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A Wild and Scenic Ride
The Verde River Trail is, well, a trail that follows the Verde River, starting at Sheep Bridge and heading north to East Verde before climbing up Cedar Bench to Twin Buttes Trailhead. It can be used by adventurous waterfolk or on a few different hikes, including Midnight Mesa Loop, Highwater - Verde, or Twin Buttes to River. Due to the length and difficult shuttle, it would be challenging to do a thru-hike of this entire route at once.
Depending on which segment of this trail you are planning to visit, multiple fords of the Verde River may be required. Check the water gauges (09508500 VERDE RVR BLW TANGLE CREEK, ABV HORSESHOE DAM is a good one to reference) and be aware of your capabilities in a rocky, fast-flowing situation.
Based on the length of this route and the likely chance that most hikers are only interested in incorporating segments in their plans, this description is broken into four pieces: Sheep Bridge -> Red Creek, Red Creek -> Highwater Junction, Highwater -> East Verde, East Verde -> Twin Buttes. Scroll as necessary.
Sheep Bridge -> Red Creek, 8.5 miles
Sheep Bridge is an oasis at the end of a dull, dusty drive along rough roads. Tall sycamores are growing around the banks of a wide, languid Verde River, perfect for splashing around in during hot summer days. Dozens of parking spots make for ample camping and and a small hot spring make for an appealing overnight stay. For the interest of the trail, there is a foot bridge, a historic Sheep Bridge even, high above the water that provides an easy and scenic crossing.
Once across the river, the trail swings between some rocky outcroppings and heads east for a short distance, ducking under mesquite trees and following the grassy banks of the wide, and usually dry, Horse Creek. At 0.25 miles the path crosses this creek and begins its northward journey, quickly passing the junction with Willow Springs Trail, and then crossing a lusher Sycamore Creek at 0.5 miles. Then it climbs to meet the junction with Dutchman Grave Trail shortly after. That's a lot of features and potential turn-offs in a short amount of distance.
Things calm down after the Dutchman Grave Junction. The tread continues north, sweeping along the hillside, offering good views of the Verde River below and Sheep Bridge behind. At 1.6 miles, a sign for the wilderness boundary shows up, just as the route descends into Dry Wash in a rather beautiful manner. Unfortunately, once in Dry Wash, the area dries up, and the vegetation is relatively humble. Ahead the White Bluffs beckon, and offer a climb out of the wash and onto a low ridge at 2.6 miles, with great eastern views of the Mazatzal mountains.
The next few miles may drag. The surrounding desert is pretty enough, and the tread is well-defined, but it swings away from the river and is usually nestled between surrounding hills. There are only numerous crossings of shallow washes to break things up. To pass the time, one could watch Tangle Peak in the west slowly pass by like a giant milestone on the horizon. At 7 miles a shockingly lush Wet Bottom Creek makes an appearance, complete with two nice campsites, one on each bank. From here, the trail climbs a hot, dry tributary for less than a mile and meets up with Wet Bottom Trail before cutting west, downhill to the river, towards Red Creek Rapids.
Once the tread and cairns hit the riverbank, they both disappear. This is a frequent behavior of Verde River Trail - only expect a trail to follow when you're not next to the actual river. Find a way across the rocky bed towards the sycamores, aiming for the rapids, which is the easiest place to cross. At 200fps, I've found this area to be knee-deep, though the underfoot rocks and swift water make it a difficult crossing.
Red Creek -> Highwater Junction, 6.5 miles
A few paths are winding near the confluence of Red Creek, including one that leads up to an old metal corral and airstrip. To take the Verde River Trail further north, keep an eye on the north bank of Red Creek, looking for a rocky overflow and an ancient, gated two-track heading up the bank. There is a single telephone pole marking this spot if the GPS coordinates aren't enough. From the gate, either stick to the two-track or a short shortcut singletrack to get started.
The first few miles on this side follow the rocky two-track, which swings through a few drainages, passes a tank, and even takes advantage of a sandy-bottom wash for a few hundred yards. This section is easy to follow and offers good views east of the nearby Table Mountain and Wet Bottom Mesa across the river. At 2.5 miles from Red Creek Rapids (11 total), the track drops into an unnamed wash and ends, leaving the rest of this section on faint singletrack.
Once the confusing, overgrown wash is navigated, the trail begins a climb up to a highpoint saddle across from Mule Shoe Bend. While the 300' climb may not be the most enjoyable, the track is cut nicely into the hill, providing some definition to follow. At 3.5 miles (12 total) the saddle is reached, with fantastic views over the river and cliffs below. The next mile is a slow, steady drop over the base of Canoe Mesa's bend, with a few steep drainages to navigate around. Then there is a sudden drop down the rocky cliff, marked at the bottom by a steel pole, a meander over to the riverbank and another telephone pole, and then the trail 'ends' as the rocky riverbed takes over at 4.8 miles (13.3 total).
It is easiest to cross the river a short distance downstream of the pole, as the river splits around two islands and is relatively shallow. Find a clearing through the reeds and flood overflow, or make one, and venture carefully across. With 200fps, I've found the deepest to be thigh-high, though I did choose to avoid the waterfall at the base of one of the islands, which would be shallower and more challenging. This crossing is more difficult than Red Creek Rapids with the thick brush, no single clear way across, and more remote location.
Back on the eastern bank, there are a few cairns, close to the bend, that lead to a faint path onto and along the riverside ridge. A rusty wire fence could act as a guardrail for finding the track, as it follows this for a short distance. The trail turns north and sticks close to the top of the riverbank, with great views along the Verde, and plenty of grass and cactus eating up the cairns. At 6.5 miles, a humble signpost shows up to mark the junction with Highwater Trail, which is a better-defined trail and could serve as an alternate route that avoids either of the river crossings.
Highwater -> East Verde, 5.5 miles
North of the Highwater Trail junction, Verde River Trail has good tread to follow, especially compared to the last few miles. A few hundred yards along the top of the ridge and it plunges back down to the river over a rocky switchback, and then big cairns and easy trail lead into a riparian paradise. It doesn't last long, though, and at 0.6 miles from Highwater (15.7 total), the route swings up a shallow hillside and travels through desert, with the enticing river a short distance below.
At 1.1 miles (16.2 total), there is a steep drop into an unnamed creek, followed by some more hillside walking with a few more trees, and then the route enters Goat Camp Canyon. This wash is confusing to navigate, as it forks near the trail crossing, and there is a lot of loose rock and gravel to traverse. Keep a focus on moving north, even as the terrain winds, and make sure to exit the actual creek and not get turned around in one of the forks. Beyond the canyon, there is a long section of flat walking and then, at 2.8 miles (17.9 total), a short climb right before another unnamed creek. This one has some overgrowth to work through and is above Red Wall Rapids.
The route slinks back to the river here, under tall trees, though it may be more difficult to follow than the earlier riparian sections. Tread becomes more defined after it hops back up on the hill. A few shallow drainages show up, and then, at 4 miles (19.1 total), a sharp 200' climb shows up to cut a bend off. Big rocks and grass make the going difficult, even on top of the climb, when things flatten out. Once the bend is passed, the tread slides along a hillside, dropping slowly through red rock and junipers, crosses a patch of bare white rock, and then sharply drops back next to the river, finishing the rest of the journey to the East Verde River confluence under lush green trees.
East Verde -> Twin Buttes, 10.5 miles
Crossing the East Verde River should be trivial after the downstream crossings if you've dealt with those. It is usually shallow enough to skip across on stepping-stones. The trail picks up on the north side and continues a pleasant journey under tall trees, with only a few washes and questionable spots to navigate. Enjoy the flat walking while it lasts. At 0.7 miles (21.1 total) a rocky drainage shows up and then cuts in, then begins a long climb that does not let up.
The first climb is 650' over 0.8 miles on an old two-track that is well-defined, rocky, and offers great views, which makes a good excuse to stop and catch your breath multiple times. It mostly travels a narrow ridge and crests at a small saddle, which also marks the junction with Deadman Mesa Trail. Next climb begins to mellow out, 1000' over 1.6 miles east, and it offers good views of Ike's Backbone before it swings along Bee Tree Tanks to a narrow ridge. Another 500' over 1.5 miles, and the trail is finally on top of Cedar Bench, which had those great big white cliffs that were so prominent from the river below, although the climb isn't done yet.
During these hauls, the vegetation changed little, the grass growing thicker and the junipers looking healthier, and the trail is mostly along an old two-track. Underfoot it is rocky and loose, making both uphill and downhill a cautious endeavor. As the grade mellows and the trees grow in size, there are fewer big views, although there are still awesome vistas to be had from open meadows. At 6.3 miles from East Verde River (26.7 total), there is a little drop into Camp Gulch, one of the few downhill sections, with good shade and rest options.
Camp Gulch also marks the edge of Cedar Bench, and from here, the trail turns northeast on Road Ridge, gaining a more leisurely 1200' on the way to the trailhead. Along the way it passes a few tanks and offers some southern views. At 9.2 miles (29.6 total), the wilderness boundary shows up, and another mile or so after that, Twin Buttes Trailhead is located. However, the last half mile of FR 194 to this trailhead is pretty rugged, so your ride out may be a short distance below, which will be a welcome relief after all the uphill.
Verde River is the most obvious water source for much of the walk, provided you filter it properly. The trail also crosses over Sycamore Creek, Wet Bottom Creek, and East Verde River, and then passes a few cattle tanks on the climb out to Twin Buttes.
Sheep Bridge is the most established, and trafficked, campsite along the trail. There are also sites located at Wet Bottom Creek, Red Creek (the second busiest site, due to ORV access), above Red Wall Rapids, and near East Verde River. Plenty of less established flat pads are scattered throughout.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
This is a moderately difficult hike.
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.