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Monday, June 9, 2014


Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, near Greer
Mount Baldy on horizon

Over its 21-mile course, Railroad Grade Trail passes by five lakes, crosses three streams, and makes a creaky traverse of an old-style trestle bridge. Once used by the Apache Railroad to service bygone logging operations, the route had a brief second wind as a tourist ride before being decommissioned and repurposed into its current status as a hike/bike/horse trail. Because of its relatively flat terrain, ever-changing scenery, four  trailheads, connectivity with other popular White Mountains trails and proximity to campgrounds, hiking this historic gem is do-able  as a long day hike or a multi-day excursion. The cinder substrate trail runs north-south between Highway 260 and Big Lake through marshes and fur-spruce woodlands flanked by the volcanic massif of Mount Baldy ridge, which at 11,420' is the second highest point in Arizona that you can hike to legally.  Mid-way through the trek, the route passes through a tunnel under AZ273 emerging at Sheep Crossing, a popular fishing spot on the West Fork of the Little Colorado River.  Here, the trek makes an easy ascent up toward the West Baldy Trail and the hike's highest point where scars from the 2011 Wallow Fire paint the forest in shades of gray. Heading down toward Big Lake, views of 10,912-foot Escudilla Mountain stand out among treeless grasslands punctuated with glassy ponds that attract blue heron, eagles and swarms of waterfowl. This is also cattle country, so  herd encounters are guaranteed, especially along the last miles leading to the trail's southern terminus at Railroad Cove---a northern estuary of Big Lake.
Sheep Crossing

Fence near Railroad Cove
LENGTH: 21 miles one-way
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 8950' - 9350'
NORTH: AZ260 Trailhead:
From Show Low, go 36 miles east on AZ260 to a point 1.5 miles beyond AZ273 at milepost 379. The signed trailhead is on the right. Paved roads. Restrooms.
MID-WAY, 8 miles from AZ260: Sheep Crossing Trailhead:
From Show Low, go 35 miles east on AZ260 to AZ 273 at milepost 377.  Turn right and go 8.8 miles south to the trailhead on the right at milepost 391. Paved Roads. No facilities.
NINE-TENTHS: 18 miles from AZ260: Lightning Ridge Trailhead:
From AZ260, go 14.3 miles south on AZ 273 to FR 116, turn right and drive a few yards to the trailhead on the right. Trail begins across the road.
Expect bovine encounters along the trail.
SOUTH: Railroad Cove at Big Lake Trailhead:
From AZ260, go 14.3 miles south on AZ273 to FR 116, turn right and continue 2.8 miles to FR 249E, turn left and drive 1.8 miles to FR249G turn left and follow the road 0.3-mile to the parking area. Forest Roads 116 and 249E/G are sedan-friendly dirt. Restrooms. 
Aspen-shaded section

INFO: Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, Springerville Ranger District, 928-333-6200

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