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Tuesday, September 4, 2018


View from Sheep Creek Point.
It has been argued that hiking isn’t always about the destination—it’s the journey that matters most. Still, objective-oriented hikes like those that culminate on mountain summits or in secluded, special places have their merits.
A marsh along Merzville Road
But, their wham-pow payoffs can eclipse what’s stuffed between the trailhead and the goalpost. Depending on your point-of-view, the stuffing can be viewed as either a means-to-an-end or the savory sweet filling between cookie wafers. 
Western dayflowers bloom through September.
When compared to interest-packed nearby Mogollon Rim trails, the “stuffing” on Merzville Road that runs between State Route 260 and Sheep Creek Point near Forest Lakes smacks of mediocrity. Its narrow, nondescript course is a mix of graded dirt and rutted, rocky passages. As a hiking route, the road has some obvious gigs. First, it’s open to motorized use and is used frequently by ATV and dirt bike riders. Second, with no spectacular natural features like those peppered throughout traditional hiking trails, everything great about this journey happens where it dead-ends at Sheep Creek Point.
Canyon Creek Hatchery 900 feet below the point.
Historical OW Ranch (mid-center) seen from the point.
Ponderosa pines dominate the forests that flank the road.

It’s not as if the road hike is terrible. There are oak-shaded wet meadows teeming with wild turkeys and a beautiful section where mature Ponderosa pines and a fringe of saplings create a sort of “green tunnel” that smells of butterscotch and fresh sap. Ravens roost and crackle in the gnarly snags. Under the coniferous canopy, wildflowers and mushrooms color the forest floor. The only obstacles along the road that makes a straight shot south through patchy woodlands are occasional mud puddles and uneven footing. Depending on where you parked along the road, the hike to Sheep Creek Point is about 2 miles one-way. You’ll know you’re close when canyon winds pick up and a broad mesa appears directly ahead.
Canyon Creek Hatchery supplies 20% of AZ's game trout.
A few more minutes of walking brings you to a precipice at the border of the Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests.  The exposed nose of the point hovers above Valentine Canyon with views of historical OW Ranch and the Canyon Creek Hatchery situated along green creek corridors 900 feet below. Across the chasm, the ragged, vertical cliffs of Mule Creek Point to the east and OW Point to the west appear as flat-topped jetties with sporadic stands of pines that survived the 2002 Rodeo-Chedeski Fire.
The fragrant "green tunnel".
Aspen fleabane bloom through October.
A stroll along the point’s margins reveals intriguing glimpses of the hatchery complex.  Managed by the U.S. Forest Service (Tonto National Forest), the site’s water “raceways” produce an average of 80,000 pounds of trout annually that are used to stock Arizona’s lakes and streams.
Most of the trout that end up in White Mountains waterways and 20% of the statewide supply begin their journey here.   This wind-in-your-face edge is the turnaround point of a modest trek with a pretty sweet special place in the middle.
Shared-use Merzville Rd is a popular ATV route.
Puddles and uneven footing are the hike's only obstacles.
LENGTH: Depends on where you park, but it’s 2.7 miles one way from SR 260 to the point.
RATING: easy
ELEVATION:  7530 – 7400 feet
Sheep Creek Point overlooks Canyon and Sheep Creeks.
From the State Route 260/87 junction in Payson, go 35.5 miles east on SR 260 to the community of Forest Lakes. Just before milepost 289, turn right (south) on Merzville Road (Forest Road 260B) and park in one of the many dirt turnouts within the first half-mile.  The road is open to motorized use and turns into a very rough 4x4 track after about a mile.