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Houston Brothers Trail
Mogollon Rim
June 12, 2021
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
by Mark Purcell
Seven Trailblazers gather at the Houston Brothers Trailhead. [photo by Mark]
Paul, Chuck, Rodney, Jane, Cheryl, Mark, Carol

Seven Arizona Trailblazers arrive at the Houston Brothers Draw parking lot right across the road (FR 95) from the Houston Brothers Trailhead shortly before 9:00 AM on a beautiful Saturday morning in mid-June.

After we prepare our hiking gear, do a quick round of introductions, and take a group picture, we cross the road and hit the Houston Brothers Trail at 9:00 AM. The temperature is a refreshing 76 degrees in the cool shade of the forest, seemingly a world away from the scorching 110 degrees forecast for the Phoenix area today.

Houston Brothers Trail #171 trailhead sign. [photo by Carol]
Lush Bracken ferns line both sides of the Houston Brothers Trail. [photo by Carol]
From our fall 2019 hike, this picture highlights the very essence of the Houston Brothers Trail.
[photo by John]

We last did this hike, located on the Mogollon Rim about 15 miles northeast of Clints Wells, in September, 2019, with 15 Trailblazers. At that time I suggested that we come back in the spring or early summer to see the colorful wildflower display, always a big attraction on Rim area hikes at this time of year. I originally had 20 people signed up for this hike, but for various reasons had a total of 13 cancellations. But smaller groups of hikers typically stay closer together on the trail and are easier to keep track of than much larger groups of hikers.

green green
Wildflowers brighten our passage. [photos by Carol]

The trail starts off as a fairly level and well-defined path through heavy forest cover and dense stands of towering pine trees, including Arizona’s signature Ponderosa pine, with occasional oaks and aspen as part of the overall mix. For most of its length the Houston Brothers Trail meanders along the bottom of Houston Draw, a colorful and picturesque little valley with a perennial spring-fed stream flowing through and providing an ideal riparian habitat for a variety of forest creatures.

Hoofing on down the Houston Brothers Trail. [photo by Carol]
View of the Pinchot Cabin through the trees. [photo by Carol]
Information sign by the Pinchot Cabin. [photo by Mark]
Jane, Chuck, Cheryl, and Mark in front of the Aspen Springs Cabin. [photo by Carol]
Chuck, Paul, and Rod by the remains of another cabin. [photo by Carol]
We’re not quite sure what’s going on here.  Should I call for the paramedics, Mark?  [photo by Carol]

This spring-fed stream flows along the bottom
of Houston Draw. [photo by Carol]
Like many Arizona trails, the Houston Brothers Trail is named after real people who played some sort of role in Arizona’s colorful and diverse history. The Houston brothers were Arizona ranchers during the early 1900s who carved out this trail to facilitate the movement of their cattle from one part of the range to another. In later years the U.S. Forest Service used this same trail, by now well-worn from thousands of cattle hooves, to help move fire fighters through the forest and get fire lookouts to their cabins during the summer months.

After about a quarter-mile of hiking we come to the old Pinchot Cabin and take a break here, as we explore the cabin and surrounding area. This was one of several fire-lookout cabins strategically placed along the Mogollon Rim and manned during the critical summer fire season. This particular cabin was named in honor of Gifford Pinchot, who was instrumental in the formation of the United States Forest Service in the early 1900s, serving as its first Director from 1905 to 1910.

Pinchot, known as the Father of Forestry, was on the forefront of the fledgling American conservation movement, along with President Theodore Roosevelt and Sierra Club founder John Muir. These three men laid the basic foundation and established critical policy and procedures for conservation and preservation that would stand the test of time to this day.

Trailblazers push on thru thickets of lush
green Bracken fern. [photo by Mark]

About 1½ miles down from the Pinchot Cabin we arrive at the Aspen Springs Cabin, the second cabin on the Houston Brothers Trail and somewhat worse for wear than the Pinchot Cabin. In fact, this cabin appears to be on the verge of collapse at any moment, presumably held together with chewing gum, baling wire, and high hopes.

I’m actually a little surprised to see it still standing two years after our last visit. Apparently they built these cabins well back in the day. No shortcuts or shoddy construction methods for these builders.

The nearby free-standing fireplace and chimney are obviously all that remains from the other cabin on this property. These two things are by far the most well-preserved items on the entire property and look like they might even be good for another 100+ years of service, with just a touch of maintenance and TLC. If only this old fireplace could talk, imagine the fascinating stories and legends it could share with us.

Ever hear or read any of the stories about the infamous Mogollon Monster? Just one word of advice—don’t read any of them before going to bed. We take another break here and get a few more pictures before continuing on. What was that noise I just heard? Did anyone else hear that? We quicken our pace through the dense, dark forest primeval.

Hikers are starting to get a little hungry, especially considering that most of us got up this morning before the crack of dawn when even the roosters were still fast asleep, so we start looking for a good place in the shade with large logs and boulders for seating. And not too far down the trail we find the ideal location for a short lunch and snack break.

Cheryl, Rodney, Jane, Chuck. [photo by Carol]
Jane, Rodney, Chuck. [photo by Carol]
Paul and Mark. [photo by Carol]
Paul and Mark. [photo by Carol]

Break over (wow, that was quick), we debate continuing on a little farther down the trail or turning back now. We continue on around the next bend in the trail and then around the next bend after that and the next bend after that, being the ever-curious Trailblazers that we are, before finally deciding to turn back and retrace our steps back to the trailhead.

By now its starting to get a little toasty in the open, sun-exposed areas, but thankfully we have a cooling breeze from time to time that helps, in addition to large stretches of trail in the shade of the forest.

From all the glowing comments I saw about this hike while doing a little research earlier, including one stating “The Houston Brothers Trail might be as good as it gets on the Mogollon Rim”, it was really surprising to all of us on the 2019 hike that we never ran across another hiker for the entire hike on such a beautiful fall day. So it will be interesting to see if we run across any other hikers on today’s hike. Paul informs me that this is also a popular trail for mountain bikers as well. So we’ll have to see who else joins us on the trail today.

I think it simply comes down to a matter of too many trails and not enough time. For many years I had a T-shirt that proclaimed exactly that: “Too Many Trails. Not Enough Time.” And for Arizona trails, especially, that pretty much sums it up for the hiking community in general. One could spend an entire lifetime hiking the vast network of thousands of miles of trails crisscrossing throughout Arizona, including the 800-mile long Arizona Trail, and still not hike the same stretch of trail twice.

The Houston Brothers Trail is part of the much larger Cabin Loop Trail System, which includes all or parts of the Barbershop Trail, General Crook Trail, Fred Haught Trail, and the U-Bar Trail. During the hike several of us discuss the various loop options offered by this trail system for future Arizona Trailblazers hikes. Most will likely be 10+ miles long and B+ rated hikes. So many trails. So little time. But there’s always next year for us ever-optimistic Arizona Trailblazers. There will always be more trails to explore than time to explore them.

Vanilla or butterscotch, Jane?  The great debate still remains unsettled.  [photo by Carol]

By 12:30 we all arrive safely back at the trailhead, none the worse for wear. No cuts, no bruises, no abrasions, no broken limbs, and not a single hiker left behind. The temperature has warmed up to 83 degrees, a little warm but still preferable to 110 degrees in the valley. We discuss lunch options and someone suggests the Clints Wells Café. When we arrive there we find that it’s closed for unknown reasons. COVID? Maybe. So we continue on down that long and winding road back to Payson and head instead for one or our favorite old standbys, Macky’s Grill.

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updated June 14, 2021