Walking between two worlds

White Mountain Independent (March 22, 2023) by Michele Nelson

Meandering along the face of the 2,000-foot-tall Mogollon Rim, the Highline Trail threads the boundary between ponderosa pine and pinyon juniper forests. The soaring cliffs capture storms, creating springs, drainages and hidden canyons.

These storms and the Rim’s geology provide a unique ecological meeting place for plants and animals from the Rocky Mountains to Arizona’s Sky Islands to the south. The Rim reveals layers found in the depths of the Grand Canyon, like Kaibab Limestone and Coconino Sandstone. The limestone makes towering cliffs from ancient sea bottoms, while the red sandstone is the world’s thickest sand-dune-derived sandstone.

For too long, this iconic 60-mile-long trail remained neglected. This deterred many hikers from even attempting the Highline. Those captured storms have eroded trails, forcing hikers to hoof it up and down steep slopes and scramble around exposed rocks.

Recently, the Forest Service and its partners invested $800,000 to reroute and improve 20 miles of the trail from the Pine Trailhead to the Washington Park Trailhead. Because this stretch is also part of the Arizona Trail, it received support from the Arizona Trail Association. The upgrades have made it accessible to more levels of hikers. Until now, the Highline had a reputation as an advanced trail only for those in excellent shape.

I decided to check out the new upgrades with a few friends on a spring day in March after one of the wettest winters in decades. We chose a route from the Pine Trailhead to the Red Rock Spring Trailhead off Control Road.

Water seeped everywhere, as did mud. That’s why the Arizona Trail hikers say this portion of the AZT isn’t like anywhere else in Arizona — it’s got water. The lush forests and meadows sliced by deep canyons carved by runoff create scenes from other, wetter states.

We launched into our hike with enthusiasm, but soon came upon a sloppy mess of puddles, streams and lots of wet mushy dirt.

“Suck it up, ladies,” said our fearless leader.

So, we did. As our boots collected mud we marveled at the beauty of the trail. Our lively conversation quickly made us forget any discomfort.

Our hike required two cars. One stayed at Red Rock Springs trailhead and the other at the Pine Trailhead. It’s about a 7-mile jaunt between the two trailheads, which makes for a perfect day hike.

The trail reroutes on this section follow contour lines, allowing hikers enough breath to keep a conversation going the whole way.

So we chatted about husbands, partners, children, hopes, fears and dreams. We stopped now and then to snap photos of the views, eat a snack, or to congratulate ourselves for crossing a rushing creek with minimal soaking of the feet.

Folks have used the Highline since its founding around 1870, and it’s always been a social trail. Originally, it served as a highway for homesteaders living under the shadow of the Mogollon Rim.

All that water explains why homesteaders and ranchers settled under the Rim. Even children relied on the Highline Trail to get to Pine for school and cattle still graze along its length during the colder winter months.

The water wrung out of storms as they climb the face of the Rim produces a rare Arizona abundance of streams. The East Verde River and Pine Creek headwaters start there. Other watersheds include Webber Creek, Bray Creek, North Sycamore Creek, Chase Creek, Mail Creek, Dude Creek, Fuller Creek, Bonita Creek, Parly Creek, Moore Creek, Ellsion Creek, Tonto Creek, Horton Creek, Christopher Creek, See Canyon Creek, Sharp Creek, and Hunter Creek.

To read the rest of the article online, click here.