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Highline Trail Rehabilitation

Primary Project Partners
Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona
Payson Ranger District, Tonto National Forest, USDA
Arizona Trail Association

Financial Support
Federal Recreational Trails Program administered by the Arizona State Parks Board
National Forest Foundation for the Derrick/Highline/Horton Springs Loop Restoration
Giles W. and Elsie G. Mead Foundation for the Derrick/Highline/Horton Springs Loop Restoration
The Estate of Dorothy M. Garske
Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona
Contributions from individual trail users

Scheduled events and completed event reports from the Highline project, which are located at VOAz at Work. The VOAz Calendar lists coming volunteer opportunities.

January 2018: 36+ miles of trail restored The reach between Hatchery TH and 260 TH has been completed. Horton Creek Trail and Derrick Trail have been substantially improved.

The Highline National Recreation Trail, so designated in 1978, is located north of Payson, Arizona and below the Mogollon Rim, which marks the edge of the Colorado Plateau in Arizona. Over fifty miles long (the second longest NRT in Arizona), it follows a course below the rim between Pine Trailhead, off Highway 87, and the 260 Trailhead, off of Highway 260. The Highline offers numerous options for trail users starting at seven different trail heads for day-hikes and longer.

Apaches and perhaps earlier Native American hunters used deer trails to traverse the many deep canyons below the Mogollon Rim before Anglo settlement. In 1868, Col. Devin lead an invasion off the rim from the "jump off" at the top of the East Verde River canyon in pursuit of Apaches. Remnants of the switchbacks created at that time are still visible and the current route from the Rim down to the Highline is named the Devin trail. This is one of the earliest Anglo incursions into the area. As the Apaches were driven out, settlers began moving in and establishing homesteads, raising cattle and farming where the terrain allowed. To facilitate social contact they expanded and improved the trail connections along the base of the Rim as alternatives to the arduous routes up and down the canyons. Cattle grazing was the primary economic activity until timber harvesting started. Cattle were moved seasonally up and down the East Verde River canyon route established by Col. Devin. By the 1940's cattle grazing was in steep decline probably because of the cost of operations in this area and over grazing. After World War II, developers began converting the old ranch homestead lands to small residential settlements that today are spread out near the Highline Trail. The name "Highline Trail" was apparently not invoked this until the initiative to establish it as a recreation trail in the 1970's.

During VOAz's initial conditions survey there was frequent evidence of old roads beds. The current route followed these in numerous locations. The evidence suggests that little consideration was given to trail sustain ability when the trail alignment was marked to for use as a non-motorized recreation trail. The result was a route that is beyond the capacity of average hikers and downright hostile to mountain bikers and horses over much of its length. It remains an under utilized economic asset for the local communities. The VOAz Highline Restoration Project weeks to rectify this deficiency.

The Highline Trail is a sixty to ninety minute drive from much of the Phoenix metro area. With numerous all weather Trailheads, the Highline offers the Valley its most accessible public lands for outdoor recreation amid pine and juniper forests, perennial stream crossings, and magnificent distant and rim vistas. The entire trail can be completed in a one week vacation.

In the eastern portion of the Highline Trail, access is via the four mile long Horton Creek Trail, which parallels spring fed Horton Creek with its many waterfalls and magnificent old growth Ponderosa Pine. A bit to the east there is another access route via the Derrick Trail. Unfortunately, the layout of the Derrick was so miserable that a great loop hike (Derrick/Highline/Horton Creek) appeals to only the most determined.

Much of the of the eighteen miles of the Arizona Trail overlaying the Highline at its west end has had some maintenance over the past decade or so, including several years of work by VOAz near Geronimo Trailhead. The reaches east of Washington Park have had little professionally directed maintenance. Organizations conducting long-distance races on the Highline periodically brush the trail and some trail users occasionally take it upon themselves to help keep the trail open. We have these groups and individuals to thank for keeping at least certain areas from being completely lost.

The Highline National Recreation Trail Rehabilitation Project has mobilized local agencies, volunteers, and public and private funding to
Rehabilitate the Highline,
Trail and realize the Highline's potential as a premier outdoor recreation destination in Arizona. The communities of Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Star Valley and Christopher Creek should realize economic benefits from servicing an expanded visitor population.

Planning, design, fund raising, and construction management service by VOAz are being underwritten by the estate of Dorothy M. Garske, which is turning its attention to Arizona's neglected trail gems--accessible trails in great locations that are in urgent need of rehabilitation.

About the area:

From Zane Grey’s Under the Tonto Rim
"The trail took a decided pitch, so that Lucy had to cling to the pommel of her saddle. It led down and down, into a ravine full of mellow roar, deep, murmuring, mystical, where the great trees shut out the sky. Only faint gleams of sunlight filtered down. They came to a rushing brook of amber water, brawling and foaming over rocks, tearing around huge mossy boulders, and gleaming on down a wild defile, gloomy with its shadows."

"The horses stopped to drink and then forded the brook, crashing on the rocks, plunging on to splash the water ahead. Lucy had a touch of that sweet cold water on her face. On the other side the trail turned up this beautiful glen, and followed the brook, winding in and out among boulders that loomed high overhead. Ferns and flowers bordered the trail. Maples and birches grew thickly under the stately pines. Lucy became aware of another kind of tree, the most wonderful she had ever seen, huge-trunk, thick with drooping foliage, and lifting its proud height spear-shaped to the sky. Her guide informed her that this tree was a silver spruce, which name seemed singularly felicitous."

"Again they forded the brook, to Lucy’s mingled dismay and delight, and after that so many times that she forgot these and also her fears. The forest became a grand temple. Higher towered the forest patriarchs, two hundred feet and more above her head, mingling their foliage in a lacy canopy, like a green veil against the blue. She caught a glimpse of wild sleek gray creatures bounding as on rubber legs into the brush. Deer!"

"At last the trail led out of the fragrant glen and zigzagged up a slope, to the dry forest of pines, and on and upward, farther and higher until Lucy felt she had ascended to the top of a mountain. She lost the mellow roar of the brook. The woodland changed its aspect, grew hot with dusty trail and thick with manzanita, above which the yellow barked pines reached with great gnarled arms. Open places were now frequent. Once Lucy saw a red wall of rock so high above her that she gasped in astonishment. That was the Red Rim Rock, seemingly so close, though yet far away…."

More about Zane Gray at Wikipedia
More about Zane Gray's Rim country legacy.
Replica of Zane Gray's cabin in Payson.

Geology, Vegetation, and Wildlife

The Mogollon Rim is a vertical fault (erosion scarp) comprised of Coconino sandstone and the Supai Group (red mudstone, sandstone, tan limestone, etc.) of Grand Canyon fame. The Rim marks the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. The scarp formed south of its present location in what were the Mogollon Highlands. It gradually ( moved north about one mile 14 million years has to be considered gradual)to its present location as those Mogollon Highlands were geologically dismantled. The Kaibab Limestone and lava overflows that cap the Plateau help to retard erosion. At the Mogollon Rim this protection was broken, exposing the softer sandstone beneath to erosive forces. The soils at the base of the Rim are derived from sandstone and limestone (Naco Formation). The exact geologic history is still not a settled story. Area soils have high potential for erosion. Trail construction and maintenance must be held to high standards to create stable tread in this area.

A wide variety of vegetation inhabits the terrain along the base of the Rim. Pinyon, juniper, manzanita, ponderosa pine, mountain hardwoods (maple, oak, ash, cottonwood, sycamore), Douglas fir and white fir appear in varying mixtures as the trail crosses numerous drainages and ridges. The wet drainages included varied flowers, forbs, and berries, including blackberries still harvested by locals.

The diversity of vegetation supports a diverse wildlife population. Over 90 species of reptiles, birds, and mammals are associated with the combination of ponderosa pine and mixed broad leaf riparian habitat. The perches and up drafts of the Rim area make these areas attractive to birds of prey such as Perrigrine falcons, eagles, buteos, and accipiters. Trout are found in some of the perennial streams, as are the endangered pup-fish. Elk, javalina, mule and whitetail deer, black bear, mountain lion, turkey, squirrel, and cottontail rabbit inhabit the area.

Human occupation of the area dates back more than 5,000 years. The variety and abundance of plant foods and wildlife and the climate made the area especially suitable for human inhabitation.

The earliest settlers did not have permanent homes. They moved with the season to locations where food was most readily available. Agriculture was adopted around 300 AD. Native farmers grew corn, beans, and squash along streams. They built stone terraces on mesa tops to catch rainfall and create additional planting areas.

Until about 1000 AD, settlements were small, with each one involving only a few families. As agricultural productivity improved, the population expanded and settlements grew larger. New and probably less productive land had to be put into production. This period of growth may have been accompanied by conflicts between communities.

The major site in the area that may be visited is called Shoofly Village. It is located south of the Highline. It is accessible from Houston Mesa Road, which is off of highway 87 just north of Payson.

Shoofly Village was built and occupied between 1000 and 1250 AD by people with ties to the Hohokum and Salado people. The village contains 87 rooms built at various times over the life of the community. A gradual process of abandonment of the entire Payson area ended around 1250 AD. Neither the reasons for abandonment nor the destination of the emigrants is know.

In recent years the towns and lands surrounding Payson, Pine, and Strawberry have been subject to intensive development of second and retirement homes, and the public and private establishments that support these residents and others seeking access to the area's recreational resources and mild climate.

More about land use and ecology along the Rim.

What is considered the worst forest fire in Arizona’s history up to that point began with a lightning strike about 10 miles northeast of Payson on Dude Creek on July 25, 1990. The fire occurred on one of the hottest days ever recorded at the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest. It was 122 in Phoenix that day.

Extreme and prolonged dryness and accumulation of fuels after years of aggressive fire suppression provided the ingredients for a major conflagration. In ten days over 24,000 acres were burned consuming enough wood to build 3,300 medium sized houses. A storm cell produced a powerful down draft as the fire took hold blowing the fire down canyons through tree crowns at a speed impossible to outrun. Six fire fighters died fighting the blaze; five were from the prison in Perryville. Over 1,100 area residents had to be evacuated. Fire management policies and practices were reviewed and modified in light of the Dude Fire experience.

Evidence of the Dude Fire is still clearly visible although the regeneration process is well underway. In areas where the fire was especially intense, all vegetation was destroyed. One result is conditions conducive to serious erosion, which the Forest Service attempted to mitigate through the introduction of a non-native bunch grass--a policy that has come to be considered questionable in many circumstances.

Dude Fire Progression Map
USDA Report on Dude Fire with map

You Tube tribute to fire fighters

The Highline Rehabilitation Project is the largest project VOAz has undertaken since its inception in 1999. It involves us in a large scale planning process that will include coordinating and, at times, supervising work done by others in a close partnership with the the Payson Ranger District of Tonto National Forest. In addition to sustained volunteer involvement, this project must raise significant new funding if the work is to be completed. The remote locations of much of the trail will require substantial use of paid crews in addition to volunteers.

In 2011 VOAz began planning discussions with staff of the Payson Ranger District. Our first community meeting was hosted by the Rim Country Chamber of Commerce on September 2, 2011. The poor condition of much of the trail due to poor alignment on the land and the lack of maintenance is well known in the community. This need and VOAz's reputation for high quality trail planning and construction helped to create a receptive environment.

In October an initial survey of trail conditions was completed from the Washington Park Trailhead east to the end of the trail at 260 Trailhead. Volunteers from the Arizona Trail Association used the same survey protocol to gather data on the portion of the Highline that is also a part of the Arizona National Scenic Trail(Pine to Washington Park). The gps data, field notes, and photo resources gathered during this process were the basis for drafting an initial general plan that included preliminary determinations of realignments to be considered and the varying levels of rehabilitation and maintenance required on those reaches to be retained. "Rehabilitation" includes stabilizing tread damaged by sustained erosion, major flood events, blow downs,use, and other factors that degrade a trail far below forest service specifications. Rehabilitation may be undertaken on poor alignments if realignment is likely to be many times more costly; however, consideration of long-term maintenance costs must be taken into consideration when making such decisions.

The initial survey came up with the following general findings for six reached that are defined by Trailheads.
Pine to Geronimo - Best maintained reach especially toward Pine TH. Between Red Rock Springs and Geronimo there are about six locations requiring short realignments.
Geronimo to Washington Park--several serious problem areas due largely to poor alignment--Bray Creek in particular. VOAz completed some improvements in the two miles east of Geronimo Trailhead between 1999 and 2006 that are holding up. Some did not hold up so well.
Washington Park to Hatchery - The heart of the Lone Fire burn area has seen dramatic change due to spread of non-native grass introduced to retain soil. Substantial realignment and rehabilitation work required.
Hatchery to See Canyon - Wide range of conditions from sections requiring only light maintenance to realignments over one mile in length. Some beautiful deep canyons as yet unscarred by major fires.

See Canyon to 260 - A beautiful forest trail has degraded due to lack of maintenance and some poor alignment; but, still better than most other reaches between Trailheads.

Intersecting Trails
Because the Highline was built for transportation rather than recreation, it is short on a feature trail designers use to make trails attractive--user-friendly loops. Loops are inherently more interesting than out-and-back routes. Stacked loops where users could choose routes of different lengths are ideal. There actually are many loops connected to the Highline. However, most are between the Highline and the top of the Rim and few receive maintenance. Some link to the Highline at a considerable distance from a Highline trailhead.

One of many waterfalls along Horton Creek

For reports from completed events, go the Highline Trail Rehabilitation Project report at VOAz at Work

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