Pine Mountain

Pine Mountain 6814′

Tonto National Forest

Total Time: 4:32

Roundtrip Mileage: 10.9

Elevation Gain: 3,400′

Crux: N/A

Trailhead: Salt Flat/ Pine Mountain Wilderness, no services




Pine Mountain in northern Tonto National Forest is an obscure and relatively hidden summit. The mountain slowly rises from broad grassy plateaus from the west, and is only visible from I-17 if you know just where to look. In fact, the featured photo above was taken from a plane (hence, blurry), with Pine being hidden from sight or inconspicuous from most angles. My interest in Pine Mountain stemmed from the fact that it was another Arizona P2K summit. In an attempt to be a bit more aggressive about ticking off those peaks, I used a free Saturday to drive north from Phoenix up I-17 and down 18 miles of progressively worsening dirt road to the Salt Flat Trailhead deep in Tonto National Forest. The last 6 miles of road were in worse shape than I expected, and high clearance was definitely required in several spots. While the drive in was mostly an open grass/ shrub plateau, the trailhead was a mixed oak and pine forest, with some fall colors showing. After crossing through a fence, the trail almost immediately enters the Pine Mountain Wilderness and follows a lovely stream.

Trailhead.
Healthy pine and oak forest.

The area reminded me of Santa Anita Canyon in the San Gabriels, with pools of water with small trout and fresh fallen leaves from the golden oaks lining the canyon. The only negative was the overabundance of cow shit on the trail, which was paradoxically open range despite the wilderness designation. I stumbled upon the first sow and her baby, and they quickly moved up canyon as I hiked along, thinking I was there to round them up. Being the path of least resistance, the cows moved along the trail directly ahead of me, and soon more and more cattle were joining in as they plodded along. It wasn’t long before I was driving over 10 heads up canyon, and couldn’t help but laugh that my fall hike had somehow turned into a cattle drive. I was so caught up in following my ever growing herd, I followed them completely up the wrong side canyon, and didn’t realize it until I was about a mile from the turn off.

Working up the wrong canyon.

Looking at my GPS, it looked like I could continue up canyon and rejoin the trail at the ridgeline, or deviate north to tag Little Mesa before hiking the rim to Pine. I decided to turn my mistake into a bonus summit, and after heading upcanyon a bit longer, veered up the steep slopes towards the highpoint of Little Mesa. There were plenty of cow trails to make cross country easy, and I followed a barbed wire fence near the edge of the mesa to a BM that appeared to be the highpoint on my GPS, although it was difficult to confirm giving the scraggly junipers across the plateau. I took a short break here and surveyed the remainder of the route, easy trail over a series of false summits to the highpoint along the rim. Dropping onto the trail, the views really opened up to the east across the Mogollon Rim, with a number of other AZ P2Ks in view including Mazatzal, Ord and Four Peaks. After about 2 miles of trail from Little Mesa, I reached the signed turn off for the trail I should have taken up canyon on my ascent.

Southeast across the Mogollon Rim.
Some fall colors below.
Junction for the return.

From this junction, the trail steepened with a series of switchbacks. An unsigned use trail split off the main loop trail where it began to level out, and I ascended the additional 100′ to the highpoint and summit of Pine Mountain. The views to the east were unobstructed, and I sat down to take in the views across the Mogollon Rim and enjoy the mixed fall colors in the canyon below.

View south.
View southeast toward Mazatzal.
View northeast.
Summit panorama.
Summit benchmark.

After a short break, I headed back down the trail, a bit behind schedule given my detour up the wrong canyon and rocky ride in. I turned off onto the proper trail and after passing through a slightly burned area of pines, re-entered the green, oak lined canyon. The trail cut through a small grove of Maple turned red for fall, one of the first areas I’ve seen Maple tree growing in Arizona.

Maples dressed up for fall.

I passed an additional junction that could also be taken up to Pine to make for a nice loop, and the water within the canyon started shortly beyond the junction. There was no sign of the small herd of cows on the return, presumably still far up canyon. I reached the car at about 3PM, taking two hours from the summit- much faster with the benefit of a trail the whole way. I left the trailhead out along the bumpy road and made it back to Phoenix in about 2 hours just in time for dinner.

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