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Oak Spring Trail Day Hike
October 25, 2014
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
by Dave French
Eleven Arizona Trailblazers gather near the Oak Spring Trailhead. [photo by Dave]
Front Row: Diana, John
Back Row: Chuck, Barry, Mark, Andrea, George, Monika, Dave, Molly, Sana.

At 9:45 AM on a beautiful fall morning in late October, eleven Arizona Trailblazers gather for the requisite group picture near the Oak Spring Trailhead at the southwest corner of the Pine Trailhead parking lot, located just south of the picturesque little mountain community of Pine.

Only 4.5 miles to Oak Spring. [photo by John]
Oak Spring Trail #16, combined with Walnut Trail #251, make up Passage 26 (Hardscrabble Mesa) of the Arizona Trail. Passage 26 runs for 12.0 miles from the Pine Trailhead across Oak Spring Canyon and up to Hardscrabble Mesa. This hike was written up as the “Hike of the Month” in the September, 2014, issue of Arizona Highways magazine.

The temperature is an ideal 72 degrees under partly cloudy skies, as we start hiking through a light forest cover of Ponderosa pine, scrub oak, and juniper. The trail meanders gently up and down for nearly a half-mile before crossing Highway 87 where the Oak Spring Trail officially begins. The trail gradually becomes wider as it heads northwest toward a small ranch, where we begin hiking parallel with a barbed-wire fence marking the ranch boundary. The resident ranch dogs duly note our presence and erupt in a noisy chorus of barking and baying as we slowly make our way past the property. The barking continues until we are well out of eyesight and earshot of the ever-vigilant canine property guards.

Trailblazers charge through the forest. [photo by Dave]
The trail begins to steepen at this point. [photo by Dave]

Soon after passing the ranch property the trail begins a moderately steep climb up a rocky, cobblestone-filled path to a ridgeline high above Pine Creek. Dry, dusty trail conditions are a pretty good indication of scant rainfall in recent weeks along this area beneath the Mogollon Rim, and Pine Creek is probably almost dry on this autumn day. We continue trudging uphill until finally topping out on the ridgeline, where we take a break and enjoy the scenery while waiting for everyone else to catch up.

Hoofing it up the trail. [photo by Diana]
Arizona White Oak [photo by Dave]

The trail levels off for a while beyond here as we continue hiking through a forest of taller Ponderosa pine, alligator juniper, Manzanita, and a few scattered Arizona white oak this trail is named after. After passing several of these large white oak trees along the trail, the old Kingston Trio classic from the 1950s, Tom Dooley, pops into my head as I try to remember some of the lyrics. In the song poor Tom Dooley ultimately meets his fate down in some lonesome valley, hanging from a white oak tree.

Time for a little R & R. [photo by John]
View of Pine Ridge from the trail. [photo by Dave]
Sana and Andrea mug for the camera. [photo by Diana]

I ask Barry if he remembers any the words, and we both find ourselves humming the song. Later Barry complains to me that he can’t get the darned tune out of his head. Truth is, neither can I. Tom Dooley is certainly a catchy little number all right. It shot right to the top of the charts in 1958 and became one of the Kingston Trio’s greatest hits of all time. “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry. Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Poor boy, you’re bound to die.”

Oak Spring Trail continues to gain and lose elevation along the way and gradually the forest cover begins to grow thicker, with increasing numbers of large Arizona white oaks like these shown in the attached pictures.

The mighty Arizona white oak. [photo by Dave]
Talk about a tree with character. [photo by John]
This white oak wins the gnarly trunk award hands down. [photo by Dave]
Something must be pretty interesting out there. [photo by Diana]
H’mmm—could this be it? [photo by John]

This area has one of the largest concentrations of white oaks in Arizona. The Arizona white oak is one of the largest of all oak species in the Southwest, growing up to 60 feet in height and measuring up to two feet in diameter at its base. Preferring the moist areas of canyons like Oak Spring Canyon, this impressive evergreen reaches its greatest size in these ideal environments. We will see many more white oaks down in the canyon.

Taking a break in the shade of a white oak tree. [photo by John]
Bradshaw Tank at the top of the trail. [photo by John]
What the heck is this, Dave? (We conclude that it
must be part of an old stove.) [photo by Dave]

The trail tops out once again and we find ourselves hiking alongside Bradshaw Tank, a picturesque and perennial source of water that attracts local wildlife to its shores, especially in the early morning and evening hours. If only we had the time to sit quietly by this watering hole later in the evening and observe the comings and goings of the local inhabitants. But the days are growing shorter this time of year, and we need to get back to the trailhead before dark, in fact well before dark hopefully.

And finally the main attraction of this hike, Oak Spring Canyon, looms ahead and we begin to make out large swaths of yellow on the slopes overlooking the canyon in addition to an occasional patch of crimson red as we get closer.

The spectacular orange and red leaves of the Bigtooth maple. [photo by Dave]
This maple tree is in its prime.
[photo by Dave]
Beautiful fall colors on the canyon floor.
[photo by John]
Monika tries to capture the colors.
[photo by John]

Fall colors are beginning to appear in Oak Spring Canyon and the surrounding slopes, although this day certainly does not qualify as a crisp fall day by any stretch of the imagination. But those days are definitely on the way, perhaps in another week or two at the most. Then the colors will really start to pop in this land of the mighty Arizona white oak.

“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry. Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Poor boy, you’re bound to die.”

Darn Barry! Now I can’t get this tune out of my head either! What the heck?

The hills are alive ... with the colors of fall. [photo by John]
First of the Bigtooth maple trees. [photo by Dave]
Trailblazers are checking out the fall colors. [photo by John]

And before we know it, we are on track for a major descent into Oak Spring Canyon and soon hit a long series of short switchbacks that carry us deeper and deeper into the depths of the canyon.

The trail surface starts to get a little dicey and even a bit treacherous in places, with lots of loose dirt and rock rubble to trip up the unwary hiker. This is where a good set of hiking poles really comes in handy, providing that extra stability and margin of safety on this type of steep and rocky terrain. You do not want to lose your footing and start sliding out of control in this area.

We continue switchbacking our way slowly and carefully down the trail and will drop nearly 700 feet in elevation before finally reaching the canyon floor.

Approaching Oak Spring Canyon. [photo by Dave]
OK. people: we can do this. [photo by John]
Just watch your footing. Careful! [photo by John]

After finally reaching the canyon floor and admiring the fall colors, especially the Bigtooth maple trees, we eventually come to the trail junction with Walnut Trail # 251. We hang a left here and continue hiking for another 200 yards to the sign for Oak Spring, another 100 yards ahead and downhill. Like many Arizona springs, Oak Spring is fairly small and unassuming and most hikers would walk on by without giving it a second glance.

Oak Spring — the genuine article.
[photo by Dave]
The old concrete watering trough still holds water. [photo by Dave]

But Oak Spring serves as a critical lifeline to the large Arizona white oaks and many other trees in the canyon that depend on its constant water supply. Near the spring we find an old concrete watering trough, full of debris but still capable of holding water. In a clearing above the spring we decide to break for lunch. This will be our turn around point.

Cattails thrive in the moist environment near the spring. [photo by Dave]
Trailblazers break for lunch.
[photo by John]
Trailblazers break for lunch. [photo by John]
George is in his element. [photo by Dave]

The Oak Spring Trail turns out to be a lot more popular than I realized, and we stop to chat with a number of other hikers going in both directions. But it is a beautiful day for hiking, and many of us are probably out here looking for the same fall colors on this late October day. Most of the group arrives safely back at the trailhead by 2:45 PM (with the rest arriving minutes later) to discuss the next major decision of the day: where to go for a post-hike late lunch/early dinner.

Heading back to the trailhead with daylight to spare. [photo by John]
Still smiling after the hike – always a good sign. [photo by John]
A couple of serious beer connoisseurs
toasting the hike. [photo by Sana]

At George’s recommendation, the final decision is THAT Brewery & Pub at Rimside. Many of us have been there before and it is after all the closest restaurant, just minutes away from the Pine Trailhead and the first place you come to at the far south end of Pine and adjacent to Highway 87.

So eleven Arizona Trailblazers converge on THAT Brewery & Pub and by 3:30 or so we’re all sitting at the spacious outdoor patio and chowing down on great burgers, sandwiches, chili, and salads, all washed down by a variety of fine micro-brews and ice tea. John and Dave both try the beer sampler and seem to be more than satisfied from the looks on their faces. The perfect ending to yet another terrific Arizona Trailblazers hike.

Hungry Trailblazers descend on THAT Brewery & Pub. [photo by John]
Eleven ravenous hikers are ready to chow down. [photo by John]

Well, that is except for one thing: Tom Dooley. I give up, Barry! We’ll probably both be waking up in the middle of the night with this darn tune rattling around in our heads. Let’s try to come up with a different trail song next time. OK?

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updated November 20, 2018