The Highline: A world class accessible hike beneath the Rim after re-route

Payson Roundup (December 2, 2022) by Michele Nelson

For too long, the Highline Trail has intimidated hikers.




But it’s time for that reputation to change.

The Phase I re-route of the Highline Trail from the Pine to the Washington Park trailheads has completely transformed the hike from an out-of-breath scramble to a stroll through glades and meadows and stunning views.

Doug Hanson, owner of Cuddy Mountain Trail building company, and side-kick Londen Carpenter spent the last Monday of November finishing up on a contract with the Payson Ranger District. They put the final touches on Phase I of the Highline Trail restoration project.

“I’ve been doing this for the past 40 years, worked in 18 states and many national forests. What the Tonto is doing now is top-notch,” said Hanson sitting atop his tiny single track earth-moving machine.

Carpenter worked behind to rake the pathway into a well-formed trail ready to stand up to punishing monsoon deluges.

Meanwhile, Shawn Redfield, a director for the Arizona Trail Association and a Pine homeowner, used his fold-up saw to chop up an 8-foot tree limb.

Redfield spent years mapping out the Highline re-route, hiking and re-hiking sections of the Highline/Arizona Trail between Pine and Washington Park. He meticulously followed contours to create the best trail he could for volunteers and contractors like Cuddy Mountain to complete.

“Several times I wondered why I did it — and then I come out here and see this,” said Redfield, sweeping his arm toward the miles-long view of valley after valley marching off into the distance.

Redfield often would crawl under a manzanita choked slopes covered in blood following his magic contour line, said Abel.

His dedication created a flowing path that converted the Highline from a rough struggle to a pleasant meander.

“I can build you a trail, but if it isn’t laid out right, it’ll never be great,” said Hanson.

What it took to accomplish the re-route vision

The Highline Trail runs for 60 miles under the Mogollon Rim between Pine and Highway 260, below the Woods Canyon Lake turnoff.

The trail has been part of Rim Country lore since the early ranching days when cowboys and residents moved cattle along the trail, which also linked them to their neighbors. Famous western writer Zane Grey waxed poetic about the Highline Trail in many of his stories centered in Rim Country.

The trail has numerous water drainages from the springs that bubble up beneath the 2,000-foot cliffs of the Mogollon Rim more than anywhere else in Arizona, report Arizona Trail thru-hikers.

But it took vision, focus, and a lot of partners to make this first leg of the 60-mile trail rehabilitation possible, said Angie Abel, the Payson Ranger District recreation officer.

Abel oversees the project to snip away at the red tape. Already, she has had to fix passages over drainages because the re-route added too many boulders, potentially disrupting the creek flow.

Abel has worked with Cuddy Mountain and the Arizona Trail Association, along with the National Forest Foundation to find the volunteers and grants to pay for this expensive, but sustainable re-route. The Mogollon Sporting Association and Pine Strawberry Fuel Reduction Inc. have inspired the Forest Service to believe local support can keep the Highline supported for years to come.

What’s the re-route like?

The Highline frequently crossed drainages by plunging straight down steep slopes covered in loose rock and exposed tree roots — with an equally tough scramble on the other side of the drainage.

The steep grades and uneven footing required so much attention, the hiker had no time to enjoy the scenery.

In fact, the new re-route improves views by taking the hiker up out of gullies to instead glide across ridges that expose breathtaking vistas. That’s because the route sticks to a few contour lines, ensuring minimal changes in elevation.

On this particular day, Cuddy Mountain Trails worked to finish up a section of the trail Arizona Trail Association volunteers had not finished this summer.

Redfield had taken six AZT volunteers out for a week of volunteer trail building — scheduled to not disturb Mexican spotted owls during the mating season. The volunteers actually paid for the privilege — but couldn’t quite finish in the time allotted. So Abel hired Cuddy Mountain to complete the work.

Abel and Redfield had hoped to complete Phase I by the end of this year, but lots of detail work remains.

“The Highline needs a fan club,” said Abel.

Keeping the Highline pristine and passable

Abel has worked in the volunteer capital of the national forests, Sedona.

In the 1980s, The Friends of the Coconino Forest became the nation’s first community volunteer organization dedicated to helping the Forest Service.

The group now has hundreds of volunteers who maintain trails, man the visitors center, and keep the recreation opportunities in Sedona available to visitors.

It’s paid off. Sedona now has more visitors than the Grand Canyon.

Rim Country also has the proximity to Phoenix with its millions of potential visitors.

But those visitors are seeking accessible, easy to enjoy trails.

That’s exactly what they’ll now find on the Highline.

Phase I has four access points with substantial trailheads and parking. That includes the Pine and Washington Park trailheads. In addition, the Geronimo and Red Rock Spring trailheads lie further down the Control Road.

“These give you access to 20 miles of trail,” said Abel. “Enough to break up into various day hikes, or long enough for a two-car, a day-long adventure or an easy overnight hike.”

Abel noted that it’s a wilderness experience — with spotty cell phone coverage in some of the drainages, but there’s service all along Phase I.

“It’s a National Recreation Trail,” said Abel.

She just hopes it will continue to get the love from local residents so it will remain one of the state’s premier hiking trails.

And Redfield, for his part, just hopes he’s done with bloody manzanita crawls. Although — standing in the sunlight admiring the view of the Rim — he’d likely crawl the contour all over again.

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