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By Margie Anderson
Outdoors Editor 

Summer Fun In The Pinaleno Mountains

A Cool Getaway Is Just The Ticket This Summer!

 

August 1, 2023

The Andersons At A Giant Arizona Cypress Tree On The Big Tree Trail

If you're looking for a cool getaway in Arizona that is a bit off the beaten path (and therefore not quite so packed with human beings), you should give the Pinaleno Mountains a try. There are lots of excellent hiking trails, a lake to fish in, and plenty of good campgrounds whether you favor a tent or an RV. The tallest peak is over 10,000 feet, and you may be familiar with the name – Mt. Graham: the mountain with the famous protected red squirrels.

The Pinalenos are one of the "sky islands in southeastern Arizona. Sky islands are mountains that are isolated by drastically different lowlands. In this case, the beautiful forests of these mountains are surrounded by desert. You can find out a lot more about sky islands at http://www.skyislandalliance.org.

Arcadia Trail

The Arcadia trail has been designated a National Recreation Trail, so of course we had to check it out first. There are gorgeous views and lots of beautiful birds to see. If you're lucky you may even see deer. When we went, there were still bright yellow and red leaves on some of the trees and bushes. This was in November and it was already getting chilly.

The Arcadia is a 5-mile there and back trail (so, 10 miles round trip), but it goes from one campground to another. Most people go from the Shannon Campground to the Arcadia Campground because it's mostly downhill that way. Since we were going to have to backtrack either way, we chose to park at the Arcadia Campground and go uphill on the way out and downhill on the way back. If you have someone to give you a ride, by all means take the downhill path.

About a mile from the Shannon Campground trailhead you will come across Heliograph Trail. This one climbs to the top of Heliograph Peak and you can get quite a fantastic view from up there. If you have started at the Shannon and don't want to go all the way to the Arcadia Campground, you can take the Heliograph trail to the summit then go back to Shannon campground by following Heliograph Road, which is closed to motor vehicles. This makes about a 4-mile loop, but you'll miss a lot of really pretty trail.

Also, the Heliograph Trail is a bit steep so be prepared for some huffing and puffing. Near Arcadia campground you'll see the more colorful trees and probably wildflowers as well. This is where we saw a lot of birds, too – the trail crosses a little riparian area. This really is a beautiful hike and I highly recommend it.

Grant Hill Loop Trail

This trail is actually part of a system of trails for mountain bikes, made up of old logging roads connected together. They make for a great hike, especially the old road parts. For easiest going, take this loop headed clockwise. It's just over four miles, and will give you some sweet views of Fort Grant and the Galiuro Mountains. There are a lot of loops and connecting trails, so if you don't have trail maps, make sure you take of photo of the one at the trailhead so you don't get mixed up.

The forest is mostly pine, but you'll also find some nice stands of aspen. This is a really nice, not too difficult trail.

Riggs Flat Lake

This beautiful 11-acre trout lake is your reward for reaching the end of the Swift Trail. Alpine forest and meadows surround it, and there is a really nice, easy hike that goes around the lake. The trail is only a little over half a mile and is super easy, so it's great for kids. It can get a little boggy at the end of the lake, but kids love that anyway.

If you have a valid AZ fishing license you can try for the trout that are stocked in Riggs Flat. Try corn, cheese, salmon eggs, Power Bait, and worms. Fly fishermen often catch the browns and brook trout. You can even take a small boat on the lake (electric motor only), and there is a boat ramp.

Day use is $8 per vehicle or $10 for weekly use and you can buy a pass online or on-site with cash or check. They also accept the America The Beautiful Pass and the Senior pass and others. Just go to the Coronado National Forest and you can get all the details about the passes, charges, the campgrounds, etc. It's closed from November 14 to April 15 because of weather.

Just above Riggs Flat Lake there is a one-mile trail (2.2 miles round trip) called the Jesus Goudy trail that simply dead ends at a vista point.We didn't hike this trail, which by all accounts is very faint and rather difficult to follow. We'll try this one next time. And there definitely will be a next time for us – we are totally in love with the beautiful Pinaleno Mountains.

There are many more hikes that we simply didn't have time to explore our first time out. Go to the Coronado National Forest website for information on trails, camping, water availability, etc. Since the road goes up, portions of it may be closed due to snow. We passed several gates that can be swung shut to close the highway.

Scenic Drives

If you're not into hiking you may still want to check out the Pinaleno Swift scenic drive. About 8 miles south of Safford, turn southwest onto AZ 366. The drive is just over 35 miles and will take you about 5 hours for the round trip (70 miles total). You'll see everything from desert scrub to alpine forest and meadows on this drive. There are plenty of interesting things to stop and see, as well as trailheads and other recreation activities that might be too hard to resist. Allow plenty of time! (Publisher's Note - Just a quick hello to my father Jim Allen. He loved all of Arizona and spent all of his free time showing us the beauty of the state. He particularly liked this area.)

Also be aware that if you go later in the year, you're likely to find that at some point you'll come to a locked gate across the road because of snowy conditions. We saw quite a few of those gates when we went in early November, but you never know what the weather is going to be like, so you might want to check on the Forest Service Site before you go.

Camping

Campgrounds in the Pinalenos are Arcadia, Cunningham, Hospital Flat, Riggs Flat, Shannon, Soldier Creek, and Stockton Pass. RV's under 22 feet are allowed at Arcadia, Riggs Flat, Soldier Creek, and Cunningham. You need to call ahead and make sure the campgrounds are open before you go. Call the Coronado National Forest Safford District at 928-428-4150.

Getting There

From Safford drive south 8 miles on US 191 to AZ 366. Turn right (southwest) onto 366. This paved road is paved winds up the western end of the Pinalenos until just around where the Shannon Campground is. Then you follow FR300, which is a very well maintained gravel road that will take you all the way to Riggs Lake.

Bonus Trip

If you're staying in Safford and are just exploring the area, take I-70 east from Safford, then 191 up through Clifton and Morenci. The copper mines in that area are awesome to behold. I have a very old Forest Service map of this area and it shows that highway 191 used to be Highway 666. There is a pretty interesting story about that. To check it out, visit http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/us666.cfm.

Big Tree Trail Off Highway 191

If you don't mind a little hike, you can pull off 191 and hike down The Big Tree Trail (#314) to see a tree that held the record as the largest Arizona Cypress for many years. It is 97 feet tall and has a circumference of 181 inches, and is now in second place after a bigger tree discovered in the Santa Catalina Mountains.As you head north from Clifton on 191, watch for the Sardine Saddle Picnic Ground on the right (east) side of the road. Just north of that on the other side of 191 is the trailhead for the Big Tree Trail.

Alpine Trail

The trail is only a little over half a mile long to the tree and it's downhill most of the way. Which means, of course, that it's uphill on the way back. But it's not that bad and it's a pleasant hike in the trees most of the way. It doesn't get used a lot so it can get a little confusing in the thick brush, but nothing scary. We enjoyed it and we brought the granddaughters to see the tree on our epic 900-mile summer trip through south and eastern Arizona. They enjoyed the tree too, and the hike is a great way to stretch your legs in the middle of a trip.

Make Safford Your Home Base For The Pinalenos

Safford, by the way, is a delightful place to stay. It's a very pretty town and the people are really friendly. It's big enough to have everything you need, but small enough to give you a down home feel. We loved it there. They also have some awesome Mexican food restaurants. Learn more about Safford at https://cityofsafford.us.

 

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