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Sat, Dec. 07

Johnson: Pine Mountain Wilderness
Hiking Arizona

Let’s break this down, word by word.

Pine, coniferous trees. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Hiking here since the ‘70s, I consistently come across the most interesting plants, like duckweed. Quite unexpected, even weird. That leads me to the next word.

Mountain, as in a high, dry island. This is not a place with the word “canyon” in its name or spring or cienega or marsh or pond, etc. Sure, in Arizona the land is as chopped up as anywhere with all sorts of canyons, cuts, slots of various sizes and shapes. But, I’ve hiked across the Southwest for over 50 years and aquatic plants are not expected on places so high and lifted up. This one being just under 7,000 feet in elevation.

Wilderness, as in a unit of the Wilderness Preservation System, created by the Federal Government in 1964. Pine Mountain, in the Prescott National Forest, one hour east of I 17 on Dugas Road, was added to this network of federal lands in 1972. Though it is in the very heart of Arizona, it is relatively remote. Consequently, it may be thought of as “out of sight, out of mind.” That’s good news for solitude seekers.

This Wilderness Area is relatively small, just over 20,000 acres. There are a handful of trails that crisscross the area. There is a small campground where the road now ends at Sycamore Creek. Back in the ‘70s, you could drive another mile or so, all the way to Nelson Place.

Nelson Place is an old homestead where some crumbling rock walls remain and the water is still flowing, sustaining quite a unique variety of plants, like roses, apple trees, sumac, walnut, box elder, aspen, hop tree, elm, sycamore, maple, columbine, locusts and duck weed along with the usual pine and juniper. My young son fished here and caught some small trout.

As with any mountain range in Arizona, fires have occurred from time to time. Therefore, some sections of some trails are rather obscure, as regrowth has hidden them. But, once you reach the crest of the range overlooking the Verde River, the view east will take your breath away. Stretching toward the sunrise, the Mazatzal Mountains form the distant skyline. The Mazatzal Wilderness Area is much larger than Pine Mountain but the view from here puts it all in perspective. If you were planning to hike in the Mazatzals, spending some time looking it over from Pine Mountain might be helpful.

Let’s get back to the beginning, with the word “Pine.” While the diversity of plants at Nelson Place in particular and Arizona in general is amazing, it is also daunting. With approximately 4,000 species of plants in Arizona, it is simply too overwhelming for most people to even begin to grapple with making the distinction between plants like sumac and walnut. That’s why there are no spruce on Spruce Mountain.

In order to make this challenge less challenging, I’ve scheduled a series of workshops at Spring Valley Public Library. We’ll begin with a Guide to the Conifers of Arizona on Friday August 23rd at 1:00pm. Since this group of plants is relatively small, it is a good place to start, learning to recognize some of the most common plants we hike through, like White Fir, Douglas Fir and Spruce. As your familiarity with the natural environment grows, so too will your enjoyment hiking throughout the Southwest.

Next: Hiking Equipment - Accessories

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

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