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Pine Mountain Day Hike
Pine Mountain Wilderness Area
November 16, 2013
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
by Eileen Root
Threatening storm clouds are rolling in fast. [photo by Quy]

Dark and ominous-looking storm clouds are moving in fast shortly after we exit off I-17 onto Dugas Road just north of Cordes Junction and wait for the rest of our caravan to catch up with us. An icy wind is blasting out of the west, as we crawl out of our warm vehicles and bundle against the frigid fall air.

Weather forecasts for the past 24 hours have been predicting a 40% chance of rain for the Pine Mountain area, and from the appearance of this sky it’s certainly looking like that 40% might start dumping on us any minute now.

And we still have 18 miles of dirt and gravel road to navigate – the last several miles pretty rough and rocky – before we even reach the trailhead. What to do now?

Houston – we have a problem. [photo by Quy]
Posted sign near the Salt Flat Trailhead. [photo by John R.]

While waiting for the others to arrive, we discuss Plan B which includes a hike near the Rock Springs area that Eileen had earlier suggested. It would certainly be a warmer and perhaps even drier hike and closer to our home in the desert, which sounds pretty appealing to most of us at this point as we try to stay warm in this polar blast of wind that feels like it’s coming straight down from northern Canada. B’rrr! I need a heavier jacket!

This is beginning to remind me more and more of an Arctic hike that Ted Tenny led some years ago where avoiding death by freezing was our primary goal of the day. We all managed to survive that ordeal with only some minor frostbite and a few amputated toes, but it was certainly quite a challenge.

Eighteen Trailblazers gather near the Salt Flat Trailhead. [photo by John R.]
First Row: Eileen, Quy, Ed, Rudy, John R.
Second Row: Scott, Florence, Cathy, Gary, Funyung, Arturo.
Third Row: John S., Mike, George, Linda, Steve, Michael, Chuck.

It’s 11:00 AM on a cold and brisk Saturday morning in mid-November as 18 Arizona Trailblazers gather near the Pine Mountain Trailhead and scan the overhead skies.

It was a bit of a gamble, but the earlier consensus near the Dugas Road exit after the rest of our caravan catches up with us is to go for the hike as originally planned unless pouring rain or lightning turns us back. In the one hour drive to the trailhead the weather has seemingly turned 180 degrees, with plenty of blue sky and sunshine replacing dark and threatening storm clouds. It looks like a great day for hiking as we strike out from the Salt Flat Trailhead on the Nelson Trail #159.

Fall colors brighten the Nelson Trail. [photo by Eileen]

And the air has already warmed up to a balmy 50 degrees with only a gentle breeze blowing through the forest.

Hiking through the forest on a perfect fall day. [photo by Quy]
Oops! Someone better check their boots. [photo by Quy]
    So what’s the story behind those two flat tires on Rudy’s truck? No one knows exactly what happened or when it happened, but after arriving at the trailhead Rudy and George soon discover, much to their surprise and dismay, that both tires on the passenger side of the truck are completely flat. How many of us can even remember the last time we had a single flat tire? I can’t imagine what the odds are of having two flat tires at the same time, but if one was to place a bet at Turf Paradise against such odds and win, that individual would probably walk away a wealthy person.

Rudy decides to wait until we get back from the hike, returning early if necessary, to make the needed repairs with chewing gum and duct tape.

Trailblazers hiking through the leaf litter. [photo by Quy]
Sycamore Creek and remnants of the old Nelson homestead. [photo by Quy]
Reflections from the surface of Sycamore Creek. [photo by Quy]

The crisp and bracing feel of fall is in the air today as we hike on a thick carpet of leaves that blankets the trail and even completely obscures large stretches of it from time to time. The Nelson Trail runs parallel with Sycamore Creek for a little over 2.5 miles before reaching a trail junction near Willow Spring. Here we plan on hanging a right and linking up with the Pine Mountain Trail, then the Verde Rim Trail, and finally the Willow Spring Trail, completing a full counter-clockwise loop with those three trails before returning to the Nelson Trail and retracing our footsteps back to the Salt Flat Trailhead. That was the plan anyway, but apparently Old Man Murphy has something else in store for us on this day in the Pine Mountain Wilderness.

Eileen has been tracking our progress on her GPS, which has the route from our exploratory hike back in April, and informs me less than a mile from the trailhead that we are beginning to drift slightly off-course from the GPS track. But we know that we certainly haven’t missed the junction since it still lies over 1.5 miles ahead, and I determine that as long as we keep following Sycamore Creek we will eventually get there. However, our present route starts heading uphill away from the creek through increasing amounts of overgrowth across the trail. What to do next? Should we start backtracking and try to link back up with the Nelson Trail we somehow strayed away from, or should we keep on going in hopes of eventually linking back up with the Nelson Trail or even part of the loop trail itself? Hope springs eternal, so we keep optimistically forging ahead.

More fall colors along the Nelson Trail. [photo by Quy]
Moving uphill through pine, juniper, and oak. [photo by Quy]

Encompassing nearly 20,000 acres of both the Tonto and Prescott National Forests, Pine Mountain Wilderness was created by an act of Congress in 1972. At 6,814 feet, the summit of Pine Mountain is the highest point within the wilderness boundary. The Verde Rim Trail portion of the main loop trail runs right along the edge of the Verde Valley Rim and, along with the summit itself, provides spectacular and sweeping views of the Verde River Canyon, Horseshoe Lake, the Bradshaw Mountains, the Mazatzal Mountains, and parts of the Mogollon Rim. Unfortunately for us, though, these scenic views will have to wait for another time and another hike.

A new stand of young pine seedlings. [photo by Quy]
Anyone for a refreshing dip? Only if you’re part polar bear. [photo by Quy]

Due to a combination of our late start at the trailhead, drifting too far off-course with insufficient time remaining to reconnect with the intended loop trail, and the urgency of getting back to the trailhead to give Rudy and George enough time to repair those two flat tires and then get back to the freeway before dark, at 3.5 miles from the trailhead we decide to break for lunch and make this our turnaround point. As hike leader, I have to blame myself for not getting us back on track earlier as soon as Eileen informed me that we were going astray. It was a mistake on my part to assume that we would eventually link back up with the Nelson Trail.

Trailblazers are on the move. [photo by John R.]
OK — so what’s going on here? [photo by John R.]

But since the full loop hike involves 9.6 miles of trail with +-1,700 feet of elevation change, I’m not sure we could have completed it anyway between the late start and repairing the two flat tires, not to mention the two hours of round trip driving time between I-17 and the trailhead. A major factor to consider on these late fall and early winter hikes, especially this far north, is the shortness of the days. Next time we need to start at least an hour or more earlier and hopefully not have any more flat tires or other vehicle emergencies along the way. On a positive note, though, it has turned out to be a beautiful fall day with no rainfall. And we are all thankful for that.

How does this look for a lunch spot? [photo by John R.]
Apparently it will do. [photo by John R.]

Lunch over, we pack up and start back for the trailhead, retracing our steps along the same route we used earlier.

The sun comes out periodically between persistent cloud cover and the rains continue to hold off, as we steadily make our way back. The temperature has warmed up to about 65 degrees by now, our high point for the day.

Chuck in the hollowed-out trunk of a
giant sycamore tree. [photo by John S.]

Rudy, George, and Mike R. get a jump start on the rest of us so they can get back to the trailhead and start working on those tires right away. Their progress and success will dictate our departure time.

As sunlight filters down through the overhead canopy, fall colors begin to intensify on the remaining leaves, mostly mountain ash and sumac, still stubbornly hanging on until the very last days of autumn.

But the king of this forest is the mighty sycamore tree with its smooth white bark glistening in the sunlight. This giant grows up to 80 feet high with a trunk measuring up to six feet in diameter and with leaves the size of large dinner plates. Its presence in the forest is invaluable in the prevention of erosion along streams and creeks like Sycamore Creek here in the Pine Mountain Wilderness.

A really big sycamore leaf. [photos by John S.]
Crimson-colored leaves of the sumac tree.
Trailblazers are on the move once again. [photo by Eileen]
Meanwhile, back at the trailhead ... [photo by John R.]

We’re not exactly sure how they got it all done, but congrats from the rest of us to Rudy, George, and Mike R. for repairing those two flat tires in near-record time. With a little more practice (well, actually a lot more practice), you guys might just qualify for a NASCAR pit crew position some day. I’m not sure if having 15 supervisors looking over your shoulders helped speed up the process any, but we certainly did our best.

That task accomplished, we load up and then bounce and jostle our way back down the bumpy, lumpy road to Dugas and I-17 and finally on to a dinner stop at Rock Springs Café and pie nirvana. Kidneys and bladders – please don’t fail us now!

Eileen builds a cairn for the next group of hikers. [photo by Quy]
Refilling the first flat tire.
George is ready with the second tire [photos by John R.].
Rollin’, rollin’, rolling’, Keep them tires a rollin’. [photo by Quy]
Rudy torques the last tire in place.
[photo by Quy]
Dancing sunbeams filter through the cloud cover. Priceless! [photo by Quy]
Rock Springs Café beckons in the night. [photo by John R.]
Pie nirvana awaits us inside. I’ll take pecan please.
[photo by John R.]
Meet Eileen (rhubarb) and John S. (cherry). [photo by John S.]
Hungry Trailblazers are ready to chow down. [photo by John R.]
Still more Trailblazers are waiting on pie. [photos by John R.]
John S. and his pal Pinewoody Pete.
Texas Shorty tries his hand at a little karaoke. Not bad Texas! But don’t quit your day job. [photo by Quy]
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updated September 10, 2016