Dancing on the Spine of the Mazatzals
Offering expansive views throughout the heart of the Mazatzal Wilderness, this long path follows the prominent set of mountains between Mount Peeley and North Peak. It climbs up to the highest trail-accessible point (over 7100!) and passes several scenic campsites and springs. It is also part of the Arizona Trail, containing the entire Section #23. Hiking this entire trail would involve shuttles and possible overnight gear, though there are multiple dayhikes that take advantage of pieces of the trail, including the Mazatzal Peak Loop and Mazatzal Divide to The Park.
All but 3 miles of this trail lie within the Willow Fire burn area.
Peeley Trailhead is close enough to be called the southern trailhead. To be more accurate, Cornucopia Trail #86 heads west from Peeley Trailhead, climbing a few hundred feet over a half mile before turning southwards, and then Mazatzal Divide Trail #23 truly starts and continues east. It immediately switches back and forth under the bulk of Mount Peeley, gaining elevation as a rocky path surrounded by short, shadeless vegetation, before committing to its generally northern direction and following the curve of the mountain around. It enters into a sparse pine forest right before entering the wilderness boundary at 1.4 miles.
The tall trees grow thicker together as the trail continues to curve around Mount Peeley and enters into the only section spared by wildfire. It then follows the head of a large drainage, going far to the south in order to minimize elevation loss, and eventually turns north again. A few good views of the west open up here for the first time, down the length of Sheep Creek towards Davenport Peak and beyond. The mostly-level ridgeline travel ends at 3.4 miles as the slow crawl up and around the side of Mouth Catherine (Peak 7358) begins. This gradual uphill tops off near 7150', the highest point in the Mazatzals accessible by trail, at 6.4 miles. The views up here are stupendous.
North of the highpoint is a severe switchback and relatively steep downhill. Mazatzal Peak and the nearby ridges dominate the scene here. A signed turnoff for Bear Spring, a year-round source of water and campsite clearing, can be found at 8.1 miles. Fisher Trail starts a short distance further, though it is unsigned and pretty much impossible to find, even if you're looking for it. The next few miles involve an easy climb to a saddle in the ridge and an easy descent on the other side. The junction with Y-Bar Trail is at 10 miles, offering the first of two exits to Barnhardt Trailhead.
Huge outcroppings of rock jut far overhead on this side of Mazatzal Peak, almost looking like huge turrets of an crumbling fortification. The trail creeps along the base, dropping into a few low areas as it skips across some drainages. A quick haul up a saddle at 11.9 miles offers good views down towards Chilson Camp. There's the Brody/Malapie drainage to avoid before getting down to the camp, though, and the path makes a lazy swing to the east to do so. Along this swing, at 13.3 miles, is the Barnhardt Trail junction. A short while later, at 14.3 miles, is the Brody Seep junction, where Chilson Camp can be found. This is a nice place to spend the night.
Big views of Deadman Creek begin to open up as the trail continues north beyond Chilson. It swings in and out of a few drainages that come down from 6952', including one that Sandy Saddle Trail supposedly follows (that trail is very overgrown), before it enters a small stand of pines near Horse Camp Seep at 16.8 miles. This is also a nice place to spend the night. There are also impressive some waterfalls downstream of the seep, though they are seasonal. The trail begins to climb in earnest now, gaining 800' as it passes the Rock Creek Trail junction, Hopi Springs, crosses the upper North Fork Deadman Creek, and finally crests a bare rock ridgeline at 18.8 miles. Again, the views to the west are outstanding.
From the rocky crest is a long downhill roll which, thanks to the protection of the ridge above, is heavily vegetated. An unsigned junction with Willow Springs Trail passes by unseen and unnoticed right before a boulder-y (and likely bone-dry) crossing of Wet Bottom Creek, followed by entry into The Park at 21.1 miles. The Park is a pleasantly shaded section of tall trees with a nice campsite just off the path. North Peak Trail heads east from here, heading down to Mineral Creek Trail, while the Mazatzal Divide Trail continues north. However, the AZT officially changes its name to Red Hills #24 from here to LF Ranch.
Three small hills show up in the way, each one featuring plenty of rolling red rocks, grassy inclines, and small stands of trees nestled in the valleys between. The trail tends to zig-zag a bit here to avoid some deep cuts and elevation. The final one, Knob Mountain, may offer a view of the San Francisco Peaks far to the north on a clear day. Just as a pleasant valley shows up to the west, with pleasant tall trees promising sporadic shade, a junction shows up at 24.3 miles. Red Hills Trail, and the AZT, continues straight (but will soon turn west) - the Mazatzal Divide Trail bends east (but will soon continue north).
The final descent of this trail is a windy, looping thing, circling around the hills in a general direction of City Creek Trailhead. It drops very slowly, only about 450' a mile. Along the way it crosses a few scenic drainages and some outcroppings. However, constantly seeing the cut of the trail ahead and the trailhead below may make this a weary trek. Views of the Mogollon Rim and Hardscrabble Mesa may distract from some of the monotony. The base of the trail crosses City Creek before ending near the trailhead.
Bear Spring, Windsor Spring, Chilson Spring, Horse Camp Seep, Hopi Spring, and Pete's Pond are the most dependable sources. Water may also be found in a few tanks along the trail just west of the Barnhardt Junction, in some of the drainages between Chilson Camp and Horse Camp Seep, at the N Fork Deadman and Wet Bottom Creek Crossings, and in the first valley north of The Park. For a trail along a ridge of mountains this one has a lot of water sources.
There are a lot of great campsites along the way, most of them offering some sort of nearby water sources. Bear Spring, Chilson Camp, Horse Camp Seep, and The Park are the main four that come to mind. There is also a spot between Peeley and Catherine, several clearings at the Y-Bar junction near Windsor Spring, a nice one west of Barnhardt Junction, and one or two north of The Park.
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.