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Monday, November 20, 2017

Highline Trail Hike Highlights VOAz Restoration Efforts

Highline Trail Hike Highlights VOAz Restoration Efforts
Dude Creek flows over the Highline Trail
Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona project manager Paul Paonessa has a name for the pre-rehabilitated condition of the Highline Trail #31: SOLPOST. The sobriquet, which was originally concocted by Woody Keen, former director of the Professional Trail Builders Association, is an acronym for “Scar On The Land Piece of S*#t Trail.” Those who have trekked certain sections of the path that runs below the Mogollon Rim north of Payson prior to 2017 will agree---that pretty much sums it up.
A section of new alignment of the Highline Trail
The historic route was cut back in the late 1800s as a travel corridor to connect homesteads and communities around the towns of Payson and Pine. The 51-mile course began to lose value when the Civilian Conservation Corps built Forest Road 64 (Control Road) in the 1930s. This posh-by-comparison road provided an alternative to the randomly built, precariously situated dirt trail. No longer needed to run cattle and wagons, the trail was re-purposed into a sporting destination and was designated as the Highline National Recreation Trail in 1979.  
VOAz's Paul Paonessa on the new AZT bridge 
Since then, a combination of neglect, misuse, wildfires and erosion have taken a devastating toll on the trail’s condition---especially the roughly 3-mile segment that runs between the Washington Park Trailhead and Dude Creek.  Impacted by the deadly 1990 Dude Fire and 2017 Highline Fire, the section’s original layout exacerbated its demise.  Back in the day, trails were blazed as point-to-point routes with no regard for sustainability.  Crudely  hacked uphill ascents, and passages through arroyos and ravines lead to drainage problems, wash outs and overgrowth conditions.
Scar of the 1990 Dude Fire
In 2012, VOAz in partnership with the Tonto National Forest, began planning for an ambitious restoration project to stabilize and, in some cases, reroute the trail. Fueled by grants and thousands of hours of volunteer labor, the project has rescued the trail from obliteration and created a safer, more scenic trek. Paonessa points to the leadership and vision of Michael Baker, Executive Director of VOAz as the driving force behind the massive endeavor.
"He is the one who  fought for the funding, arranged all the resources,  found the various volunteers, contractors and myself ( #1 crash test dummy ) to devote the time and energy." 

Paonessa, a former City of Phoenix Park Ranger, describes the work as bringing the trail back in sync with the terrain.
Badly eroded section of trail that was re-routed
“We rerouted parts of the trail to follow the natural contours of the landscape. Sections of old trail that went through overgrown depressions or plowed straight up inclines were moved onto more sustainable surfaces with better views that also keep natural watersheds intact.
All the “fall line” sections of trail (deep ruts with loose rock and downed timber) have been redone or replaced by 5% grade climbs. In other words, you can now hike it, not crawl through it. Also, 
this October, the Arizona Trail folks installed a pedestrian bridge over the East Verde River where the AZT departs the Highline and heads north.” 
Sustainable new alignments frame epic Rim County views
Another objective of the restoration project is to enhance user experience. “We look to incorporate interesting control points when working on trails.” Paonessa adds. “Things such as historic artifacts like old culverts, unique botanical specimens and geological features add to a trail’s character.”
One section of notable improvement is where the trail was relocated from a brush-addled thorn tunnel onto an open slick rock ledge that unwinds like taffy beneath limestone escarpments that frame views of the Mazatzal Mountains previously obscured by scrub.
Paonessa on a restored section of the Highline Trail
Just beyond this Sedona-esque passage, the route winds down to meet a breathtaking half-pipe water chute at Dude Creek. Core work on the trail has been progressing at about 2 miles per season (4 miles per year) and is likely to conclude in
the near future.
Once complete, the Highline Trail will have gained extra length and renewed stature as one of Arizona’s premier hiking, biking and equestrian trails.
Bigtooth maples and Gamble oaks in shades of autumn
LENGTH: 6-miles roundtrip to Dude Creek and back.
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 6250’ – 6100’
Washington Park Trailhead:
From Payson, go 1.7 miles north on State Route 87 to Houston Mesa Road (Forest Road 199), turn right  and continue 10 miles the “T” intersection at Control Road (Forest Road 64) in the Whispering Pines community. Turn left, go 0.6-mile and take a right on Forest Road 32.  Go 3.2 miles to Forest Road 32A (sometimes signed as Belluzzi Blvd), turn right and continue 1 mile to the trailhead. Start at the Highline Trail sign, cross the bridge and head right.
Roads are maintained dirt suitable for carefully-driven passenger cars. 
Sign at the Washington Park trailhead
To learn how you can help with trail rehabilitation across the state:
Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona (VOAz)

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