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Hiking the Highline

Highline Trail

Our summer of backpacking continues, step by step. We chose to spend this year learning to be more self-sufficient, to explore Nature, and reduce our dependence on technology. We wanted to learn new skills like dehydrating and really cut through the clutter and get back to the basics. It’s just us, our packs, and the forest. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Even if you don’t live in the Southwest, the lessons still apply to hikes in your own neck of the woods and you’ll return from the wilderness a better person.

We began by hiking Havasupai then made the rounds of Prescott, so this time we decided to toe the Highline and push our limits… we had no idea how far.

While heck no I don’t recommend that most people hike the entire trail, you will find great amusement and education from our folly-filled adventures. You’ll also discover which parts of the trail are breathtaking and easily accessible for day hikes. Here’s hoping you’ll make better choices than we did!

Highline National Recreation Trail–the stats

Highline TrailAccording to the US Forest Service, the Highline Trail is 50.2 miles long and runs from Pine, AZ, to an intersection with Highway 260, approximately 90 minutes northeast of Phoenix. It has spectacular views and was initially used to link homesteads and ranches under the Mogollon Rim in the 1800s. No permits or reservations are required for hiking or camping.

The nice lady at the Payson Ranger Station gave us a map and distance grid confirming this information and sent us on our way. We figured we could make the 100-mile round trip in 6 days, keeping our daily average just under 17 miles.

Day 1–part one

Horned Lizard

Horned Lizard

On the first day, we planned to start at the east end at Highway 260 trailhead, cross Christopher Creek at 6 miles, refill our water at Horton Springs at 13.6 miles, and camp at The Hatchery Trailhead at Tonto Creek at 17 miles. Easy peasy. What could go wrong?

When we ran out of water at 14.5 miles and still hadn’t found Horton Springs, we knew something was amiss. From that point on, the trail was a mess of confusion and, at times, sheer panic concern.

Perhaps we should have paid closer attention when a reviewer from 2006 called it the Mogollon Rim Death March and noted that the trail length was debatable, somewhere between 50 and 54 miles at that time.

We soldiered on in the scorching afternoon sun and just about cried when we reached cold, clear, delicious Horton Spring at 15.1 miles. We would have jumped for joy if we had more energy.

Day 1–part two

Does this sky look threatening?There were campsites at Horton Spring and a 4-mile trail to Horton Creek, another campground, and the highway. Confused that the trail didn’t match the map, we flirted with quitting and hitchhiking back to the car, but after filling our water bottles and resting a bit, we felt refreshed and decided to continue with the original plan.

The sign said 3.5 miles to Tonto Creek, it was only 4pm, and it was a beautiful day. We set out again hiking west, and about 30 minutes later we heard some serious thunder. The weather report had predicted only a 15% chance of light showers, and it was mid-June, a full month before monsoon season peaks. The whole afternoon had been cloudless. WTF Really?

We hiked faster, through a meadow and under some power lines–possibly not one of our smartest decisions in a thunderstorm–then over a few more small ridges we finally reached Tonto and our campsite… much more than 3.5 miles later.

Our tent was assembled in record time and we ducked inside just as the sky let loose. So. Much. Water. After a few minutes we heard strange “chink-ping” noises and wondered if our tent was charged with electricity. Were we hearing static shocks? We looked at each other and our hair wasn’t standing on end, so my brave hubby unzipped the door and peeked out.

Hail.

Just two hours earlier we had been parched, in search of water in nearly 90 degree heat in full afternoon sun. And now hail.

How To Survive A Thunderstorm Outdoors

It all turned out fine, we didn’t get struck by lightning, and the hail didn’t damage our tent. Looking back, it’s good for a laugh. However, we should have done a bit of research before we left, regardless of the reassuring weather report.

In a thunderstorm:

  • Find an enclosed building, preferably a big one with plumbing and/or wiring in the walls. A ramada or an outhouse doesn’t count.
  • If you don’t have access to a building, sit in your car with the windows up.
  • If that isn’t an option, at least avoid caves and bodies of water.
  • Seek low ground, but not in a canyon or where you’re susceptible to a flash flood.
  • Stay away from metal. This includes the aluminum frame in your backpack, hiking poles, tent poles, cooking gear, jewelery, fences, and power lines.
  • Avoid tall trees. Try to find an area where the trees are shorter or at least of uniform height.
  • Crouch down and keep your body’s footprint small.

Day 2–part one

White Blaze

Now you see it…

On the second day, we planned an easy 16-mile hike to the Washington Park Trailhead and campsites at the East Verde River. The rain had stopped just after midnight and we gratefully woke to a sunny, humid morning. We continued west following the blazes that marked the trail–sometimes white diamonds and sometimes white squares with both the word Highline and a diamond. And sometimes no blazes at all.

Highline Blaze

Now you see it…

At one point, we reached a fork where one route continued up along what appeared to be a dirt road, and another dipped down toward a creek. There was no sign at the fork, but we could see a blaze 100 yards down the trail toward the creek, so down we went.

We found ourselves in a field of tall grass in an area that had been burned many years before. There were no tall trees and thus no blazes. There were also no cairns or ribbons. Hmm.

No Blaze

Now you don’t.

We followed the trail, though it quickly became overgrown and difficult to distinguish from game paths. After half an hour, we stepped over some branches that had been intentionally laid over the trail and finally emerged onto a more well-worn trail with actual blazes. How we took the blazed fork and still ended up on a closed trail remained a mystery for three more days.

While we were curious, we didn’t really care how we’d gotten there. We were just glad to be back in the land of trail markers.

Day 2–part two

Fern ForestShortly after we left the meadow, we encountered the fern forest, where the trail disappeared. The ferns were taller than I am, and they completely swallowed the trail. We hacked our way through, looking down for cut logs or other signs that we were on a human trail and not an elk path.

After a few false starts and another bout of wandering around, we finally figured out which trail was man-made. Hint–it wasn’t the most traveled one. We might have been the only hikers through there in weeks or months.

Steep hills were our reward for navigating the ferns. The trail ran straight up, then straight down, washes slippery with mud from the previous night’s storm. We skidded as we sweated and repeated our wandering, trying to distinguish the ‘trail’ from other washes.

One random wash had a piece of rebar holding up a log and threw us for a loop. It was clearly man-made and thus had to be the right way. Except it wasn’t. We wandered up and down that hill over and over before giving up, backtracking to the last blaze, and finding a different fork. Where on earth did that piece of rebar come from???

We were overjoyed to reach our campsite that evening and again considered hitchhiking back to our car, but even though the spot was accessible by road, there was no one else around.

Day 3

Our third day should have been a nice 17-mile trek ending in the mountain town of Pine. The initial section of trail was maintained by the Girl Scouts and was in fantastic condition. Nice job, girls!

Arizona TrailIt was also where the Highline joined the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile (so they say…) trail from Mexico to Utah. It seems to have more traffic than the Highline Trail, since we saw a whopping one other thru-hiker, Paul Bunyan, that morning. He reminded us that we still need to find our trail names.

The day was a little cooler than the previous two, less humid, and with a pleasant breeze. It was just what we needed to boost our spirits. We took no chances with water, filling up at North Sycamore Creek, Weber Creek, and Pine Spring.

Parts of the day were up and down steep rocky washes, though the last few miles into town looked fresh and were graded for a comfortable stroll. Other than being two miles longer than anticipated, the day was gorgeous and uneventful. We reached Highway 87 and turned north toward the destination that had motivated us all day: That Brewery, and the cabin it offers at a steep discount to long-distance hikers.

The cabin wasn’t luxurious, but it had a hot shower and a clean, real bed. The brewery had hot food and cold drinks. It was perfect.

The Great Debate

Highline Trail DistanceIn total, the Highline Trail was nearly seven miles longer than the signs and the Forest Service advertised–a total of 114 miles round-trip rather than 100. We had walked nearly 20 miles per day in thunderstorms and in heat. We had gotten lost and were tired and sore. We wanted to be done.

What had gotten us through to Pine was our previous experience with these distances on the Prescott Circle Trail. If we quit in Pine, though, we would lose our confidence for longer hikes. We’d think of ourselves as quitters and always be looking for the easy exit.

I won’t lie. If our car had been in Pine instead of back at the 260 Trailhead, we would have headed home and probably gotten several speeding tickets on the way. But this logistical issue was just the push we needed to continue our journey.

Days 4-6

The way back was sooooo much better. We had hiked it once already, so we knew what to expect. We knew that despite the inaccurate maps and signage, it did eventually end.

On day 5 back in the middle section, we ran across some trail volunteers who were surveying the land for future improvements and reroutes.

Reroutes, you say?

Highline Fitbit SummaryIt all started to come together–the forest of ferns, closed off unmarked trail in the meadow vs the lovely easily graded trail near Pine, signs and maps that were so inaccurate.  The volunteers told us that the trail was being improved–and in some places rerouted– in sections a few miles at a time. Some sections hadn’t been addressed in ages, and some were brand new.

Reading between the lines, here’s our best guess at further explanation. When the trail was established in the 1800s, most homesteaders rode horses and didn’t care that the trail traversed steep, muddy washes. Now, though, with hikers and mountain bikers, this just won’t do. The renovations create a pleasant trail with switchbacks and a more gradual incline but  also increase trail length. The area where we got so confused in the meadow was actually the old trail, and though there is not a single blaze or cairn on the new section, it completely bypasses the meadow. We took the new route on the way back and it was lovely.

The weather was less humid, our packs got lighter as we ate our dehydrated food, we knew which creeks were flowing and where the campgrounds were, and we had our own home and bed to look forward to at the end. And a piece of an entire Pizza Hut pan pizza each.

Lessons Learned

Guess what? We’re still not perfect. Shocking, I know. But our perseverance paid off and we were stronger than we gave ourselves credit for. You are too. Find something that’s just beyond your comfort zone and give it a whirl.

Next time, we’ll be better at these things:

  • Christopher Creek?Top off our water bottles at every opportunity. You might notice this was on our “lessons learned” list from the PCT too…
  • “Creek” is subjective. Sometimes it just means a moist spot in the mud or a dry gully.
  • If it’s hot, wet your shirt in a real creek each time you stop for water. Especially when there’s a breeze, this feels heavenly.
  • Wear pants more often. Even if it’s blazing hot, they keep the grasses and ferns from causing itchy welts on bare skin.
  • Don’t rely on Forest Service maps or signs. Find someone who has been there recently, or just prepare for extra detours and delays.
  • Home-dehydrated food is much tastier than the Mountain House freeze-dried dinners.
  • We need to read a book like this one before our next hike so we can identify tracks and scat.
  • If you’re short like I am, a simple safety pin can hold the back of your hat up and keep it from constantly hitting your pack. See photo at the top of this page.

Recommended Day Hikes

If you’d like to see the area with a little less adventure, check out day hikes in these areas, all accessible by car:

  • Christopher Creek (See Canyon Trailhead)
  • Horton Creek (Horton Creek Trailhead)
  • Tonto Creek (Hatchery Trailhead)
  • East Verde River (Washington Park Trailhead)
  • Webber Creek (Geronimo Trailhead)

What To Bring

We brought more food than on the Prescott Circle Trail since we were out for twice as long, and it was warmer so we ditched our down jackets. We weighed in at 19 lbs each without water.

Bear!

Bear!

  • Lightweight backpack– doubles as a day pack.
  • Tent– consider a 2-person tent for solo hiking or a 3-person tent for a couple. You’ll appreciate the extra space.
  • Sleeping bag– this one’s awesome for stomach or side sleepers.
  • Thermarest– I slept like a baby on this and couldn’t feel a single rock.
  • Camp stove– and 1-1.5 lbs/person/day of dehydrated food.
  • Hiking Poles– with quick-lock adjustment and cork handles.
  • Camera- for short trips use your phone on airplane mode.
  • Headlamp– with rechargeable batteries and a red light for night vision.
  • Notepad- or other entertainment, optional.
  • Water Bottles and filter– these are lightweight and durable.
  • First aid kit- small bags of naproxen and antihistamine tablets, antibacterial gel, bacitracin, band-aids, moleskin, and hydrocortisone cream.
  • Repair kit- safety pins or small sewing kit, string or fishing line, and duct tape.
  • Glasses- or extra pair of extended-wear contacts and tiny bottle of solution.
  • Earplugs– block out snoring tentmates or campground partiers.
  • Comb- and hair ties if needed.
  • Quick-dry towel– the true multitasker.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste dots– just chew for a few seconds and brush.
  • Toilet paper and trowel– bury your poop and pack out your paper.
  • Sun protection- hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and lip balm with SPF.
  • Bug spray- in rainy seasons. DEET can melt plastic or nylon gear, so try this instead. This trail had a few gnats but no mosquitoes.
  • Shirts– 1 short-sleeved and 1 long-sleeved quick-dry synthetic shirt.
  • Jacket- lightweight fleece or Ghost Whisperer down jacket depending on the season.
  • Pants– these are super-comfortable, quick-dry, and roll to become capris. Bring quick-dry shorts in summer.
  • Underwear– these are amazing, comfortable, and dry in no time.
  • Sports bra- try several to find what works best for your body and doesn’t rub on your pack straps.
  • Socks– Darn Toughs are life-changing and just as comfortable wet as dry–like a hug for your feet.
  • Shoes– think trail runners, not heavy boots. This pair has phenomenal traction and a wide toe box.

Will you help us find trail names? List your suggestions in the comments below.

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Comments 16

  1. Holy cow you’ve been through a lot on this hike! Between the lack of water, thunder, hail, and the trails being a mess I would have been a nervous wreck. Man, nature is no joke.

    You mentioned many important points about preparation but the one that resonates with me most is to find someone who’s been there recently.

    Love the photo of the horned lizard!

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      That’s so true. We read a lot of forums and guidebooks for information, but sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. The Tahoe Rim Trail is next, and there’s an app with GPS tracking. It will tell you the closest water and camping sites and how reliable they are. People can also comment in real-time on whether the creeks are running or dry this year, though there aren’t many comments.

      What keeps me sane is knowing that we’re never more than a few hours’ hike from a highway or civilization in case of a true emergency. And there are no guarantees even with traditional vacations. We were evacuated from our hotel in Hawaii and spent the night on high ground in our car when the tsunami hit, and we’ve had hotel reservations lost, luggage lost, and flights canceled. Maybe it’s choose your own adventure??? Given enough time, all the memories become funny.

  2. Wow – what a great resource. I LOVE all the details because it shows how important it is to plan. And even when you plan, there can be things that don’t work out right! Your causal mention of 16 or 17 mile hikes is great too! We are pleased with 6 every day or two! Not sure the hip (after scoping and some arthritis being found) would handle that distance now!

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      Vicki, 6 miles is great! And it’s probably keeping your hip in much better shape than not hiking at all.

      When we’re home, it’s hard to get even 3 or 4 miles in on a hike. There are so many distractions and other priorities pulling in all directions that we’re eager to get back to the house and move on to the next thing. The best part about backpacking trips is that there’s nothing else to do but hike and enjoy!

  3. Man I really enjoy hiking and it feels like you’ve got to experience a lot of nature (horned lizard, first time I’ve met someone who’ve actually seen one!). Last time I hiked I was really out of shape but finished the short 1.5 mile trail. I’m trying to raise my physique more now by exercising regularly!

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      Way to go, FS! Hiking is such a great way to get exercise. I’m not the most coordinated person (perhaps the understatement of the century), so keeping both feet on the ground is so much better than cycling or anything that requires hand-eye coordination.
      Keep at it and the fall weather will make it much more pleasant soon.

  4. I love this post and the story of your adventure, Julie! Thanks for sharing all of the details. I felt your momentary panic a few times when things didn’t go as expected. There have been so many times we’ve been out on trails and the map doesn’t match up. It has always turned out fine but, in the back of my mind, I feel some unease at getting completely off track and lost! Wonderful tips! Hoping to one day to use all of your advice and go on a multi-day adventure (once the kids are out of the house, as they aren’t on board 😉 ).

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  5. Greetings, ChooseBetterLife, this is a fascinating write-up and describes so much of the deferred trail maintenance that has taken place since budget reductions and lack of resources has taken place within the U. S. Forest Service which started seeing 51% of their budgets getting placed in Fire mitigation and fuels reduction, drawing funding away from Recreation and Resources.

    The fact that the trail is significantly longer than what the USFS is reporting is something that could be conveyed to the local USFS offices and to the Washington HQ offices, updates which would need to be checked with the Geological Survey and quite possibly with Google Earth reviews.

    I’m going to check with them and see if there’s updating to their documents, though if there are significant trail redirects due to rock slides, dead tree obstructions, and simply due to the trail disappearing at times, the documentation might not get updated to reflect realities since the USFS attempts to keep trails where they historically are located, and hope to (some day) repair the trails and restore the original tread, making the documents correct again.

    If you have other information complete with photographs and anything else you might like to try to get conveyed to the Forest Service — and if you have not already done so! — would you please email me? At minimum we can work to get the USFS on-line web pages updated.

    Thanks! Great write-up, by the way!

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      Author

      Thanks for your help! I’ve had no response from the USFS despite multiple contact attempts on social media. The old and new trails are clear if you know what you’re looking for as you hike, and there’s a volunteer trail association doing the reroutes (which are truly lovely). I can’t imagine that they could do them without USFS approval, but we stopped in the ranger station to get a map before the hike and the people there don’t seem to get out from behind the desk and get outside much.

  6. I loved reading about your hiking adventure. We are older, but still enjoy backpacking trips — although not as long as the one you have described!

    Jude

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  7. I had to laugh a little at the bit about looking for water and then you got frozen stuff. Who knew?!

    Our favorite trials are in the White Mountains in NH. We recently hiked Mt Washington with the small PIEs who are 9 and 7 yrs old. 9 mile hike with 4200ft of ascent. 8.5 hrs of hiking. We were al quite proud especially the small ones.

    Working our way through all the 4000 footers in NH as we get acquainted with what to expect more of when finally relocate there in less than two years.

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      Wow! You guys are hard-core and raising sturdy little PIEs. Nice work.
      I hear that NH is gorgeous, though it’s still on our bucket list. I’ll have to pick your brain about hikes when we do finally get up there.

  8. I just got back from hiking 260->Pine and found myself saying WTF so many times that now i’m researching what I SHOULD have known before setting out, but solid info doesn’t seem to be out there. So many reroutes, and I found myself saying ‘why aren’t I there yet?’ so many times. I also ran into unforecasted rain, snow, and hail so you definitely need to be prepared for anything out there. Beautiful country though and glad I did it… one way.

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      Author

      Shannon, congrats on completing the Highline! I agree completely that the reroutes, though they made the trail much nicer, really throw hikers for a loop when they increase the distance. I’m glad you’re safe and sound despite all the challenges. Now, though, you have the confidence to face any hike 😉 As many curves as the next one may throw you, you’ll be able to say, “At least it’s better than the Highline!”

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