See late-season fall colors on this Tonto National Forest hike. Here’s how to tackle it

Arizona Republic (November 2, 2021) by Mare Czinar
Sometimes, surprisingly fine escapes can be found just steps from busy byways in right-under-your-nose places. Bushnell Tanks Road, off the Beeline Highway (State Route 87) roughly halfway between Mesa and Payson is one such find.

Much of the road parallels part of the course of the Pine Mountain Passage 21 of the Arizona National Scenic Trail using backroads above and through the corridor of Sycamore Creek and Colcord Canyon.

It’s a rugged, undulating road hike in Tonto National Forest that’s packed with creekside sycamores, a rustic corral, stunning desert vegetation and huge mountain vistas. It’s also a great who-knew way to view breathtaking late autumn foliage.

The hike plan is simple, although roads and junctions are not signed, so paying attention to landmarks is key to staying on track.

From the trailhead, hike down the main gravel road, which is Bushnell Tanks Road (Forest Road 22).  At the 0.3-mile point, the road meets the turnoff for the Arizona Trail connector.

Stay on the main road as it descends to the first of three gorgeous crossings of Sycamore Creek. The first crossing is a little sketchy. The road goes straight across the braided and bent waterway, but getting through requires some creative rock hopping over the flow, which varies in depth and speed with the seasons.

The creek crossing is shaded with enormous sycamores and a few cottonwood, willow and alder trees that show off in shades of yellow and russet brown from late October through December.

Once over the water, the road shimmies through a mixed bag of live oak patches and golden pastures bolstered with views of Mazatzal Mountain peaks including Mount Ord, Crabtree Butte and Cypress Peak. The road continues through a continually changing landscape bright with wildflowers and native food plants.

Lots of ups and downs and two more leafy creek hops land hikers at an unsigned road junction on the right at the 2-mile point near a rusty corral complex.

The corral makes for an interesting exploratory side trip. Encroached with weeds, tangles of buffalo gourds and bits of frayed ropes, the maze of metal fencing, feed troughs and a newish-looking water tank sit at the core of scenic Ram Valley.

When done investigating the corral, backtrack to the road junction and follow the steep, rutted path up a catclaw-riddled ridge. Long pants, folks.The unforgiving haul unpacks spectacular views with every foot of elevation gained.  Peaks and buttes circle an environment of sprawling rangeland, deep valleys and tree-lined creek channels.

At the top of the first rise, the road begins a relentless series of ascents and descents through open grassland. At the 3.9-mile point, on a bald high point, a concrete stock tank off to the right sits among a ring of mesquite trees and low-growing cactus. This makes for a good turnaround point.

For a longer trip, consult the Tonto National Forest map to scope out other routes that wind through the hills and connect with the Arizona Trail. Better yet, check out the Arizona Trail website for more ways to experience this beautiful slice of central Arizona. Arizona Trail Association members get special access to maps, data and dozens of loop hike options using the 800+-mile, state-traversing trail.

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