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Monday, October 23, 2017


Three Ways to Explore Payson's American Gulch
End of American Gulch South Trail
American Gulch is a tributary gorge of the East Verde River that encompasses an area of juniper-studded hills and riparian corridors on the west side of Payson. Replete with natural springs, stock tanks and a maze of dirt roads, the rugged terrain offers a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities.
Juniper-shaded South Trail
Three disjointed but thematically cohesive trails---all named American Gulch--- explore this strip of high desert and chaparral. The American Gulch North, South and Loop Trails anchor the western edge of the 20-plus-mile Payson Area Trails System (PATS) network of interconnected city and forest service paths.  Together, the name-sharing threesome are like a flyover of the area's natural history and the town's efforts to restore and protect its sensitive fringe habitats. 
North Trail follows Forest Road 508
All three can be easily hiked in an afternoon and a good way to tackle the circuit is to start on the most remote and work your way in. The South trail is characterized by a series of moderate dips and climbs on a shared-use dirt road. It begins on the outskirts of town near a willow-clogged intermittent stream and follows a deeply-rutted ATV track to a high point overlooking the manicured greens of the Payson County Club and hazy peaks of the Mazatzal Wilderness.  
Bobcat print near a stock tank
The varied terrain and an array of water sources make this a productive place for wildlife viewing and birding.  At this writing, the  South trail dead-ends at a barbed wire gate 1.1 miles from the trailhead but future PATS plans include connecting the South and North trails, so for now, you’ll need to backtrack and drive to the later. The North trail is a pleasant, easy trek at the edge of suburbia. Following Forest Road 508, the half-mile walk through open-air pinion-juniper woodlands ends at a gravel pit popular with dirt bikers and 4-wheelers. Although it's not part of the PATS, adjacent Forest Road 67 makes for a way to add some miles with a few quad-burning climbs, curious limestone formations and awesome vista points with views of the Mogollon Rim. The road meanders through the Tonto National Forest for miles, but a good turnaround spot is a ledgy lookout roughly 1.5 miles from the Graff trailhead.
American Gulch Loop Trail
South trailhead
The final destination is an urban-centric stroll on a paved-and-gravel walking path just off Main Street. The half-mile Loop trail and open space park is the result of Town of Payson and Gila County rehabilitation efforts made possible through a grant from Arizona Game & Fish Department. Recent plantings of fruit trees and flowers plus the addition of benches and wildlife-viewing areas contribute to the goal of making this formerly blighted area between the Sawmill Crossing shopping center and Westerly Road a point of pride and social hub of the downtown district.
Hazy view of the Mogollon Rim from Forest Road 67
Yuccas along the South Trail
LENGTH: 3.7 miles total
RATING: easy-moderate
North: 5000' - 5160'
South: 4760' - 4960'
Loop: 4800'
Juniper berries
American Gulch South:
From State Route 87 (Beeline Hwy) in Payson, go 2.6 miles west on Main Street, which will turn into Country Club Drive and then Doll Baby Ranch Road. The signed trailhead is on the right with parking across the road. The last half-mile is on sedan-friendly dirt. Avoid this road after rain because there's a creek crossing that floods making the it impassable.
Graff Trailhead (North):
From State Route 87 (Beeline Hwy) in Payson, go 1.7 miles west on Main Street, which will turn into Country Club Drive and turn right on Vista Road. Continue 1.3 miles north to Bulla Drive, veer left and go 0.2 mile to Whitehouse Drive.  Follow Whitehouse 0.25 mile to Graff Drive, turn left and drive 0.3 mile to the trailhead.  
Loop Trailhead:
From State Route 87, go 0.3 mile east on Main Street, turn left on Westerly Road and continue a few yards to the trailhead on the right.