The Rest of Mazatzals

More than a quarter-million acres, the Mazatzals are the largest designated wilderness in Arizona, classified a Forest Service “Primitive Area” in 1938 and designated wilderness in 1964.   The interagency website-https://www.wilderness.net/-calls the Mazatzals a “remarkably remote and beautiful area” given proximity to Mesa. Elevations range from 2,100 feet near the Verde to 7,903 feet on Mazatzal Peak with vegetation ranging from Sonoran Desert shrub to semidesert grasslands, mountain shrubs, scattered pinion-juniper woodlands and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir-much burned off in 2004 except for remnants in canyons and basins.

We’ve backpacked six times in the Mazatzals-three before and three after fires. Our first trip after Christmas 1980 was a four-day loop from Mormon Grove along the Sheep Creek Trail and up Davenport to Chilson Camp and Mazatzal Divide. No trail problems but it was hot for January and high country was welcome until a snowstorm hit! 

Backpack #2 in late 1980s was out and back from Strawberry, Arizona along a windy, denuded mesa, down to the Verde and up to The Park, a meadow among big ponderosa pine near North Peak, following the current route for AZT. On trip #3 in the 90s, we flew from Salt Lake City to Phoenix, rented a car, and drove up 87 for a short backpack trip.

Fires changed the hiking vibe. Lightning start Willow Fire burned 187 square miles (119, 500 acres), came within two miles of Payson, threatened power lines and resulted in closing 87 before it was contained. The Sunflower Fire of 2012, started by a camper firing an incendiary round, burned more than 17,000 acres on the southeast/southwest and into the old burn. 

In March 2016 we hiked up Deer Canyon, north on AZT and down City Creek near Payson. After a confusing start at a poorly marked trailhead, first mile of creek trail was a broad verdant path recently cairned and brushed. Only ghostly white cottonwood skeletons indicated hot fire a few years before. After the wilderness boundary, trail deteriorated: steep scrabbles up side slopes into thick brush and knee-jarring drops to cross blowouts and boulders on the creek.  Giant cairns were poorly placed for trail finding. After camp in a remnant ponderosa stand at Gowan Camp (where pioneer David Gowan homesteaded from 1916 to 1926) we found a faint trail climbing briskly to Mt. Peeley trailhead and three parked cars. AZT was fair although clogged with thorny post-fire brush in some sections. Good January rains left nice pools for camping in Windsor Spring (off Y Bar Trail near Mazatzal Peak) and just below The Park, now a grass patch among burned and remnant pines. A rebuilt City Creek Trail was very good.

We planned a March 2017 trip to extend the 1980 range-divide loop. After I fell trail running and broke my arm, David did it solo. After wet winter he found spring boxes brimming, Deadman Creek running, abundant grass and walls of wildflowers; but got lost on obscure trails, wasted four hours going wrong way down Copper Camp trail #87 (missing an intersection in a blown-out canyon), and scrambled up heavily burned upper Willow Trail (#223), mostly bushwhack and downed log straddle to unmarked trail junction at The Park.

In April 2017 we hiked up road to LF ranch (a working cattle ranch along the AZT on the Verde River that sometimes hosts hikers) for two nights’ stay in the bunkhouse, amazing meals, a day hike up the AZT past White Rocks, and return via AZT and City Creek. This leg was part of David’s original trip but missed because of slow going. All springs were running, wildflowers rampant and many cheery AZT thru hikers met (the Mazatzals are about halfway on the 790-mile trek from Mexico to Utah) during our day hike and short backpack.

Fall 2017-winter 2018 was dry in Arizona but David wanted to repeat the range trip with me-either for my note-taking or trail finding abilities, or perhaps during his solo hike he missed my usual raging at rough trails and terrain. Trail deteriorated soon after we left AZT at Squaw Flat where a new sign for Sheep Creek Trail #88 belied the unmaintained route ahead. Not too bad through burnt ponderosa but the creek bed was blowouts, boulders and thick vegetation.

We saw footprints. David had not seen a soul in 2017 until the AZT. We eventually climbed straight up a ridge and found the trail again; smelling smoke, we met two guys in hunting camouflage with a campfire in a drainage below the ridge. They hoped for water in Sheep Seep or Round Spring. We camped on the windy ridge.

Fair switchbacks into Sheep but slow going on creek through brush and blowouts; nice pools at Sheep Seep. But Round Spring basin, our intended lunch stop, was dry! Two chairs moved since last year indicated visitors. David found small pool at spring source on the hillside; we scratched out enough water to carry us up next ridge (straight up until we found trail), a long contour and steep stony drop down a ridge into drainage above Bear Creek, where we camped in a wash near a small pool.

Next day we missed the trail climbing above Davenport Wash, again scrambled up and found it rounding the hill. Another empty round trough for Rock Spring near a well-signed junction with Davenport Trail (which continues down to Sheep Bridge on the Verde River); we used clippers to clear the route up the drainage where we found a small pool. Trail to marked junction with Davenport (where we had hiked up to Chilson 30+ years ago!) was good and followed an old range fence. Pools in Davenport. Trail to pass was rough but well-marked and gentle climb. We contoured down side until trail dropped into a wash near Mesquite Spring which David recalled as “brush hell.” So we left it, dropped downhill and contoured on opposite hillside, rejoining trail below for a slow descent following periodic cairns but little trail. Then the GPS sent us uphill-big mistake. We missed trail, came straight down to a range fence and followed to where it dropped down a cliff to Deadman Creek-big pools far below. We dropped straight down a brushy nightmare game route along the fence, then followed faint trail along fence to an open gateway. Only seven miles and 3650’ elevation gain/loss but I was worn down from rough trail, slaps and bites from acacia and oak, and sharp oak leaves in my boots.

Early sun on the tent, breakfast and a cool (not cold!) bath in Deadman equalized the past day’s sufferings. Sudden roar as two big Air Force jets flew up Deadman right overhead. Mazatzals is on a flight path from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix so you hear jets especially early morning and late evening; odd in such a remote place. But jets “playing” loud and close seem a bit out of place in wilderness.

After crossing Deadman, we found trail good but rough and slow with lots of prickly pear to circumvent. I was again impressed by trail design, steady switchbacks then along a ridge to a saddle, and contouring up to a higher saddle. David went straight up last year following wrong GPS map, but I found the trail below the saddle and contouring around several canyons before it dropped into Horse Creek. David filled up at a beautiful pool while I went exploring.

On other side of creek, Willow Trail (#223) came in from below; several signs and social trails marked a well-used route to Mountain Spring (in Horse Creek drainage), a half-full trough, water development upstream and beautiful camp in the oaks. After a junction we followed good trail by Midnight Mesa and camped on a small pass. Cool blue clouds that gathered all day offered periodic sprinkles during the night; not enough to wet the ground.

Next morning, we hiked down to Lost Spring (signed but trail lost in brush), up another drainage to an unmarked junction where David took Willow Trail last year.  The trail into Wet Bottom Creek was marginal through burned area but we followed tracks. Perhaps hikers came in lower Willow Trail and out Red Hills Trail. Trail improved in the pine, but once we crossed the creek, we lost it in brush and headed to the creek where pools offered a late breakfast break. After a boulder hop down dry creek bed below we found a corral, nice campsite and well-marked trail relocated on the hillside and, soon after, a junction where Red Hills Trail climbed up a ridge then descended to Sheep Bridge. We went the other way, winding into Fuller Seep, passing an old lounge chair frame on the ridge and a fence in the canyon. After periodic crossings and many pools, I passed more fence and a camp in big oak trees. Young juniper and pine were coming in after the fire. The trail headed right up the ridge-maybe 1500 feet in 1 mile with zig-zag switchbacks. After a long flat section through ponderosa with big cairns, we rejoined the AZT.

Highlights for 2.5-day trip back:

Beautiful sunset and sunrise on Knob Mountain at 6255 feet.

Late breakfast at Horse Seep, rocky pools among remnant pines at the head of Deadman Creek Canyon which drops away in impressive grey and purple cliffs.

Ridge camp on a saddle between Mazatzal Peak and Bear Spring, a “moonscape” in 2016 but now reforesting with thick oak and young pine.

Met several weekend, section and thru-hikers at different points on the trail.

Arrived for last camp at Squaw Flat at 9:45 p.m. by headlamp after long cold windy descent from divide. Camper nestled in his tent woke up during our camp setup: California guy doing AZT in sections. He left before we got up in morning. Wonderful fire in the big fire circle warded off coldest night of the trip and sun was on the tent at 7.

Still cold and windy for last eight miles out-I observed many cow pies; unlike westside or AZT Crest trail. 

Mazatzal Divide Trail (#23) and others near main ridge have been restored since fires by volunteer groups. But the network of westside trails is disappearing. A shame to lose any of 240 miles of legacy trails to lack of maintenance and/or fire damage. The $10 million spent on Willow Fire helped protect Payson. Another $4.4 million was spent on the Sunflower Fire and other funds for flood prevention. We see a problem with priorities. Congress’ and federal fire agencies support a system where large forces are convened and often millions spent to fight fires, but no funds or personnel for the local unit to restore trails and facilities after the fire crews have left.  A 20-person fire crew could restore a lot of trail miles in a week or so.

The Tonto National Forest recreation a staff works hard with grants and volunteers to restore trails on this almost 3-million-acre forest, largest in Arizona and heavily impacted by urban recreationists. Volunteers are the backbone of Mazatzals trail work. The Arizona Trail Association (which maintains AZT) got grants and volunteers to restore the Red Hills Trail; ATA’s trail director has applied for a grant for Davenport Trail; the Arizona Wilderness Coalition is seeking a grant to inventory all Mazatzal trails and the regional Mazatzal trail steward is a tireless champion of westside trails, as is Friends of the Tonto.

Although we saw little evidence of westside hikers, at least others are trying to restore the Mazatzal legacy trails.