Hiking Yavapai

January 2021
Oaks and Willow Trail

So when was the last time you saw snow in the Prescott area? During an early December hike on Oaks and Willows Trail in the Juniper Mesa Wilderness, a smattering of snow was left from the small snowfall a couple weeks earlier. Most of the leaves had fallen from the trees, so there was nature's artful contrast of snow and leaves.

Oaks and Willow Trail is best done in spring or fall, because it can be too hot in summer, cold in winter and it is not an area where you want to be when the snow falls, because it’s pretty remote. The trail starts at about 5,900 feet and tops out at 7,027 feet, so there is more snow as you go up. It’s a good representation of the rest of the Juniper Mesa Wilderness, which rises from 5,650 feet to 7,050. It’s is off the beaten path, offering solitude along with large old-growth junipers. Some of these trees are more than a thousand years old.

Juniper MesaWilderness is worth preserving because of its abundant wildlife, diversity of plant life and unique geology, including exposed limestone, sandstone, granite and basalt. The vegetation includes mountain mahogany, skunkbush and manzanita.

For wildlife there are mule deer, turkeys, elk, javelinas, mountain lions, bobcats, bears, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, grey foxes and badgers. Bats, raptors and many songbirds are found here, including the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. Golden eagles are seen here, too.

Snakes are plentiful, most notably the threatened Mexican garter snake.

Juniper MesaWilderness covers 7,566 acres of steep canyons and rolling hills, and was established in 1984. You get a nice workout as the trail climbs about 1,200 feet in the first two miles, then you flatten out for about a mile and a half before dropping 700 feet over the next two miles. And then you start the climb back out.

About a mile into the trail, you’ll pass through George Wood Canyon along a dry stream bed.

This trail is in the northern end of the Prescott National Forest. Pinyon pines, oaks, Utah junipers, alligator junipers and Ponderosa pines are among the trees found along the trail. When you reach the top, a sign relates that if you walk parallel to the trail into the woods, you’ll find a huge juniper.

The views from different points on the trail include Apache Creek Wilderness, Granite Mountain, Woodchute Trail, Sycamore Canyon, Kachina Peak, Kendrick Mountain and Bill Williams. You can get a good sense of wilderness surrounded by all this greenery.

Other trails link into Oaks and Willow Trail, including the Juniper Mesa Trail, intersecting at the highest point on Oaks and Willow. Toward the top there’s also a sign for Happy Camp Trail, but I couldn’t see the path.

Juniper Mesa Trail is six miles one-way, and Juniper Springs Trail is three miles. At the end of the trail there’s another wilderness sign, and you’re not far from Pine Spring. If you want just a little more mileage, go straight ahead.

Arizona Highways counts Oaks and Willow among its 52 best day hikes, rating the 11.5-mile hike as moderate.

Juniper Wilderness is used by hikers, hunters and equestrians. Wildfires have not impacted this area much, leaving Forest Service officials concerned that fire could spread quickly here in the future. There have been 20 fires over the last 26 years. That sounds like a lot, but most have been less than one acre, and most are lightning-caused, which the Forest Service lets burn as long as they don't affect nearby landowners.

Dogs are allowed, but should be leashed. This trip is accessible to all vehicles in good weather. Part of the road to the trail is washboard.

For more information, telephone the Chino Ranger District at 928-777-2200. Directions: From Prescott, drive north onWilliamson Valley Road for 22 miles to where the pavement ends. This is Forest Road 6. Take that for 14 miles to the junction with County Road 125, and continue for 1.5 miles to the Walnut Creek Ranger Station. From there go west on Forest Road 150 for 3.7 miles to the fork in the road, bear right and continue on Forest Road 150 for 2.8 miles to the trailhead.