Washed-out Deer Creek, 2016
Google Earth KML 2016
Trip Details
MAZATZALS: vast wilderness shaped by historic grazing and fires.

A ninth visit looping through the Mazatzal (pronounced MAH-zaht-ZAL or sometimes MAH-tuh-ZEL) Wilderness near Phoenix offered slow going and solitude northbound on faint thorny westside trails; then ambling unhindered return south on the popular Arizona Trail (AZT).

We’ve hiked many times and conditions in this sprawling wilderness of soaring purple peaks, deep red rock canyons and rolling range country climbing from the Verde River to a 7000-foot ridgeline running north-south between Payson and Mesa. Name is obscure but may be an Aztec word for “place of the deer.”

In the 1970s I took my first day hike here from Phoenix: predawn drive up AZ State Route 87 (87) to popular Barnhardt Trailhead, racing all day on mellow, cool piney trails and meeting dozens of hikers escaping Phoenix heat in the Mazatzal pines. In 2010 we came up Barnhardt again but found “moonscape” on the ridge, brush and washed out drainages after the 2004 Willow Fire burned off the pine and trashed the trails. We had it all to ourselves.

Our March 2018 revisit included six miles of AZT north from Cross F Trailhead near Sunflower; several days trail-finding through skin-biting, clothes-shredding cacti, catclaw and spiny leafed evergreen oak on the historic unmaintained Sheep Creek (#88) and Deadman (#25) trails through hot range country; fair hiking on Willow (#223) and Red Hills (#262) trails, then AZT return along Mazatzal Divide and rambling down through canyons and rangelands.

Two impressions: (1) incredible infrastructure of corrals, fences, spring developments and well-designed but faint trails from an earlier grazing era and (2) signs of fire recovery in abundant brushy vegetation and Arizona cypress, pinon- juniper, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir reestablishing in many places. The towering pines will not be back in my lifetime, but certainly a new ecosystem of young trees and shrubs is thriving. We  hope the vast system of range trails will be restored so a new generation can explore and enjoy fire recovery in this vast country.

Willow  Fire 2004
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Willow Fire Recovery
Sunflower Fire 2012
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Google Earth KML 2018
Agave & pinyon
thriving in 2011
Old growth juniper near Barnhardt Jct, 2016
Bear Creek running in 2017
Downed logs on upper
Willow Tr, 2017
David on AZT, 2018
Formerly shaded
needle carpet Divide Trail
after fire, 2017