A maze in the forest
This area was originally designed as a cross country ski area back in the 80's, by a forest service employee from the Springerville Ranger District who wanted to be able to ski after work. Bob Dyson, the public information official for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, told me this. An old acquaintance of mine, I ran into him at the trailhead one day, and we skied the Pole Knoll 6.2 mile loop together. He also told me that during the 80's there was a lot more snow on a regular basis.
Pole Knoll Recreation Area has 18 miles of inter-looping trails of varying degrees of difficulty. It is important to note that these trails all have different names! There are usually maps available to take with you in the sign-in box at the kiosk, and there is also a map posted on the kiosk bulletin board. There are blue diamond markers on the trees marking the routes, and there are wooden signs with the trail names at all the intersections. It can be kind of confusing when you first visit the area... almost like a maze. Some of the mileages are as follows: Pole Knoll Loop, 6.2 miles, beginner/intermediate. Meadowlark Loop, 2.16 miles, beginner. Red Tail/Osprey/Raven loop 1.2 miles, beginner. Summit, 4.2 miles round trip, intermediate/expert. The Forest Service puts total mileage for the area at 18 miles. The elevation ranges between 8900' and 9600'.
The area is mixed forest, with large Ponderosa pine trees, aspens and Douglas fir. There are meadows here and there, and sometimes during the summer wet season there is a small pond along the Meadowlark loop, which attracts elk and other wildlife. During the winter elk, deer, fox and coyote tracks are commonly seen in the snow.
In the summer, Pole Knoll Recreation Area is suitable for mountain biking and hiking, but be aware that not all the trails exist when there is no snow on the ground! Some of the trails that do exist in summer are the Meadowlark loop, the Summit Trail, Raven, Osprey, Pine Jay, and Red Tail. The Pole Knoll loop is partially a cross-country route during the summer. Pole Knoll, 9793', is on the "Big List" of rated Arizona peaks, and has a sign-in register in the cairn on the top. Please note there is NO TRAIL to the top, but it's easy to find with map and compass, or GPS. There is a great view from the summit. Don't make the mistake I did the first time and climb the knoll next to it! Due to the thick forest I was unable to see there was a higher knoll nearby, which was the actual Pole Knoll. The Summit Trail does NOT go to the summit of Pole Knoll, but to the smaller knoll.
For beginning skiers I would recommend skiing a loop of about one mile that starts at the trailhead with the Red Tail trail, then left on Osprey, then left on Raven and back to the trailhead. Also the Meadowlark loop is pretty flat. The Summit Trail is really fun if you are a pretty good skier. You ski approximately 2 miles to the top of a knoll (not Pole Knoll, but the smaller one next to it) and back down again. There is one very steep, but short, run on this trail, which can be dangerous when icy. I do not recommend the Viewpoint trail for anything but hiking. It has a lot of deadfall that can't easily be negotiated on a bike or skis. It is also very steep in places.
The Pole Knoll 6.2 mile loop very seldom retains enough snow for skiing because it passes along the edges of the big meadows, which tend to melt very fast. It's fun to ski if you can hit it at just the right time.
The Squirrel Springs Cross Country Ski area off Highway 373, in Greer, has a link trail that connects to Pole Knoll. However, this is not very easy to locate, and very seldom has had enough snow to cross the open meadow linking the two areas during the 6 years I have been skiing here. Also I have discovered that Squirrel Springs melts off much more quickly than Pole Knoll.
The Springerville Ranger District recently purchased a trail grooming machine. They usually groom the Red Tail/Raven/Osprey loop. I expect when there is enough snow they will groom some of the other loops as well, such as Meadowlark or Pole Knoll.
I recommend this area for beginning and intermediate skiers and mountain bikers. As for hikers, it's really for beginners. Those whose skills are more advanced, be they skiers, mountain bikers or hikers, will not find this area to be very challenging. However it is still fun, very pretty and it is easy to get to, no need for four-wheel drive. The trailhead is signed on Highway 260, 16 miles west of the Eagar stoplight. For more information call the Springerville Ranger District at (928) 333-4372. I have always found their staff to be very friendly and helpful.
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.