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Pine Canyon Creek Day Hike
Mogollon Rim
November 8, 2003
by Chuck Parsons
Chuck, Jim, Amanda, and Beth at the Pine Trailhead.

Beth Baumert, along with passengers Amanda Bosco, Jim Whitfield, and hike leader, Chuck Parsons, are tooling up the Beeline Highway towards Payson on a beautiful fall morning in early November, when Beth notices an engine malfunction warning light coming up on the console of her Toyota 4-Runner. Worried it could be something serious, we pull into the next rest stop and check under the hood, but can’t find anything that looks really suspicious. We next check with a couple of local garages in the Payson area and are informed that it is more than likely an engine intake oxygen sensor and nothing to worry about for now.

With that comforting assurance, we arrive at the Pine Canyon Creek Trailhead (5,600-feet), located about 2.5 miles south of Pine on State Highway 87. The time is 10:15 AM and the temperature a perfect 65 degrees, with clear blue skies overhead. What a great day to be hiking in Rim Country, Arizona! I had originally intended for this to be a car shuttle hike, where we would have a vehicle or two at the upper end of the trail on top of the rim a couple of miles north of the Highway 260 turnoff to Camp Verde. That would have made it a one- way eight-mile hike from the bottom to the top of the Mogollon Rim, a climb of about 1,600 feet. However, with only the four of us on this hike, it really seemed like a waste to drive two separate vehicles, so we changed plans and will now be hiking about half way up the trail — to the point where Pine Creek starts running parallel with the trail — and then returning along the same route.

Beth had hiked this trail earlier this spring and was now very surprised to see the changes since then.

Thousands of pine trees had been killed over the summer by the pine bark beetle infestation that is currently plaguing Arizona’s pine and juniper forests and were now being cut down by logging crews working in the area.

A scenic and cool trail through the pines was now completely open to the sun and awful barren looking. Ugly cut stumps are all that remain of a formerly thriving pine forest, as thousands of pine trees are now reduced to short logs three to four feet long and piled into neat stacks 8-10 feet high.

As we move up the trail, the scream of chain saws becomes deafening, as several crews are busily cutting and stacking pine logs into yet more piles along the trail.

This is a depressing sight to witness, but one that is no doubt necessary for the survival of the remaining forest, since these dead trees would be an excellent source of fuel wood in the event of a forest fire, turning it into a fast moving inferno in very short order.

Crews cutting and stacking dead and dying trees near the trailhead.
Parts of the forest are completely clear cut.
Once thriving trees are neatly stacked into piles of cordwood.
Mackenzie, a Trailblazer in the making.

As we put more of the trail behind us, the buzz of chain saws gradually becomes fainter and fainter in the distance, and the forest begins to look fuller and greener — at least for now, until the pine bark beetles advance further in and go to work on a fresh new food supply. After about a mile of hiking, we come to a steep hill of dirt and rocks, which looks more like an old jeep road, and the top of the hill looks impossibly far away. The sun is bearing down on us, as we begin the long trek uphill. About a quarter of the way to the top, we pass a large custom log cabin to our left, as three of its occupants are about to join us on the trail.

Two women, one from Tucson and the other from Las Vegas, are hiking with their very energetic little six-year old granddaughter, Mackenzie, who is evidently a little frustrated that her two grandmothers cannot seem to keep pace with her, as she pulls ahead and keeps looking back, urging them on. We pass them up for now, but will meet them later at the springs further up the trail.

The town of Pine stretches out below the trail.

We finally top the crest of this long, steep hill and level off for a while.

Now hiking through a mixed forest cover of large ponderosa pine, huge alligator juniper, oak, other pines, and manzanita, we are treated to great views of the little town of Pine, far below us on the left side of our trail.

We spot a wispy plume of white smoke coming out of the forest on the far edge of town and wonder about its origins. Colorful deep red Indian paintbrush grows at the edge of the trail in clusters and is about the only wildflower we will see on today’s hike. The trail continues to wind through the forest and crosses a dry streambed from time to time, as it gradually gains more elevation through a long series of short hills, with occasional steeper climbs thrown in for variety. At the springs, now reduced to a mere trickle on this late fall day, little Mackenzie and her grandmothers finally catch up with us, as we take a short break. She is one strong little hiker, and I suggest that she is a future Arizona Trailblazer in the making. Hiking stick in hand, she sits down for a minute on a little hill splashed with filtered sunlight, and I take advantage of a perfect picture opportunity.

We continue on, in search of Pine Creek, where we will stop for a lunch break and then decide on our options for the rest of the day. As we climb steadily higher, the temperature drops in the deep shade of the forest, but remains in the 60-70 degree range throughout the day. One really could not ask for a more perfect day of hiking in the forest. At the higher elevations, we are also treated to some scenic fall colors, as sumac and red maples are cloaked in various hues and shades, ranging from light orange to crimson red. Our cameras are all busy here trying to capture the magic of the moment. In a matter of days now most of these trees will be bare and stripped of all their leaves, as the night temperatures continue to drop on the rim, and the rains and winds of the approaching winter months strip them down for their winter time look.

Hiking onward and upward, we are still looking for that elusive Pine Creek and just know that it is somewhere up ahead and around the next bend in the trail.

A big-tooth maple near its peak of color.

However, hunger pangs now start to dictate our decision making, and at 12:45 in the afternoon we finally decide to take our lunch break in a shady bend of the trail above the dry stream bed and park ourselves on large granite boulders that nature has placed here just for this occasion. We don’t realize how cool it has become, until we remove our backpacks and the breeze hits the backs of our sweat soaked T-shirts, and we get cold almost immediately. Time to break out those long sleeved shirts once again, as we chow down on our lunches and trail snacks.

We debate going further up the trail until we locate Pine Creek, but since it is so late in the day already, and we have a little over four miles of hiking back to the trailhead, decide to make this our turnaround point and start heading back down the trail now. We make very good time on the return trip, and before we know it, we are ready to descend that first long and steep hill we encountered earlier in the day.

A tough and gnarly Manzanita grows out of solid rock.

On approaching the log cabin of Mackenzie and her family, we catch the tantalizing aromas of their early Thanksgiving dinner wafting out over the trail. Dare we knock on their door and ask to join them, since their sumptuous and bountiful dinner feast is obviously far superior to our meager little trail lunches? We reluctantly pass on that opportunity, tempting as it is, and press on.

The clear cut area of the forest is now still and quite, the roar of the chain saws finally silenced for the day, as more trees are cut and stacked into yet more piles scattered along the forest floor. The logging crews would return for many more tomorrows to cut many more trees until the job is finally finished. We wonder what is to become of all of this cut timber? What is to be the final fate of these many thousands of dead pine and juniper trees? What is to be the ultimate fate of most, if not all, of Arizona’s millions of acres of pine and juniper forests, as the growing and advancing armies of billions of hungry pine bark beetles ravage their way across the drought stricken Arizona landscape, leaving millions of brown and lifeless trees in their wake? Forest fire fighters and logging crews are no doubt going to be kept very busy for years to come in Arizona. With those depressing images and thoughts in mind, we arrive back at the trailhead by 3:30 in the afternoon, pack away our hiking gear, and get ready for the long drive back to the Phoenix area.

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updated May 25, 2020