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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hiking Payson's Houston Mesa

View of the Mogollon Rim

When I first hiked this trail in the early 1990s it was a very confusing trek.  I got through using map, compass and a few lucky guesses to navigate the maze of roads and cross paths that bisect the main route.  Since then, the trail has been incorporated into the Payson Area Trails System (PATS), given a facelift and marked with directional signage.  So, when I hiked it again this past week, finding my way was a breeze.  Featuring a close-to-town trailhead accessible by paved roads (my tires thanked me), this
Pines and junipers on Houston Mesa
hike near the geographic center of Arizona offers occasional shade, big mountain vistas and active wildlife.  Located in high altitude desert terrain, vegetation is an interesting hybrid of coniferous woodland and desert scrub. Ponderosa pines, junipers and Gambel oaks tower over manzanita, barberry, paddle cactuses and myriad wildflowers.   The trail alternates between damp forests and arid, sunny mesas on its way to the Houston Loop junction. Here, you can add the loop (3.6 miles, 4,860' -4,950') or return the way you came.
LENGTH:  9.6 miles roundtrip (with loop option)
3.0 miles one way from Houston trailhead
4.6  miles one way from Horse Camp 
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 5,192' – 4,860'
DOGS: leashed dogs allowed
DISTANCE FROM PHOENIX:  96 miles one way

From Phoenix, take AZ87 north to the AZ260/87 junction in the town of Payson.  From here, travel 1.8 miles north on AZ87  to Houston Mesa Road (FR 199)  on the right. The Horse Camp lot (trailers) is 0.3 miles from the turnoff and the Houston (hiker) trailhead is 1.3 miles up FR 199 on the right.
INFO: Payson Area Trail System (PATS)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wilderness waterfall hike

Mazatzal Wilderness

Last week's high-country snowfall has resurrected my hopes for a spectacular water show in Barnhardt Canyon. Even in drier years, a late winter-early-spring hike up the geologically complex cataracts of the Mazatzal mountain range rewards with myriad waterworks including gushing springs, trickling rivlets and an impressive 100-foot, multi-tiered waterfall tucked into a secluded box canyon of red-tinged quartzite. It's easy to miss the turnoff for this hidden wonder as it's not visible from the trail. So, be sure to inspect every nook once you pass the 3-mile point. You'll hear them, but you won't see the falls unless you're willing to do some moderate scrambling on slippery rock. For reference, the second photo here shows the falls entry point.
LENGTH: 7-9 miles round trip (7 miles to the falls and back)
RATING: moderate - difficult
ELEVATION: 4,200-6,100 feet
BEST SEASON: mid-March thru April (for waterfalls)
GETTING THERE: From the Shea Blvd. intersection in Fountain Hills, go 51 miles north on AZ 87 (Beeline highway) to the Barnhardt Trailhead turn off (FR 419) located a quarter mile south of the town of Gisela. Follow the dirt road 4 miles to the signed trailhead.
INFO: Payson Ranger District, Tonto National Forest, 928-474-7900

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A stormy hike in Phoenix South Mountain Park

South Mountain Park, Phoenix

Yesterday, here in Phoenix, it was 87 degrees.  Today: 59.  Welcome to the wild and wacky world of Arizona weather. For the past several years, in mid-March, Arizona has experienced a major winter storm and this year was no exception.  Today, much of the high country was pummeled with snow while we here in the desert got a (much needed) day of mixed drizzles and downpours.  Of course, for hikers, this means one more luscious wintery opportunity to enjoy local trails.  A perfect choice for a soggy-day hike is Las Lomitas Loop in South Mountain Park.  Close-to-town, heavily-traveled and not-too-tough, it’s a logical choice for a quick trek.  Staying low in the foothills, this route is very popular with equestrians and families with kids.  The well-signed route passes among gigantic boulders, sandy washes and desert gardens of saguaros, ironwoods and Palo verde trees.  The loop tops out at the Kiwanis trailhead, then swings back for the return leg where beautiful views of downtown Phoenix and the western peaks of the Sierra Estrella mountains stand out on the horizon.  Back at the Holbert trailhead, I decided to take a quick jaunt into Box Canyon to see the famous petroglyphs.  The weather held for 20 more minutes before I was chased back to my car by what may be the last cold rain before our impending hot weather settles in for the long haul.

LENGTH:  1.2 miles (4 miles as described here)
RATING: easy-moderate
ELEVATION:  1,350’ – 1,460’
DOGS: leashed dogs allowed
HOURS: 5 a.m. – 11 p.m. (facilities close at 7 p.m.)
FACILITIES: restrooms, water, picnic tables, covered ramadas
From Phoenix, go south on Central Ave and follow it all the way to where it dead ends at the park entrance.  Once past the guard gate, take the first left and follow the main road to the Holbert trailhead near the end of the road by the restrooms.
THE HIKE: as described here:  hike about 100 yards west, (go right) from the Holbert trailhead and pick up the Box Canyon Loop trail (actually, it’s Las Lomitas trail, but not signed that way).  Hike 0.25 mile on Las Lomitas to the Loop junction at trail marker 16.  Go right or left—and follow the signs to complete the loop.
INFO & MAP: City of Phoenix parks & Recreation, 602-262-7393