all converged for a eclectic, but satisfying potluck followed by early bedtimes.

Mt. Baldy Loop

The next morning, there were stirrings in the house by 5 AM as our hikers were eager to start the big day. For this weekend, Thompson was our appetizer, Baldy our main course, and Pole Knoll the dessert.

We had our breakfasts, morning Diet Coke, coffee or tea, and supplied our packs and were able to hit the road by 6:30 AM. We then dropped the hikers off at the West Baldy Sheep’s Crossing trailhead (no facilities), left two cars and the East Baldy trailhead, and headed back in one car to west to start the hike by 7:11 AM.

Apparently some of us saw a nice elk near the trail shortly after starting, but not all of us were observant enough to notice. The trail starts out as a gentle grade alongside the river, then crosses some grassy meadows until it hits the tree line at the 2.8 mile mark. It then has a slight elevation gain as it traverses the lovely shaded forest. At the 4 mile mark, a log bridge crosses the river, and from then on, the trail starts climbing up and up. At one point, there is a forest of dead trees. Some we go over, some we go under. At this level, two of our hikers turned back to the West Trailhead as planned.

Ready to start our Mt. Baldy adventure. [photo by Bill]
What a view! [photo by Tamar]
The trail climbs through a forest. [photo by Tamar]
Watch your step on those logs! [photo by Bill]
Almost there ... [photo by Michelle]
We made it to the top! [photo by Tom]
Let’s enjoy the view while we’re here. [photo by Li]
How much farther is it? [photo by Li]
Some amazing rocks along the trail. [photo by Li]
Let’s all gather at the top. [photo by Bill]

Near the top, there are three long switchbacks and then the saddle is reached. This is the point where many hikers either go down the other side or turn back. This time, however, we had permission from the Chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe to go to the true Baldy summit on tribal land. After a brief rest, we started up and reached a wide flat areas with the beautiful 360 degree views that the saddle lacks. As we continued along the well marked trail, we saw a few large piles of rocks, one with a geological marker, and then noted the trial start descending. Not excited about having to do more climbing on the way back, we persisted onwards, finally seeing a large rocky hill that appeared to be the true summit. We reconvened on the hill, took photos as proof of our efforts and sat and listed to various elk bugle-ing to each other. It truly was an other-worldly sound, worthy of the sacred Mount Baldy.

We retraced our path to the saddle and started down the East Baldy Trail. Where we had seen a total of three other hikers on the way up, we encountered many more folks on the saddle a few more coming up as we were coming down. The East Trail is prettier as it leaves the saddle, has more interesting rock formations in the middle, but is annoying in that it doesn’t drop much in elevation for most of the route and has some climbs too. We didn’t reach the forest floor until the last 1.5 miles, and by that point we were eager to be done. Finally, we reached the East trailhead, 8.5 hours and 16 miles after we started.

Potluck, beer, and good conversation. [photo by Tom]

We arrived back at the house to the warm aroma of beef stew and had a nice relaxing evening of potluck, beer, and good conversation.

Pole Knoll

Sunday morning, we were cleaned out of the cabin by 8:30 and on our way to the last hike of the weekend. Pole Knoll is a well maintained cross country skiing area that is just a few miles west on the 260. The turn off is well marked and there is even a bathroom at the trailhead. We had distributed maps with the trail names and distances and three of our hikers started in a clockwise direction while the rest of us went counterclockwise. Most of the trail junctions are easily visible. We did a slightly climbing path and transitioned to the Viewpoint trail that has switchbacks up and up to the top, where you can see Sunrise Mountain and Baldy in the distance. As we followed various trails to complete a 6 mile loop, we basically had the entire place to ourselves. It’s a great little area with a total of 18 miles of trails, nice aspens and pines, nice wide trails and a variety of terrain.

This part of the trail is a road. [photo by Tamar]
What’s going on over there? [photo by Li]
Trailblazers stopping in the woods. [photo by Tom]
Pole Knoll Trail. [photo by Bill]

Three hikers headed back to the Valley immediately. The rest of us went on to Pinetop for a lunch at Darbi’s. This was one of the best hike lunches we’ve had. We were seated immediately, even at noon, had great quick service, good tasty food—burgers, chicken and even a salmon dinner—and a quick distribution of separate checks. This restaurant deserves its Number 1 spot on TripAdvisor and should become a regular Trailblazer stop.

After lunch we proceeded back to reality, content with our three days of experiencing Fall by hiking the White Mountain trails.

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updated September 21, 2017