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Monday, April 22, 2019


Cedar Mesa, Tonto National Forest.
Mogollon Rim seen from Forest Road 322
Cedar Mesa is the kind of place you just don’t stumble upon. The desolate, flattop spread resides at the end of a ridiculously undulating road at the base of the Mogollon Rim south of the community of Pine.  
Gate on Cedar Mesa
It takes effort to get to it but the payoff is a pleasant, uncrowded diversion from the old standard hikes in the area.
Milk Ranch Point, a prominent nose on the Mogollon Rim
The hike follows Forest Road 322 that begins at a dirt pullout along heavily-travelled Control Road (Forest Road 64) near where numerous trailheads and cliff-climbing routes provide connectivity with major travel corridors.
Hikers walk the rough road to Cedar Mesa
The road is an easy snare for curious hikers wondering where the heck it goes. Open to both motorized and foot travel alike, the rough dirt two-track in Tonto National Forest reveals its colors immediately with a steep ascent to a crest where visitors are treated to the first set of magnificent views and a welcome breath-catching moment.
The hike’s ubiquitous landform is the imposing rock jetty of Milk Ranch Point, that towers to over 7400 feet. Patches of vivid green foliage clinging to its escarpments expose the locations of Red Rock and Pine springs that serve as reliable water sources along Highline Trail which is part of the state-traversing Arizona Trail. From here, the climb continues on a milder slope, gradually exposing bigger and better vistas of the Mogollon Rim--a wall of uplifted rock that spans roughly 200 miles from New Mexico to the Sedona area.
Follow the fence line on Cedar Mesa to extend the hike
Although the difference between the hike’s high and low points is only 358 feet, the out-and-back route’s constant ups-and-downs adds up to more than 1000 feet of elevation change. As the road moves southeast through forests of cypress, pinion pine and a fringe of manzanita, the peaks of the Mazatzal Mountains appear as hazy purple mounds on the western horizon.
A baby horned lizard blends in with the local rocks.
At the 1.2-mile point, the route heads left at a 3-way junction where the road narrows as it descends through a rocky corridor fringed with scrub oak, Alligator junipers and a smattering of Ponderosa pines.
Mazatzal Mountains on the horizon
This is where the first good glimpses of the destination come into view---a low slung mesa fleeced in conifers with three quad-burning dips-and-climbs in between. From here, the Payson airport, a brush pit and the chiseled watershed of the East Verde River and its tributaries are visible to the south. Once over the last major hump, the trail emerges on Cedar Mesa proper, encountering a gate at the 2.6-mile point.
Hikers contemplate the undulating route.

The hike features beautiful Rim Country views
 Although the road disappears beyond the fence, it’s possible to extend the hike by exploring on the irregular-shaped mesa that’s just over a mile across.  Vegetation on the sparse, breezy plateau is a homogeneous labyrinth of junipers, so a good sense of direction or GPS skills are essential to avoid getting lost. An easy way to wander and stay found is to follow the barbed wire fence line that encloses the summit for more spectacular Rim views from a seldom-visited, hard-won platform.
The route has many ups and downs.
LENGTH:  5.2 miles roundtrip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 5495 – 5853 feet (1183’of accumulated elevation change)
From the junction of State Routes 87/260 in Payson, go 12 miles north on SR 87 to milepost 265 (2 miles north of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park), turn right on Control Road (Forest Road 64) and continue 0.8-mile to the parking pull out at Forest Road 322.   

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