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Monday, June 29, 2015

SARDINE TRAIL

SARDINE TRAIL #536
Apache Sitgreaves National Forest
Ponderosa pines shade the trail

Sardine Trail #536 is an unsung hero within the Willow Springs Lake area trail system. Over its 2.5-mile length, it acts as a recreational super highway connecting the popular 7.6-mile Willow Springs Bike Loop with campsites and myriad routes debarking from four trailheads around Willow Springs Lake. This shaded route is mostly used as a transit corridor by mountain bikers linking loop trail hubs and by anglers toting poles to the lake's secluded coves. Well-marked by bright orange diamonds, the trail roughly parallels State Route 260. Although mild traffic noise is ever present, the fact that this path stays close to heavily traveled roads is a comfort to those looking to experience the woodlands and water of the Sitgreaves National Forest without wandering too far from civilization.
One way to explore the virtues of this trail is to begin at the Willow Springs trailhead. From the parking area, cross FR 149 and pick up the trail heading east toward the lake. The hike twists though classic Ponderosa pine forests with glimpses of water peeking through the trees. The trail makes many goose neck turns that can be confusing so be sure to spot the next orange blaze before moving on. Don't let the minor route-finding, towering green canopies and mountain breezes distract you from noticing the overhead display of ospreys gliding on air currents and brilliant blue Stellar's jays squawking in the treetops. The trail's special feature is two rustic footbridges that span drainages where moisture loving wildflowers run amok among an understory of ferns and fragrant patches of clover. Beyond the first bridge, an optional short walk along fisherman's paths leads to a cattail-choked finger cove surrounded by limestone ledges. At the 2-mile point, the trail meets the junction for the 7.6-mile Bike Loop and the Horse Trap Trailhead. Tack on the Loop for an 11.6-mile round trip hike or return the way you came to conclude an easy 4-mile walk in the forest.
LENGTH: 4 miles or 11.6 miles (as described here)
RATING: easy-moderate
ELEVATION: 7,045' - 7,623' (7,700' with bike loop)
GETTING THERE:
Willow Springs Trailhead:
From the State Route 87/260 junction in Payson, go 29.6 miles east on AZ260 to FR 149 near milepost 283, turn left and continue 0.4 mile to the trailhead on the left. Roads are paved.
ADDITIONAL TRAILHEADS:
Rim Top Trailhead:
From the State Route 87/260 junction in Payson, go east (right) on SR260 to FR300 (Rim Road) located across from the Mogollon Rim Visitor Center and signed for Woods Canyon Lake. Turn left on FR 300 and continue 0.25-mile to the Rim Top trailhead on the right. The hike begins behind the big General Crook Trail sign near the restrooms.
"Footbridge" Trailhead: 
From the State Route 87/260 junction in Payson, go 30.2 miles east on AZ260 to just before milepost 284 and FR148, turn left into the dirt lot marked by a "day use only" sign and a stone wall.
Horse Trap Trailhead:
From the AZ87/260 junction in Payson, go 31 miles east on AZ260 to the Horse Trap trailhead on the left between mileposts 284 and 285 (across from Young-Heber Road).
INFO:
Black Mesa Ranger District, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest 928-535-7300
MORE PHOTOS:
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SARDINE "FOOTBRIDGE" TRAILHEAD

SARDINE TRAIL ACCESS
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest
Footbridge at the trailhead

For years, I have driven past this no-name dirt lot on State Route 260 halfway between Payson and Heber, never bothering to stop and find out why all the cars were parked there. Turns out, it's an access point for the 2.5-mile Sardine Trail #536 and a finger cove of Willow Springs Lake. Although it's employed mostly by fishermen; hikers and bikers also use this as an alternate trailhead. Hike or ride less than a mile east to join up with the 7.6-mile Willow Springs Bike Loop, or go 2.2 miles west to Sinkhole Campground and access to Rim Lakes area trails. Or, for a short walk, hike a few yards down to the footbridge and follow the path-of-use 0.2-mile to the lake. It's a handy spot to know about.
GETTING THERE:
 From the State Route 87/260 junction in Payson, go 30.2 miles east on AZ260 to just before milepost 284 and FR148, turn left into the dirt lot marked by a "day use only" sign and a stone wall.