Originally Published: April 30, 2012 5:55 p.m.
I hiked straight through ten years ago in 2002. This year, I did the trail twice (back and forth) in three sections. Each experience was in the spring, counting on the maximum reliability of local surface water supplies to keep my load light and the temperatures cool, with adequate length of days. Shade varies depending on the section and how long it's been since the last wildfire. Wildflowers, wildlife, and the sea of pine falling away toward the south combine to delight all your senses. Since the trail roughly follows the base of the Rim, you won't have to struggle with significant changes in elevation, unless you decide to take a side trail north to the top of the Rim. Crowds will vary greatly depending on your timing, weekend, weekdays, holidays. The options are many. Places like Horton Spring offer some of the most verdant sights in the Southwest.
Fees or permits are not needed. You could hike all or part of this trail any time of year depending on weather and your preferences. The main limitation is aridity and heat. Fire restrictions are a very real possibility. The entire Forest could be closed if it gets dry enough. Sections hit by wildfire, such as the Dude Fire, may cut down on shade but the land rebounds from such disturbances with increased browse that the wildlife enjoy. The Dude Fire burned 21 miles west of Tonto Creek, including the Zane Gray Cabin. Check in with the Payson Ranger for the latest conditions.
The number of plants we could cover is very high, ranging from ferns to cacti and from semi-aquatics to very old, drought tolerant trees. Wildflowers abound. Edible plants are abundant. Choices, choices, choices! I'll present a variety of plants that you are likely to come across more often than not. For example, Serviceberry is a member of the very large Rose Family and occurs in every state west of the Great Plains. Southwestern Dwarf Mistletoe is common throughout the Southwest, wherever you find Ponderosa Pine. It is also a little peculiar looking, making it one to stand out from the crowd. You are sure to spot it sooner rather than later with its bright yellow stems among the lofty and leafy pine branches high above your head. Watercress grows across North America, wherever there is permanent water. Admittedly, that is rare in Arizona, but important none the less. This edible green has a tart taste. It is also a member of the Mustard Family, a very large group of herbs of historical significance the world over. Finally, a member of the Pea Family (Legumes), Golden Pea is a beautiful wildflower that stands three feet tall and grows from one end of the Highline Trail to the other. You can't miss it and are sure to wonder what it is. Mystery solved!
Serviceberry, Amelanchier utahensis (Rose Family)
I have come across Serviceberry with its distinctive elliptic leaves that are toothed toward the top, off and on hiking throughout the Southwest but this year was the first time I saw it in flower. They flower briefly in the spring and the two shrubs I saw in flower at the western end of the Highline Trail were not covered with blooms, but the small white flowers were scattered about. The petals are spatula shaped and about 1 cm long. The shrubs I saw on the chaparral covered hillsides were scraggly but you couldn't help but pause and take a closer look at the bright white flowers. The fruits of this species were used by Native Americans to make "pemmican." Pemmican was the "High Energy Bar" before there was a high energy bar. People traveling great distances in the wilderness have always needed high energy foods that were portable. Pemmican was one answer to meet this need, though its ingredients varied from place to place depending on what was available. Dried meat (e.g. buffalo or elk) was pounded together with fruits like berries and a source of fat such as bone marrow. If properly handled, this food could be stored for years, always ready for the next journey, or hike as the case may be. If you use high energy bars, you can thank the Native Americans, pioneers, and fur traders who developed the basis for this nutritious food source under arduous conditions over many years and many miles. I've often wondered how primitive peoples got around without paved roads, frequent supply sources (e.g. stores) and pre-packaged food products. They may not have gone as far as fast as we do, but they got where they were going with the help of such foods as pemmican, thanks to plants like Serviceberry, a good plant to know. Look for it on your next hike. You are sure to find it on the Highline Trail or anywhere in the West where pine and shrub-lands meet.
Pineland Dwarf Mistletoe, Arceuthobium vaginatum (Mistletoe Family)
Mistletoe comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. These parasites constitute the only epiphytes in Arizona. Too dry for plants like Spanish Moss, Arizona's aridity limits the distribution of a number of plants and animals. Epiphytes are plants that grow upon other plants rather than the ground. Unlike Spanish Moss, though, Mistletoes derive some of their life support from their chosen host. They don't just use the host for a place to sit, they penetrate the host, sometimes killing it if the infestation becomes more widespread than the host can sustain while attempting to meet its own needs. Mistletoes may infect few or many species. Pineland Dwarf Mistletoe prefers Ponderosa Pines. Technically, these plants are described as aerial shrubs by the Southwest Environmental Information Network (SEINET). Sounds like they float in the air, but they grow on pine trees. They are obvious, yellow stubby branches hiding among the pine needles. They have no chlorophyll, which is why they look to others to supply themselves with food. Another curious fact about these plants is how they disperse their seeds - explosively. Birds may also distribute the seeds found in their fleshy fruits, but more often than not, the berries simply explode, lodging their seeds in a nearby tree, where they will take root and begin once again to draw life from another life, sometimes to the point of killing their host. Interesting way to live, at the expense of something else. If it's too good at what it does, it too will perish.
Watercress, Nasturtium officinale (Mustard Family)
Food necessitates water. Watercress, therefore, is ideal at supplying the hungry traveler since it will always be found in water, lots of it. Horton Spring provides the ideal habitat for Watercress, with its pure water gushing from the ground. Watercress is found in deserts as well as mountain sites with lots of clean water bubbling forth. Fossil Springs is another place I've seen it growing abundantly. Seven Springs too north of Phoenix. Native Americans and pioneers alike used it in salads. It is pretty spicy, though, especially when in flower. It may also be cooked and eaten with salt to temper its spicy flavor. Watercress like any mustard has a cruciform flower, that is four petals in the shape of a cross or plus sign. The flowers are white and the leaves are divided and bright green. It grows above the water surface and typically flowers and bears fruit simultaneously. Once you learn it, it is unlikely to get confused with much else, largely because it only grows in flowing waters and those are just not that common in Arizona.
Golden Pea, Thermopsis divaricarpa (Pea Family)
Golden Pea puts on quite a floral display with its bright yellow, pea-shaped flowers. They look like tiny sunbursts on leafy stems. These stems can be tall, for a wildflower, some three feet. The leaves are divided, with three large leaflets. The leaves are bright, light green. These plants are common, usually growing in the shade of pine trees and they are found throughout the Rocky Mountain states. Like any member of the Pea Family, they are host to a bacteria that fixes Nitrogen, or converts atmospheric Nitrogen into a form that plants need for growth, like Ammonia. That helps members of this plant family to be successful, where others just can't make it. Pine forests aren't known for having the most nutritious soils. Therefore, Golden Pea is able to thrive with the help from bacteria which live on their roots. This relationship, unlike that of a parasite is mutually beneficial. In fact, the benefits afforded the bacteria and its host, extend to other members of the ecological community, creating a win-win-win situation. Pea Family plants leave the area better than when they arrive. What a great lead to follow, if we put our minds to it.
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