Big Steps to Hardscrabble Mesa
Saddle Ridge Trail climbs up from the bank of East Verde River all the way to Hardscrabble Mesa, ascending from one mesa to the next, steadily climbing through a fantastic mix of grasslands and forests. The entire length is part of the Arizona Trail and is relatively well-defined and easy to follow for a Mazatzal Trail. It is most often traveled by AZT hikers, as any sort of connecting loops would involve venturing into more remote areas.
Reaching the southern end of this trail is a two-part process. Getting to Doll Baby Trailhead can be a muddy slog, depending on the condition of FR 406. Then, the road is gated at Doll Baby, and getting to the start of Saddle Ridge Trail means a 3.6 mile walk down a rocky two-track (aka FR 406W). However, if you're doing a longer trek along the AZT, chances are that this road walk will not be necessary and you'll start as it connects with either Bull Spring Trail or FR 194.
The trail starts near the gate to LF Ranch and heads east over a wide, old tread that is quite rocky. It skirts the east side of the ranch and, while there are a few spurs leading away, is well-marked with signs and large cairns. At .6 miles it crosses the East Verde River over a shallow, rocky section that can usually be hopped over while maintaining dry footware.
Once across the river there is a slight climb to Polk Spring at 1.1 miles, a few hundred feet gain under big, shady trees. Polk Spring is a lovely spot to pull fresh water before a big climb ahead. Speaking of, the first big step shows up shortly after the spring, a 600' haul up a painfully rocky road with little shade or respite. At 1.9 miles the crest of Polles Mesa arrives and the tread flattens out.
Polles Mesa is a wide, flat mesa, with sporadic trees, lots of rocks, and green grass. The tread may be difficult to follow across the mesa, though the trail mostly cuts a straight line across it, only bending on the far side of Red Saddle Tank. Along this walk there are some good views back south at North Peak. At 3.9 miles there is a sharp turn eastward at the edge of the next mesa, and at 4.3 miles Whiterock Spring shows up, the last appealing source of water along the trail.
From the spring the trail quickly cuts back to the west and makes a steep 200' climb over white rocks to Whiterock Mesa. At the crest of this mesa is a fantastic campsite at 4.5 miles with ridiculous views back south. The proximity to the spring below, plus the shade and good views, makes this one of the best sites along the AZT. Continuing north, the trail makes a slow and steady gain along the mesa, picking up a few hundred feet over several miles, winding through a mixture of pine forests and open grasslands. There is a small dip into a drainage near the end of this section.
The third, and final, step shows up at 7.4 miles, a 500' haul up to Saddle Ridge. It is not as steep as the previous two and gradually rounds out at the end, though it also offers good views south to North Peak, as much of this trail's climbs tend to do. Saddle Ridge is quite rocky, and the tread may be difficult to follow, so keep an eye out for the cairns. Also, elevation continues to sneak in while on the ridge, piling on an additional few hundred feet every mile. At 10.1 miles the singletrack gives way to an old two-track and the rest of the hike is simply following that until FR 194. From here one can turn right to continue on the AZT or hop in a vehicle.
Polk and Whiterock Spring are the two most appealing sources along this trail. Other sources include East Verde River at Rock Creek, Red Saddle Tank, and Saddle Ridge Tank.
The site above Whiterock Spring is simply amazing. Polles Mesa and Polk Spring could also make for less established sites in a pinch.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.
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.