Hiking Yavapai by Stan Bindell
Perennial creeks, riparian habitat, scenic views, butterflies and sycamore trees make the Pine Mountain Wilderness worth preserving. But don't even think about going if rain or snow is in the forecast. The creek that you pass on the way to the trail can be barely moving when it's dry, but can turn into a river flow that's impassable during wet days.
I’ve hiked this trail a few times, and once was caught on the other side of the creek and had to wait a bit before we could pass. Aside from the water, the road into Pine Mountain is rough and a high-clearance vehicle is needed. But once there, the trek is worthwhile.
Arizona Highways, which counts Pine Mountain Trail among its 52 best day hikes, calls it a good winter hike. Some folks say it should be hiked in the fall because the leaf colors are glorious, but it's also a good summer hike because of the wooded-area shade. Sycamore Creek and Bishop Creek create the riparian areas that entice butterflies and wildlife in the Pine Mountain Wilderness. Flowers are not unusual here, with lupines and Mexican locust among the most prolific.
The wildlife in Pine Mountain Wilderness includes Abert's squirrel, rock squirrel, white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, black bear, coyote, mountain lion, elk and skunk. The bird life here is also extensive, with dove, quail, golden eagle, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, kestrel, peregrine falcon, great horned owl and hummingbird.
Threatened, endangered and sensitive species include peregrine falcon, lowland leopard frog, southwestern willow flycatcher, large-billed savannah sparrow and California leaf-nosed bat. The US Fish and Wildlife Service lists the yellow-billed cuckoo, Mexican garter snake, Gila chub, spikedace and Chiricahua leopard frog as threatened and endangered species in this area.
Established in 1972, Pine Mountain Wilderness covers 19,569 acres, with management shared by Prescott National Forest and Tonto National Forest. Sam Steiger, a well known Prescott personality who was in Congress at the time, sponsored the legislation designating this area in 1972.
One of the best parts of hiking during the summer is that a small section of Sycamore Creek runs through it, so it's a good place for hikers to rest or enjoy the cool waters, especially on the way back after working up a sweat.
Arizona Highways rates the Pine Mountain Trail a moderate 9.6-mile hike, climbing about 1,700 feet. The Prescott Hiking Club calls it moderate to strenuous, and in any case you top out at 6,814 feet with spectacular views of Humphreys Peak, the Verde River canyon, Matazal Mountains and Horseshoe Lake. The low point of the hike is 5,110 feet. The trail’s peak is also the high point of the Pine Mountain Wilderness, which reaches down to 4,600.
Pine Mountain Wilderness includes the highest point of the Verde River Rim, and the southern portion slopes down to the Verde River. One section of about 800 feet going up switchbacks in the sun is fairly grueling, but aside from that the hike isn't too hard.
Though the flowers were a little thin on the ground, there were enough of them that butterflies were abundant.
On a hike led by Prescott Hiking Club's Donna Overland, who shot the photos for this article, just when the heat might have become an issue the clouds moved in to cool everyone off. Sycamore Creek was much appreciated on the way out.
Most of the trek is tree-covered, with Arizona Sycamore, Ponderosa pine and alligator juniper. Some of the older Ponderosas are 35 inches in diameter and 120 feet tall. A few parts of the hike are out in the sun, so going up the switchbacks it's good to look for trees and shade for those quick huff-and-puff water breaks.
You must use a high-clearance vehicle to access this trail, and signs warn that it should not be traveled in wet weather. I cannot repeat this warning enough.
To get to Pine Mountain, go to the Dugas turnoff from Interstate 17 and travel 18 miles, mostly on washboard road that will limit your speed to about five miles an hour. On arrival at tree-shaded Salt Flat Campground you’ll know why this is worth the trip. There was no one in sight when we arrived, and when we left about six hours later, only two or three vehicles had come in, including a Forest Service truck.
The hike begins at Nelson Trail, which hooks into Pine Mountain Trail, and a route via Verde Rim Trail and Willow Springs Trail make this a nice loop. Pine Mountain Wilderness has six trails covering 37 miles for hikers, hunters and equestrians. The riparian area offers trout and Gila chub, so don't be surprised to find someone fishing.
Those looking for solitude will come pretty close to it on most days. We didn't see anyone else on the trail, just the handful of campers who entered after we came off.
A fire burned the west side of Pine Mountain in 1989, but much of this area has been reclaimed by Ponderosa pines. The 2001 Pine Mountain Fire removed tons of vegetation, and another fire in the summer of 2020 took more. Forest Service officials tell me these natural fires have kept the forest from overgrowth, and they don’t have to panic when there is a fire in the wilderness.
There’s a touch of Arizona history here as well. Early homesteaders known as the Nelsons lived here, and there are a few remnants of their occupation, mostly rock walls. Dugas is named after rancher Fred Dugas, who established the ranch in 1879. A ranch is still working there, and you’ll see a few homes on the way into Dugas and a little past it.
For more information, call the Verde Ranger District at 928-567-4121 or check www.fs.fed.us/r3/Prescott.
Stan Bindell is always looking for a good hike. If you have one, contact him at email@example.com. Photos by Donna Overland.