March 2024
Hiking Yavapai
Stan Bindell

Barnhardt Trail and Falls

Two main waterfalls, many smaller ones and running streams make the Barnhardt Trail spectacular right now, but don’t wait too long because the water may only be running for little longer, depending on when the snow and rain stops and everything starts drying out.

Up to mid-January it had been so dry that we were hard-pressed to find waterfalls in the Prescott area, so my mission meant traveling two hours south to Camp Creek Falls in Cave Creek one week and to Barnhardt Trail south of Payson the next week.

I’d hiked Barnhardt Trail three or four times previously when it was dry or the waterfall was barely running. But after the moisture came down late in January the trail offered so much water it was incredible.

The creek below is always running, so that wasn’t a surprise, but less than a mile in I began to see small spring-fed puddles, just a hint of what was to come.

Barnhardt Trail starts at 4,200 feet and there was no snow on the trail, but the mountains above rise to well over 6,000, and the snowmelt was causing a gushing runoff.

The farther in we walked on this Prescott Hiking Club-sponsored hike, the more water appeared in the forms of springs, streams, small waterfalls, larger gushing waterfalls, and then the granddaddy, which took a bit of rock-climbing to reach.

The big fall is about 3.5 miles in, making a seven-mile round trip. Those who want to do less can turn around at any point, and for those who want more Barnhardt eventually connects with the Arizona Trail, so you can make it as long as you want.

We hiked about 4.5 miles in, enough to give us a good view of Martian Rock and lead us into Larry Byk’s manzanita forest.

The Barnhardt Trail is in the Mazatzal Wilderness, one of the largest wilderness areas in Arizona, with 205,500 acres spanning parts of Yavapai and Gila counties, ranging in elevation from 2,100 to 7,903 feet at Mazatzal Peak. 

The 240 miles of trails in the Mazatzal Wilderness include the 28-mile Verde River Trail and 29-mile Mazatzal Divide Trail, among 40 trails. The Verde River borders the west side of the Mazatzal Wilderness, with the Barnhardt Trail on the east.

It’s best to hike Barnhardt in March or April, because the lower parts can be too hot during summer and the higher parts too cold in winter, but the absolute best time to hike it is after rain so the waterfall will be running.

Regardless of the time of the year there are great scenic views of the surrounding mountains, with Oak Creek Canyon below. From farther up you can see the Mogollon Rim, and this creek supports sycamores and cottonwoods.

The switchbacks begin at the 1.6-mile mark. You will have climbed about 200 feet to this point, but the trek gets steeper here. Once you reach a natural overlook you’ve climbed 1,920 feet in elevation, to great views of the western Mazatzals.

The hike to Mazatzal Peak is 17 miles round-trip, and it’s generally recommended that you take at least two days. The lower part of Barnhardt Trail includes white and Emory oaks, junipers and century plants. After the 1.5-mile mark you can see velvet ash, Arizona walnuts, sycamores and Ponderosa pines.

After five miles you’ll come to the Sandy Saddle Trail. Barnhardt Saddle and Mazatzal Divide are at 6.2 miles. In another mile you reach Chilson Springs, one of a few places along the trail that usually has water. Windsor Spring Saddle comes up at 8.5 miles.

Mazatzal is an old native Mexican word said to mean “land of deer.” The road is a bit rough. Sedans can make it and many do, but a high-clearance vehicle is preferable.

Mazatzal Wilderness is part of Tonto and Coconino National Forests. Barnhardt Trail is managed by the Payson Ranger District. For more information call 928-474-9000.

Directions: From Payson go south on State Route 87 (Beeline Highway) for 12 miles to Forest Road 419, and look for the trailhead sign on right. Turn right onto FR 419 and continue 5.1 miles to the trailhead.

Stan Bindell is always looking for a good hike. If you have one, contact him at thebluesmagician@gmail. com