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From the Salt Flat Trailhead, follow the Nelson Trail for 2.5 miles to the junction. Go left or basically straight on the Willow Spring Trail 1.5 miles to a junction. Go right on the Verde Rim Trail for 1 mile to a junction. Go right on the Pine Mountain Trail for 1.5 miles back down to the Willow Spring junction. Finally, head back 2.5 miles to the trailhead on the previously traveled Nelson Trail.
Pine Mountain Wilderness is a lovely little area out in the middle of nowhere. Roughly 25 miles west of Payson and 40 miles east-southeast of Prescott. The wilderness itself is split by the Verde Rim, approximately 40% in the Prescott NF and 60% in the Tonto NF. All the trails fall into the Prescott NF side. The Tonto side is primarily the steep drop of the Verde Rim, making it inaccessible.
Access to the wilderness is long but not overly difficult. From Cortes Junction, continue north on I-17 to the Dugas Exit. Salt Flat Trailhead is located 18.4 miles east on Dugas Rd / FR 68
I'll note at this time there are a couple of options for loop hikes in this wilderness. The route described here is optimum for a moderate-day hike. More options are available for backpackers or extreme day hikes. Those options are known to include sections of bushwhacking. You can find a decent map of the trails in Scott S Warren's "Exploring Arizona's Wild Areas". Whereas Tom Dollar's "Arizona's Wilderness Areas" doesn't mention this wilderness or its neighboring brother Cedar Bench Wilderness.
The trail starts from the Salt Flat campgrounds. A trail register is on the opposite side of the road from the trail. Head out on the Nelson Trail. I don't remember if it said "Nelson Trail" anywhere, but there are only two options. The correct route here is straight ahead, not a sharp right. Okay, immediately you'll pass through a fence. The trail starts wide as I'm sure it used to be a road. The first couple miles follow Sycamore Creek. Among the trees are some huge sycamores. Go figure!
My first thoughts were, "man, this is incredible". After a twenty-mile drive through the barren desert, the surroundings certainly are inviting! The creek follows on your right for a short distance before crossing once. Rocks are few and far between, so choose your footing well as you cross. Sycamore Creek will be on your right from here on. Cattle graze the area, so keep an eye out for steaming land mines. Several seeps cross the trail. No lack of water issues even during the drought conditions of April 2002. Continue to the first significant junction at 2.5 miles, Willow Springs.
Go left or basically straight ahead on Willow Springs Trail for 1.5 miles to the Verde Rim Trail. Along this section, things quickly turn bleak, and that's putting it lightly. I thought my mind was playing tricks on me as I heard distant coon hound yelps. Anyhow, I headed into this section, having passed three springs and expecting to pass two more. It seemed bone dry. Then it became apparent the wilderness here suffered a fire. However, the very top of the pines were still green. So you have all the trees still standing and providing adequate shade. A couple of horseback riders passed, and wouldn't ya know it! Approximately eight fine-looking dogs followed. Guess I spooked one named Cheryl as she wasn't happy to see me. I took a WIDE route around ol' Cheryl! So I continue trying to figure out where the red fern grows... okay, bad joke. Then things turned worse. The fire must have been much hotter or moved slower in the following area as everything was dead. Only to continue to a small section where fire wiped everything out.
The trail becomes more of a challenge to follow as it's very faint. On this calm day, I was followed the faint swath through the pine needles. A cairn here and there, then I looked up, turned around. If I weren't of sound mind, I probably would have been a little terrified. I'm thinking... "how did I get here" A half-hour or hour ago, I was following a clear running creek in the cool shade. Now I'm standing out in the middle of some lunar planet!
A few greenery glimpses where the fire must have changed directions put a little spirit back in the sole. The trail now makes a serious haul up to the Verde Rim. You know killer views are coming so naturally, the pace quickens. The trail doesn't quite go to the edge, but a use-trail makes its way out to the views. After you take in five minutes of views, you start to think about getting back onto the trail. Only to turn to your right and happen to notice, "oh, there's Pine Mountain". Hmmm, man, that's steep. Oh well, that doesn't concern me; the book says the trail doesn't come within a quarter-mile of the peak.
Back on the trail, as if you're approaching the junction again... take a right onto the Verde Rim Trail #161. You can't help but notice it says 1/2 mile to Pine Mountain. Sure enough, it is, one-half mile, straight UP!...lol Okay, it's not that bad. There's plenty of switchbacks, and it is short-lived. Another plus is the forest here didn't fall victim to a forest fire. Work your way through the switchbacks. The book was right; the trail comes just shy of the actual peak. If you wish to bag the peak, there is a signed junction to make things easier. I passed on the option.
Continuing, you are traveling very close to the edge of the rim. It's kind of cool walking along knowing the earth drops out shortly to your left. Every now and then, a view comes into play. However, some of the better views are looking down across Pine Mountain Wilderness on your right. If you look behind occasionally, you'll notice you are hiking at the same elevation as Pine Mountain. Technically four feet lower at best but darn near. With the next major junction also comes the best Verde Rim viewing opportunity. It looks like a hang glider launch, but we all know that's a no-no in a wilderness.
From the junction, hang an obvious right: DOWN, to complete this lasso loop of a hike. It's pretty steep going down in sections. This is fire-damaged wilderness again, but the trail is obvious. Pass the Clover junction going straight/right on back to the Willow Spring junction. You know the way home from here.
Despite the fire damage, I recommend this loop hike. There are enough variations to keep you interested. I believe the other trails offer decent backpacking options too.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
Prescott FS Details
The views from this long trail are spectacular. Most impressive is the general view of the extremely rugged country below this rim to the Verde River. From here you can also see the Mazatzal Mountains to the east, Four Peaks to the south, and the Bradshaw Mountains to the west.
Maps, other resources: Prescott National Forest, east half; U.S.G.S. topographic 7.5' quad for Tule Mesa
Trail layout: This is a fairly level trail, traversing along the edge of the Verde Rim for much of its length. The climb to Pine Mountain, however, is difficult. The trail does not actually go to the top of the mountain, though it is only a short but steep hike from the trail to the top. At about mile 2.0, just as you start the climb to Pine Mountain, TR #12 intersects from the west. At mile 2.75 TR #14 also intersects from the west. At about mile 4.5 the trail heads west and then northwest into the Bishop Creek drainage and ends at its junction with TR #159.
Southwest of the intersection with TR #14, the fire that burned Pine Mountain in 1989 burned especially hot in this area.