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Pine Mountain Day Hike
May 3, 2014
by Chuck Parsons
 by Dave French 
15 Arizona Trailblazers gather at the Salt Flat Trailhead. [photo by John]
Front Row: Funyung, Anikó, John, and Cathy.
Back Row: Dottie, Lori, Barry, Michael, Jim, Gary, Dave, Chuck, Doug, Linda, and Sandy.

The time is 9:45 AM on another beautiful Saturday morning in early May, with clear blue skies all around as fifteen smiling Arizona Trailblazers pose for the obligatory group picture at the Salt Flat Trailhead (5,110 feet). Our goal – the 6,814 foot summit of Pine Mountain, which for various reasons has proven to be somewhat elusive in the past. We have scheduled at least two Pine Mountain hikes over the years that had to be scrubbed because of bad weather and impassable roads to the trailhead. Finally, several of us did an exploratory hike last year in early April and actually made it to the top.

Then in November, 2013, eighteen Arizona Trailblazers started out on a cool fall day with every intention of reaching the top, but unfortunately we came up short. If so inclined, you can read the full details from the November 16, 2013 trip report to find out why. Today, five of those original eighteen from last November (Cathy, Linda, Funyung, John, and Michael) rejoin me for another assault on Pine Mountain.

I’m not quite sure if they are gluttons for punishment or they are as determined as I am to make it this time.

Because come hell or high water, this time we are all going to make it to the mountain top. Not too sure about the hell aspect, but it certainly doesn’t look like high water will be a problem for us today. So we can’t use that as an excuse this time.

The temperature is a balmy 78 degrees as we begin hiking the Nelson Trail along a riparian stretch of Sycamore Creek within this 19,569-acre wilderness that spreads across two National Forests: Prescott and Tonto.

This is the Pine Mountain Wilderness. [photo by Dave]
We can’t go wrong now. [photo by John]
The Arizona Sycamore, king of the Pine
Mountain Wilderness. [photo by John]

The Nelson Trail runs for 2.7 miles, crisscrossing the creek numerous times along the way, before linking up with the loop trail that will take us to the summit of Pine Mountain. The loop trail to the top of Pine Mountain consists of the Nelson Trail, the Pine Mountain Trail, the Verde Rim Trail, and the Willow Spring Trail. The entire route is almost ten miles long.

The huge Arizona sycamores that line the creek for miles and normally provide ample shade in warmer weather have not yet fully leafed out, so shade is a bit on the meager side today. Leaves of the giant sycamore can reach the size of large dinner plates, but this early in the season they are still pretty small at only two to three inches across.

The largest sycamores grow to a height of 80 feet or more with a trunk measuring up to six feet in diameter and are crucial in erosion control along forest streams and creeks.

This 2.7 mile stretch of the Nelson Trail up to the Willow Spring junction is unquestionably one of Arizona’s best riparian hikes, making it especially inviting to us desert dwellers who are more accustomed to bone dry creeks and streams that only run for brief periods after drenching summer monsoon rains or soaking winter rains that typically fall across a much larger swath of the desert. There’s not a lot of water flowing in Sycamore Creek today, but enough to create large and inviting pools of crystal clear water as seen in these two pictures. In addition to the ubiquitous Arizona Sycamore, ponderosa pine, alligator juniper, Arizona alder, Arizona walnut, Gambel’s oak, sumac, and honey locust all thrive along this creek with its constant supply of water.

A half mile from the trailhead we reach the remains of the old Nelson Place, a long-abandoned homestead whose only remaining signs of existence are these series of low-lying stone walls and a few of the once-plentiful orchard trees that once thrived here.

Arizona Trailblazers hoofing it down the Nelson Trail. [photo by Sandy]
Remnants of the old Nelson Place. [photo by John]
A reflecting pool along Sycamore Creek. [photo by Sandy]

I am always intrigued whenever I come across these old abandoned homesteads and pause for a few moments to reflect back in time and wonder what life must have been like for the people who lived here so long ago. Who were the Nelsons, where did they come from, and why did they choose to settle in this particular area?

A small waterfall along Sycamore Creek. [photo by John]
    How many people were in the original Nelson family that settled here and how many generations of Nelsons lived here over the years? What was their daily routine like? Where did the Nelson children go to school? What types of crops did they grow here and what kind of livestock did they raise? And what happened to the family? Did the last Nelson family member die at this location, or did the remaining family members move elsewhere?

If only these old stone walls could talk to us and reveal their long-suppressed secrets of the events that took place here so long ago. There are many stories to be told here for perhaps two or even three generations of Nelsons who lived out most or all of their lives right here along Sycamore Creek where these dilapidated stone walls are our only reminders of their past.

Life will always find a way. [photo by Chuck]

Life, in its infinite wisdom, always seems to find a way. No matter how difficult the surroundings or how challenging the conditions, given even the slightest opportunity life will somehow, some way manage to find a way and a new beginning. A tiny, almost microscopic seed drifts in on the wind or perhaps is dropped by a bird passing overhead. The seed falls unnoticed into a small crevice in the rock that over time has collected a bit of dust, dirt, and fine rock particles. With just the right amount of moisture and just the right temperature the little seed begins to germinate. It sends slender, thread-like feeder roots deep into the crevice to gain a foothold and capture life-sustaining moisture and nutrients, and a little prickly pear pad slowly begins to emerge above the surface of the rock. Over time it will be joined by several more small cactus pads, as a brand new prickly pear cactus begins its life cycle, not in the desert where it belongs, but firmly anchored in a bed of solid rock next to Sycamore Creek on the west side of Pine Mountain.

This is certainly not the ideal environment for this little cactus since it prefers the much warmer temperatures of the lower Sonoran desert 4,000 feet below its current location. But, as with all new life forms, it had no say in the matter and instead has taken root right here where it was deposited and it will make the best of its situation. It certainly won’t be easy, as it struggles to survive against the elements. Harsh winter storms will move in and bury this small prickly pear cactus under a heavy layer of snow and ice. The most extreme night time temperatures at this elevation (5,200 feet) can drop to well below zero, more than enough to freeze this little cactus solid and kill it.

But somehow it has managed to survive even that. It refuses to die and tenaciously continues to hang on for year after year in this totally alien environment for a desert species. Life will always find a way.

Trailblazers gather at the first major trail junction. [photo by John]
Hiking up the second leg of the Nelson Trail. [photo by John]

The Nelson Trail crosses the dry creek bed from time to time as it continues a gentle ascent upstream in the Sycamore Creek drainage.

After hiking 2.2 miles beyond the Nelson Place, we finally reach our first major trail junction of the morning where the Nelson Trail joins the Willow Spring Trail. We take a short rest break here while waiting for the rest of our hikers to catch up.

Because we are hiking the Pine Mountain Loop counter-clockwise, we begin heading due south, while still remaining on the Nelson Trail, for another half-mile before reaching the Cloverleaf Junction with the Pine Mountain Trail.

This stretch of the Nelson Trail begins climbing in earnest, gaining steady elevation as we leave the Sycamore Creek drainage far below us, although one guide book describes it as a “moderate grade”.

The word “moderate” is certainly open to a great deal of interpretation and covers a pretty wide range of possibilities, as we huff and puff our way up this “moderate grade”.

Willow Spring junction sign. [photo by John]
Barry and Sandy stand next to a burned-out juniper. [photo by Sandy]
Peek-a-boo! [photo by Chuck]

It’s along this stretch of trail that we also begin to notice scattered evidence of the 1989 fire that burned off much of the west side of Pine Mountain. Over the last 25 years a lot of the forest has recovered, and healthy stands of young ponderosa pine in the 10-15 foot range are reclaiming much of the burned area. But the charred and blackened tree trunks still standing after all those years continue to serve as reminders of just how widespread and destructive that fire was.

We complete the last stretch of the Nelson Trail in good time and join forces once again at the Cloverleaf Junction with the Pine Mountain Trail that will connect us with the Verde Rim Trail.

We make a left turn at the junction and begin the steepest segment of the trail on today’s hike. The Pine Mountain Trail gains 700 feet of elevation in 1.2 miles as it heads southeast and begins climbing above the Bishop Creek drainage. The trail pushes uphill relentlessly along steeper and steeper grades, and we begin to see even more evidence of the 1989 wildfire that torched the west side of Pine Mountain. We also get a few sneak previews of Pine Mountain itself along stretches of this trail. If all goes well, we should be standing on the summit in another hour or two depending on when and where we stop for lunch.

Trailblazers make their way up the Pine Mountain Trail. [photo by John]
Some hikers go under the fallen trees. [photo by John]
... while Dave prefers to go over the trees.
[photo by John]
John enjoys a quiet moment under the juniper.
[photo by John]

As with most of our forest hikes, we encounter a number of fallen trees across the trail. Some have 3 to 4 foot sections removed by trail maintenance crews to provide clear trail access, while many others do not. Depending on the situation and the size of the tree, we are forced to go under, over, or around these trail obstacles. And some, like the large ponderosa pine seen in these two pictures, are quite challenging. The more of these trees there are blocking the trail, especially the larger ponderosa pines, the slower our progress.

The original plan was to break for lunch at the summit, where we could expect the best views and the best chance for cooling breezes. But it’s already past noon and we're still only about half-way up the Pine Mountain Trail. So I contact the lead group, and we decide to stop for lunch in the first large shady area we come to that offers good seating. We soon find the perfect spot by a huge alligator juniper with plenty of shade and log seats and break for lunch about 12:30.

Chuck, Barry, Lori, Sandy, and Doug enjoy the shade [photo by John]
Dave, Gary, and Jim have found the perfect
log bench. [photo by John]
Okay, so what’s our next move?
[photo by Jim]
Chuck and Michael take five. [photo by Jim]
Okay — enough already! [photo by Jim]

After lunch we hit the Pine Mountain Trail once again to complete the last trail segment before reaching the junction with the Verde Rim Trail that will connect us with the Pine Mountain spur trail to the summit. We turn left here and start hiking north on the Verde Rim Trail which hugs a narrow ridge as it ascends along the west rim of Verde River Canyon. This trail offers some of the best and most expansive views to the east of the Verde River Canyon and the Mazatzal Mountains. After about a half mile of hiking we finally reach the short spur trail to the summit.

Got milk? [photo by Funyung]
This cow ran dry long ago. [photo by Jim]
First group of Trailblazers on the summit. [photo by Dave]
Anikó, Michael, Lori, John, and Chuck at the summit. [photo by John]

We pause here for a few moments before climbing the short, but steep and rocky spur trail to the very top of Pine Mountain, at 6,814 feet the highest point in the Pine Mountain Wilderness. Although the Verde River itself cannot be seen from the summit, the views from here are both sweeping and spectacular, taking in the Verde River Canyon, the Mazatzal range farther to the east, Mt. Humphreys in the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, and Horseshoe Lake northeast of Phoenix.

Sweeping view from the summit. [photo by Chuck]
Second view from the summit.
[photo by Jim]
Doug and Barry at the summit.
[photo by Chuck]

I ask the first group of nine already on the summit to relax there for a while and wait for the rest of the group to catch up so we can take one last group picture of everyone on the summit. However, Gary informs me that the bugs are very bad on top, mostly ladybugs as well as some other unidentified swarming insects, and they plan to head back down as soon as possible. I ask him to get a group shot of everyone there, and the rest of us would gather for a second group picture once we reached the top.

Dave admires the view from the top. [photo by Jim]
Mountain man Jim on the summit. [photo by Dave]
Lori has the best view point of all.
[photo by John]
Anikó stoically braves The Swarm.
[photo by Funyung]
Willow Spring Trail junction sign. [photo by John]

Back from the summit and on the Verde Rim Trail once again, we soon begin descending a series of steep switchbacks as we work our way down from the Verde Rim and Pine Mountain before eventually reaching a saddle at the head of Sycamore Creek and the junction with Willow Spring Trail.

At this point, which is a half-mile from the spur trail to the summit, we make another left turn onto Willow Spring Trail and begin hiking northwest.

We then follow the Willow Spring Trail for 1.6 miles to its junction with the Nelson Trail just beyond Willow Spring. Somewhere along this trail we encounter a number of trees filled with tightly woven web-like material as seen in these two pictures. This is the work of the tent caterpillar which belongs in the moth family. Some trees have dozens of these webs, or tents, scattered among their branches.

A tree full of cotton candy?
[photo by Funyung]
This is some very strange cotton candy.
[photo by Sandy]
Dottie leads the charge down Willow Spring Trail. [John]

If enough of these insects begin attacking a tree after completing their larval stage and emerging from their tents, they will eventually strip most of the leaves from the tree and kill it.

In the most severe outbreaks, which are relatively rare in most areas of the country, these caterpillars can become so abundant they are capable of completely defoliating thousands of acres of forest which may or may not recover from the attack.

After finally reaching the Nelson Trail junction, we make record time in hiking the 2.7 mile stretch of trail back to the Salt Flat Trailhead, arriving in clusters between 4:30 and 5:00 PM. I stop several times along the way to search for the perfect picture location along Sycamore Creek. I’m not sure if I actually found that perfect spot or not, but hopefully this picture captures the essence of a beautiful riparian creek flowing through the Pine Mountain Wilderness.

Parting shot of Sycamore Creek. [photo by Chuck]

Interestingly enough, despite such a great hike through the heart of the Pine Mountain Wilderness and a perfect day weather-wise for hiking, we never encounter another hiker all day long. The Pine Mountain Loop Trail is certainly an opportunity to hike in peace and solitude, an experience often hard to find with Arizona’s rapidly growing population and increasingly larger numbers of hikers on many other trails throughout the state.

Meanwhile, back at the trailhead ... [photo by John]

After we all arrive safely back at the trailhead, stow away our gear, clean up and rest for a bit, the next major decision is where to go for dinner.

Dave and Dottie at the entrance to Chilleen’s on 17. [photo by John]
Jim, Anikó, Linda, and Gary enjoy dinner at Chilleen’s. [photo by John]
Hungry Arizona Trailblazers chow down. [photos by John]

Sandy suggests a good BBQ place in Black Canyon City, and that’s all the encouragement we need as we jostle our way down the lumpy and bumpy 18 miles of kidney-jarring, bladder busting cow trail known as Dugas Road. It’s BBQ or bust for fifteen ravenous Arizona Trailblazers.

Hike Statistics, by Jim Buyens:

Total Distance:9.98 miles
Moving Time:4 hours 19 minutes
Stopped Time:2 hours 08 minutes
Average Speed Moving:2.3 mph
Average Speed Overall:1.5 mph
Starting Elevation:5110 feet
Maximum Elevation:6814 feet
Total Ascent:1704 feet
Starting Time:9:57 AM
Finishing Time:4:24 PM
Starting Temperature:76°
Finishing Temperature:80°
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updated May 14, 2014