Originally Published: January 15, 2010 9:07 a.m.
PRESCOTT - According to an African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. In Arizona, it takes a small army of volunteers, one man's vision and some government help to build a world-class trail.
"This trail represents a true partnership between people and organizations," said Helen Hankins, Bureau of Land Management's Arizona associate state director. "It took a high degree of commitment from the (Black Canyon City) community and county."
Hankins made her comments Jan. 8 to more than 100 visitors during a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony of the Black Canyon Trail in Black Canyon City. Hankins noted also that the BLM received $432,400 in stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and it was spending that money to help the Black Canyon Trail Coalition finish building the trail.
Terms of the grant require the trail coalition to finish the last 35 miles of the 80-mile trail in two years, explained Bob Cothern, the trail coalition's secretary. The trail starts in the south at Carefree Highway Trailhead and will end about eight miles northeast of Mayer at the border of the Prescott National Forest.
The trail is for non-motorized use by hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
It was Cothern's vision in 2004 that resulted in the ribbon-cutting ceremony this past week. However, at that time, his interest was in off-highway vehicle (OHV) and Jeep trails.
"At the end of 2003, the BLM had already decided to start on the Black Canyon Trail, but they knew they didn't have the money or manpower to build it," Cothern said. "They wanted to enlist citizens' groups, but they (BLM) didn't really have any experience in how to do that."
Enter Sonia Overholser and the energetic members of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).
"The BLM hired IMBA to inventory the existing route, lay out new routes and help BLM enlist citizens' groups," Cothern said. Two years and several miles of hand-built trail later, the Internal Revenue Service granted non-profit status to the Black Canyon Trail Coalition.
"That's when things really started to take off with interest and help," Cothern said.
Along with the BLM, trail coalition and IMBA, other organizations that have so far contributed to building the trail include the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona, the Black Canyon City Riders equestrian group, and Arizona State Horseman's Association.
But since trail work started, it has been the volunteers who have been the backbone of success. Cothern, Hankins, Steve Cohn of BLM Hassayampa field office, and Yavapai County Supervisor Tom Thurman praised the tireless, and sometimes thankless, efforts of the corps of volunteers.
The trail starts at the north end of the Sonoran Desert in relatively level land, winds its way through classic desert flora and fauna, crisscrosses the Agua Fria River, and enters rugged, mountainous terrain.
As a U.S. Forest Service trail expert, Troy Dymock is usually the first person on the ground to visualize the trail and layout and map its route by marking it with little trail flags.
"The trail up to this point is awesome," he said. "I am just tickled that we're over the halfway point."
However, everyone involved with the trail agrees that the last stretch of trail, which cuts through the Bradshaw Mountains, is by far the hardest to build. This is where the stimulus money comes to the rescue.
Out of the $432,400, the BLM spent $210,600 to hire professional trail crews from the Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC) and the Coconino Rural Environment Corps (CREC). The remaining money pays for machines and mechanized trail crews.
"Our first crew got here in November and started working then," said Allison Laramee, CREC project coordinator.
The trail and trail coalition have not gone unrecognized at the national level.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Interior gave the trail coalition a "Take Pride in America" award. In May 2008, BLM gave the group a "Making a Difference" award in honor of the coalition's volunteers. And in June 2008, Congress designated the trail a National Recreation Trail, which has earned it worldwide publicity including a story in National Geographic.
Cothern downplays the awards and is quick to share credit for the trail's success. He is, however, thrilled with the stimulus money.
"I knew we'd finish it some year, but I didn't expect to get nearly a half-million dollars to speed it up," he said.
Building a trail by hand is hard and sometimes dangerous work. Trail crews during the past six years encountered their share of problems and drama.
In December 2007, a rain-swollen Agua Fria River stranded 13 members of the Southwest Conservation Corps about six miles west of Black Canyon City. Babs Sanders, of Black Canyon City, Ruth James and Richard Smith loaded packhorses with 40 gallons of water and energy bars and traversed the river to replenish the crew until the river receded and vehicles could cross it.
During construction of the Little Pan Loop trail, Dymock encountered a section of rock blocking his proposed trail route. Volunteers loaded horses with heavy tools and a power jackhammer and carved a trail out of the solid rock.
Prehistoric Native Americans built a trail from the southern desert to the northern mountains and Perry and Black mesas, which comprise the Agua Fria National Monument. In the 1800s, long after the Indians left, American pioneers moved to the area and widened and graded portions of the ancient trail for stagecoach and mining roads.
The modern-day Black Canyon Trail follows segments of the ancient trail.
In 1919, the Interior Department designated the trail as a livestock driveway. Modern sheepherders continue to use the north section of the trail to move bands of sheep from southern pastures to the Flagstaff area for summer grazing.
Bob Nilles, president of the Black Canyon Historical Society, thinks about history when he hikes the trail.
"This trail ties the old with the new," Nilles said. "I mean, with all the modern transportation today, we get to build a trail where the Yavapai used to control the Bradshaw Mountains."
"These kind of things are why we live in Arizona," a jubilant Tom Thurman said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "This is Arizona."