Native Plants of the Southwest (38) - Cabin Loop Trail, Mogollon Rim, AZ
The history along this trail, both human and natural are unmatched in the Southwest, with the Forest Service cabins from which the trail gets its name to being in the heart of the longest continuous stand of Ponderosa Pine in the United States. Wildlife, watershed integrity, recreation, and aesthetics are just a few of the values this area enjoys in addition to lumber and ranching. I encountered elk, quite a few birds including hawks and turkeys, and lots of small mammals. There is plenty of surface water, the best at Dane Springs. Otherwise, use a filter.
There are no access restrictions or permits needed to hike this trail, unless the fire danger becomes extreme. There are quite a few camping options on the Rim too. Hiking close to power lines and roads is not to my liking, but you should not have too many encounters with motorized users, especially if you hike midweek. There are also a number of other hiking options in the vicinity, such as the Arizona Trail, Blue Ridge segment off Rim Road 300. I'd recommend late summer or early fall to get the most out of the hike, when wildflowers, fungi, and towering thunderheads are at their peak and fall colors are beginning to show their glory.
Access is relatively straight forward. Take the Rim Road (Forest Road 300) 16.4 miles east of Hwy. 87 (north of Payson) to Forest Road 139. Go north 1.8 miles to the Cabin Loop Trail (Barbershop Trail 91 segment). Bike west a short distance to trail number 171. Go south to the Rim Road. Since you have to travel some 4.5 miles on the Rim Road, I suggest biking instead of hiking, though I saw several people doing so. Obviously, you could begin a loop trail in any number of places.
In spite of the trail's popularity, historical interest, use as a race track by the Arizona Trail Runners Association, and easy access, it is the most poorly signed route I have hiked in 45 years in the Southwest. I am accustomed to obscure routes in wilderness areas, so I am surprised by the route finding difficulties I encountered and for which this trail is renowned. Several hikers I encountered had drawn the same conclusion. I was fortunate to hike one week ahead of a race, so there were more trail markers (ribbons) than usual. It is probably easier to follow the route hiking counter-clockwise.
Most of the trail is straight forward, marked with cairns, blazes, signs, or trail markers on tree trunks. But the 1/4 of the trail between Pinchot Cabin southeast to the junction to Buck Springs Cabin is not. The Trail there is part of several road segments or it crosses roads but it is unclear where it continues on the other side of the road. In the clockwise direction from Pinchot Cabin, Trail 28 is an old road that ascends a hill going north then turns back on itself to the southeast and passes through a gate. Continue southeast to Road 139G. Turn right and follow it to a small pond. At the next road junction, you'll see the trail leave the road. This is just the beginning of several on again, off again road/trail segments. Pay attention, hike counter-clockwise, hike with someone who has hiked it before, or allow some time for mistakes/backtracking.
Topo Maps: Dane Canyon, and Blue Ridge Reservoir quads 7.5'
The four wildflowers included, cover the color spectrum: purple Lobelia, mauve Checkermallow, red Catchfly, and white Violet. They vary in height from a few cm to over a meter. They also vary in flower shape, from regular to irregular with petals united to being separate. Though the environment on the Rim is fairly uniform, that of a Ponderosa Pine forest, there are wet and dry spots, sunny and shady. In other words, you cannot get bored with the plants on this hike. You will have plenty to look at and much to enjoy.
Apache Lobelia, Lobelia anatina (Bellflower Family)
Lobelia is a genus with few species in Arizona, four according to Epple in A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona. This species stands about knee high with a handful of purplish flowers that are zygomorphic in their symmetry. That means they are not round. They have two mirror halves when you look at them in the face. Three lower lobes flare out and two upper lobes, bend back. These upper lobes are narrower than the lower ones. It looks like two hands that are clasped together in polite patience. These flowering stalks stand in marked contrast to the undergrowth on the Rim, which is mostly grasses growing in association with this stately, purple wildflower. Though each flower is small, only two cm across, there are about eight or so lined up one above the other through and above most of the other herbaceous plants below the pine trees on the Cabin Loop Trail. Often, there is more than one stalk of Apache Lobelia growing along the trail. They appear delicate and fragile, yet they also seem to invite closer inspection. Stop to take a closer look and you'll marvel at their intricate design. Seems as though nothing is out of place. There they stand waiting for bees or hummingbirds to move their pollen from one plant to the next in hopes of continuing this species on the Rim for another generation. I hope they succeed, as I look forward to seeing them again next year.
New Mexico Checkermallow, Sidalcea neomexicana (Mallow Family)
This is the only species of Checkermallow in Arizona. It is a perennial plant that favors higher elevation forests where there is plenty of moisture, such as that found alongside a stream. I have seen this flower, more than a meter tall, in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and along the Mogollon Rim, always at the water's edge, either a stream or pond. It has also been consistently in an open spot where there is direct sun for at least part of the day. Each flower is about four cm across and is radially symmetrical like a ball. It belongs to a familiar family, that includes Hibiscus. One of the characteristic features of this family is the central column of stamens, united into a tube. The leaves of this plant change form as they come off the stem higher and higher. Leaves near the base of the plant are simple and roundish with rounded teeth. At the top of the plant, the leaves are palmately divided, that is divided into three narrow leaflets from a central point like a fan palm. Though not thick or bushy, the sparse flowers, never the less, grab your attention and seem eager to get acquainted. Take a moment and look at them closely. You'll be glad you did.
Cardinal Catchfly, Silene laciniata (Pink/Carnation Family)
Wild is the best part of this plant's characteristic title "wildflower." Looking at this bright red flower in the face, it reminds me of one of those wild haircuts you see on someone seeking to be noticed. The lobes on the petal are irregularly cut. They are jagged like someone got carried away and lost control of the hair clippers and just left the cut as is, crazy. Another word for this flower is "bold." The bright red color helps in this regard. There are not many flowers on a particular plant and the plant is only about as tall as mid-shin. But you can't miss it. You'll spot a little red, a ways off and upon closer inspection, you'll quickly recognize this glorious flower. As if looks were not enough, I urge you to touch this plant. It is oddly sticky. There are little glandular hairs all over it. The admonition to "look but don't touch," does not apply in this case. Sometimes, adding a tactile element to your botanical exploration turns into a capstone experience that you remember far longer than the visual aspect. Adding touch to the look, will seal the deal on this flower and make this amazing hike nothing less than unforgettable.
Canadian White Violet, Viola Canadensis (Violet Family)
Violets, and their horticultural cousins, the Pansies are no strangers to anyone with experience in a flower garden. Their colors are many, from red to purple with all sorts of mixed combinations. Therefore, it may seem odd, in a plain and boring sense to speak of violets that are white. Believe me, white violets are nothing to sneeze at. Epple describes these flowers as: white, bases yellow with purplish veins fading to pink. Petals tinged with purple on the back. Though obviously and gloriously white, you can see that the horticulturists have a lot to work with to come up with all the colorful mixtures we see in this group. The leaves are heart-shaped and larger than the flowers. These plants do not grow very large, about 15 cm tall. Therefore, when you stop for a breather in a cool, shady, most spot on the Cabin Loop, get down close to the ground and open your eyes. There's no telling what glorious wonders you'll see, including the white violets, one of the gardeners' favorite flowers.