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Sat, Oct. 19

Johnson: High Line Trail near Payson potential classic in Arizona
Hiking Arizona

The High Line Trail. (Ted Johnson/Courtesy)

The High Line Trail. (Ted Johnson/Courtesy)

Editor's Note - The following column highlights the High Line Trail near Payson; however, please note that portions of the forests in northern Arizona are closed because of fire restrictions. Click HERE for the latest on those restrictions. The Tonto National Forest, of which Payson is a part, is closed in part due to drought and fire danger. Thank you.

If you were to nominate any of the many trails in Arizona as a potential classic, the High Line Trail would have to be high on the list. It was created more than 100 years ago to connect homesteads north of Payson, along the base of the Mogollon Rim, or Tonto Rim, if you are a Zane Gray fan.

As far as hiking is concerned, it’s about as good as it gets in Arizona. It’s about 50 miles long, ranging between 5,500 feet and 7,000 feet in elevation. It is primarily a trail through a ponderosa pine forest, crossing quite a few small canyons, which drain the Rim. It faces southwest, offering sweeping views toward Payson, as though you are looking out over an ocean of rolling green waves.

As with most areas in the Southwest, portions of the trail have burned. In fact, the Zane Gray Cabin went up in smoke when the Dude Fire swept through the area in the 1990s. Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Forests in the Southwest respond well to fire. Clearing away the clutter allows new growth to come in, which fosters greater forage for some wildlife species, like elk and deer.

Though I grew up in Arizona and have explored much of it, I did not have much interest in this trail as I began specializing in wilderness exploration in my teens. This trail does not involve any portion of the Wilderness Preservation System created by the Wilderness Act of 1964, written in large measure by Howard Zahniser. The 1984 Arizona Wilderness Bill didn’t affect it either.

However, I have come to appreciate much of what this area offers hikers of all abilities: shade, water, wildlife, easy access and a wealthy supply of cultural and historic elements. You will also encounter plenty of rigorous conditions, if you do all or a significant portion of the trail.

It’s nice to have options, and any trail that is 50 miles long presents a variety of access points so that you can do bits and pieces as your ability and schedule allow. If you can only do one section or if you want to get off to a great start, I would suggest you hike to Horton Spring. It’s beautiful, lush and refreshing. If it was only open.

On my recent exploration of the High Line Trail, I found it closed unless you had a permit. Check with the Tonto National Forest for more information. The section of the High Line Trail between Horton Spring and the Tonto Creek Trailhead, near the fish hatchery, is little more than 3 miles, one way, with the elevation rising about 600 feet. If you’d prefer hiking closer to home on a trail at a comparable elevation, I have that base covered, too.

Trail 396 south of Goldwater Lake is nearly as high as Horton Spring and requires no permit. It offers plenty of shade, easy access and scenic views of the Lake. I will be offering another hike for New Horizons Disability Empowerment Center on July 14. We will meet at the Library in Prescott Valley at 9 a.m., carpool to the trailhead and hike for about an hour. You are welcome to join us.

Drier conditions might discourage you from hitting the trail, but perseverance has always been an essential aspect of hiking in Arizona.

Next: Hiking above 7,000 feet in elevation.

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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