Over the Hills and Charred Forest
Remote trail in the western Mazatzal Wilderness that starts from Dutchman Grave valley, climbs into the Red Hills, and then plays around Wet Bottom Creek and Fuller Seep before finally ascending to the heights of Knob Mountain. The higher, eastern end of the trail is part of the AZT and sees a fair amount of traffic, while the western end is part of the fabled Midnight Mesa Loop. As neither end of this trail connects to a trailhead, it is common to use sections of this trail to complete larger, multi-trail adventures, and hiking it end-to-end would be difficult.
While the majority of this trail lies within the Willow Fire burn area, only a two mile segment around Wet Bottom Creek saw significant damage. Take extra care while planning to hike through this segment to account for the remoteness, deadfall, and route-finding challenge that awaits.
This guide assumes eastern travel, which means parking at Sheep Bridge and hiking in along Verde River Trail and Dutchman Grave. This adds a long drive along an unimproved road and close to six miles of hiking before starting on Red Hills Trail. The approach is similar to the recommended Midnight Mesa Loop route.
After passing the Lower Spring along Dutchman Grave Trail, a signed junction for Red Hills shows up. The trail heads north through grasslands and some mesquite trees, passing through a small wash before climbing a low saddle. From here one can get a good look at the unnamed tributary of Sycamore Creek that runs parallel to this route. Interestingly enough, this tributary will be a friend for the next seven miles, as the trail continuously bumps into different branches of it, for better or for worse.
North of the saddle the trail swings down a bit and approaches the tributary on the left, teasingly close to some tall sycamores at one point. There are some old camp ruins near here. Enjoy this relatively flat travel here, because the route will start to swing east and climb the hills. One quick wash crossing and then, at 1.5 miles, the climb begins in earnest. It swings around the side of the hill, following one of the branches of that tributary, continuously gaining ground. At 2.6 miles the trail crosses the branch and climbs up the northern bank, eventually reaching a wide, flat platform beneath some extensive mining explorations. Checking out these ruins is a great excuse to catch your breath before the next climb.
At the point of the platform there is a large cairn marking the next climb, a quick 600' over 0.6 miles. Parts of it are steep and loose enough to warrant some handholds along the way, especially if you miss a switchback. Halfway through this haul the trail bends sharply south near some old mining pits at a saddle, marking the end of the tributary branch and the beginning of some ridge travel, as well as some great open views to the east. At 3.4 miles the trail levels out and enters into a wide mesa with junipers and mining pits dotting the grassy land.
The mesa is cut by a drainage that, yes, empties into that unnamed tributary from before. To get around the drainage means a long, lazy swoop to the south that follows the contours. Near the end there is a little climb up a hill, then a drop into the top of the drainage, then another climb up to a saddle at 4.7 miles. By this point the trail is well within the Willow burn area, though the damage is spotty and there are plenty of green trees that survived.
On the far side of this saddle there is a bit of hillside travel towards a second saddle to the east, one that overlooks the next drainage to follow (yes, also part of the unnamed tributary). The trail drops down to the drainage, cuts across a fork, and then follows it upstream. Things get difficult here, as the burn damage is more significant next to the drainage and there are several branches to choose between, so keep a careful eye out for cairns. The path on the bank is overgrown so keeping to the rocky drainage may make for faster travel. At 6.1 miles the trail zips up a ridge on the northern bank, traveling under some lovely short pines, only to slink back down a short distance later. After some more playing along the drainage the route finally leaves it for good at 7.1 miles.
Now the route climbs about 400', again heading up to a saddle and then following a ridge southward. The elevation is now over 5000' and the views to the north and east are spectacular, especially looking down into the chasm of Wet Bottom Creek far below. Don't worry, we'll be down there soon enough. First we need to get around 5601'. Trail is wide and well-defined as it makes a wide swing to the south, not quite summiting the peak, instead offering expansive views all around. On the far side it begins to drop down on a ridge for a short bit before committing to a truly dreadful descent.
At 9.2 miles is where, what once must have been a lovely pine forest, the deadfall from Willow Fire takes over, and as of 2018 this meant a tough scramble over logs, through manzanita, all down a steep and loose slope. At least this particular thick section is less than a half mile long, and the trail soon turns east and follows a drainage down with more definition. Finally, at 10.1 miles the route meets Wet Bottom Creek at a delightful water source.
Continuing east means climbing out of the valley of the creek, a healthy 950' over 1.6 mile that is quite overgrown, though not as bad as the western bank. This starts with following a drainage for a bit, then swinging up onto a ridge, then following the hillside to the southeast and summiting two separate saddles along the way. The grade levels out near the top, at the crest the trail is suddenly well-defined again, making for an easy trot to reach the 12 mile mark and the junction for Midnight Trail. If you are doing the Midnight Mesa Loop, this is the next trail to follow.
Red Hills Trail begins to turn northward, following the contours in a generally eastern direction, staying above a tributary of Wet Bottom Creek until it reaches Fuller Seep at 13 miles. There are a few old ranching remains here - some corrals, firepit, etc - that, combined with the water source, making for a great campsite.
The trail continues northeast from Fuller Seep along the flat valley floor for a short distance before meeting a ridge climb that leads to the side of Knob Mountain. This is one of the steepest climbs of the trail, 700' over 0.5 miles, with sharp switchbacks up the crumbly side. Once at the top, comfortably above 6000', one can enjoy a quick view back down before walking through a small ponderosa forest and joining up with the Arizona Trail at 14.6. Brush Trail heads west, Red Hills Trail continues north before turning east.
Now on the AZT, the next section of trail is well-trafficked and maintained. It drops down into a drainage for Boardinghouse Canyon, following one branch down to a fork before following the other branch upstream. This area of the Mazatzals was spared from the fire and is quite lovely, shaded by tall ponderosa pines that tower above the red rock drainage that, sometimes, can even hold water for hikers to filter. After climbing the eastern branch to its head the trail swings south and meets up with the Mazatzal Divide. From here one can head south towards the park or north towards City Creek Trailhead.
On the far west end, before the start of Red Hills, is Lower Dutchman Grave Spring. After this there are undependable tributaries for the next seven miles, and the only good source of water is Wet Bottom Creek. Fuller Seep is located a few miles above the creek and Red Hills Seep along the AZT section may have water during wet seasons. Given the remote nature of the trail and low traffic the only truly dependable source is Fuller Seep.
There are two great campsites along the way, first at the valley of Dutchman Grave and then at Fuller Seep. Along the AZT are a few good pads, and near Wet Bottom Creek could work as well. Also, there are a few flat spots for dry camping en route that could work in a pinch.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.