Originally Published: July 10, 2008 10:15 p.m.
PRESCOTT - Tucked within the southern end of the Juniper Mesa Wilderness stands George Wood Canyon, a heavily wooded area in the northwestern corner of the Prescott National Forest that is a haven for diverse native plant and animal life.
Hikers and equestrians alike enjoy the canyon's serenity, which provides peace and quiet during the day and clear views of the stars at night.
For years, Forest Service Trail Nos. 3 and 100 have given outdoors enthusiasts a passageway into this remote environment west of Walnut Creek, which is 50 miles northwest of Chino Valley and about a 1.5-hour drive northwest of Prescott off County Road 125 via Williamson Valley Road.
But with limited parking and trailheads too close to each other, accessibility has been poor for trail users, particularly those with horse trailers.
Over the past two months, volunteers from the Backcountry Horsemen of Central Arizona, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition - a statewide wilderness/wild and scenic river advocacy group - and Yavapai County Adult Probationers joined U.S. Forest Service employees to build a bigger parking area as well as a new trailhead and extension for Trail No. 3 that will solve the problem.
Crews first began blazing the trail during the weekend of May 3 and 4 before finishing much of their work on June 27, 28 and 29.
Jim Buchanan of the Backcountry Horsemen, who has wanted to do the project for several years, was unable to get it off the ground with the Forest Service until another group of willing volunteers stepped forward.
"That area is one of our favorites that we've used for 20 years," Buchanan said of his group, which rides its horses to the top of the mesa. "I have been working on the insufficient access to those trails for probably 15 years."
Sam Frank, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition's central Arizona director, showed an interest in collaborating with Buchanan's group after learning that the new 3- to 4-foot-wide trail would cut through a sensitive wilderness area on the Chino Valley Ranger District.
Using their own time, money and labor, the groups came together to do the job two years after the project entered limbo.
Volunteers did some dozing and backhoe work to clear space for parking and erected a kiosk and signs for the new George Wood Canyon Trailhead. Crews also installed culverts to divert water away from the parking area.
Several volunteers from the Backcountry Horsemen and 10 to 12 volunteers from the coalition worked tirelessly during both weekends.
Their main focus was fixing the previous lackluster trailhead parking for Trail 100, which was near a sensitive meadow, and for Trail 3, which Frank said was unsustainable.
"You needed a four-wheel drive truck just to get in the parking space, and there was only room for maybe two vehicles," he said. "That was a safety issue and an erosion issue."
U.S. Forest Service wilderness supervisor Dorothy Baxter, who wrote the environmental assessment for the trail, said user-created parking areas were dangerous with little room to maneuver.
The parking area is functional and almost complete, Buchanan said, but it still needs an overlay of compacted granite to hold down dust and prevent erosion.
It has space for 11 vehicles, including six spots designed for vehicles hauling horse trailers.
As for the paths themselves, Trails 3 and 100 formerly cut parallel and south of each other out of Juniper Mesa only about a quarter-mile apart.
"We chopped off the bottom half of 3 and 100 and then brought 100 over to 3, and continued them both over to the new trailhead," Frank said.
The Forest Service barricaded the old trailheads to make room for the new nearby Trail 3, which is a mile long and 80 percent complete. It starts at around 6,000 feet in elevation, but follows a moderate grade that caters to almost any hiker or horseback rider.
"There is still a lot of finishing touches that need to be done, but it is usable now," Baxter said. "If it wasn't for all of the volunteers, it would not have been done for a while."
The trail opens at a comfortable pace despite crossing a few drainages. It gently follows the contours across Juniper Mesa before meeting with the original trails, where the paths head up the mesa.
"The start of the old trails were almost dead flat, just slightly rising, and then they sort of shot up," Frank said.
In addition to being more sustainable, the new trailhead has natural barriers around it with an arroyo, boulders and trees to prevent all-terrain vehicle users from four-wheeling beyond that point.
Crews avoided taking out trees, but they cut branches, removed rocks and brush, and relocated cacti.
"A lot of this trail does a good job of using the natural terrain to mitigate weathering and erosion," Frank said. "We followed the natural grade, so it's going to be low maintenance."
Frank said it is important to protect Juniper Mesa because scientists believe that the water draining off of it infiltrates the Big Chino Aquifer, which forms the headwaters of the Verde River.
Mountain lions, elk, javelinas, mule deer, rabbits and coyotes inhabit the site. Juniper, oak and ponderosa pine trees, agave plants, prickly pear and hedgehog cacti, and Indian paintbrushes are scattered about, too.
"It's an ideal habitat for wildlife," Frank said. "We definitely wanted to make sure with this project that the wilderness was being respected."
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