Mare Czinar | Special for The Republic
From sweeping mountain vistas to rolling juniper-dotted rangeland and a leafy river canyon, a walk along Forest Road 502 delivers a packed agenda over its short, hilly course.
Adopted by the Tonto Recreation Alliance, a nonprofit volunteer partner of Tonto National Forest that works to keep hundreds of miles of forest trails open and maintained for motorized off-road use, the dirt two-track a few miles west of downtown Payson offers a quick, lightly trafficked route to the East Verde River.
Located a few miles south of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park east of Pine Creek, the road is open to hikers, equestrians and OHV use. It’s a sweet find for those who appreciate a simple trek peppered with many points of visual interest.
From a dirt pullout along Doll Baby Ranch Road, the hike begins by passing through a barbed wire gate (close it behind you) where visitors are immediately smacked with breathtaking views of Mazatzal Wilderness peaks including 7,449-foot North Peak, the northernmost prominent peak in the Mazatzal Range.
The road veers left at an unsigned fork at the 0.1-mile point. After that, all junctions are signed “502.” As the road makes an easy push through sunny juniper-piñon open range, views of landforms with imagination-stoking names like Polles Mesa, Whiterock Mesa, White Hills, Horsethief Bench, Limestone Hills and Pilot Knob roll out in all directions.
The largely unshaded route is flanked by a fringe of flowering shrubs, yucca and a colorful understory of classic high-desert wildflowers including delicate sego lilies, purple Goodding’s verbena, milkvetch, blackfoot daisies and flame-red paintbrush.
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At just over the 1-mile point, the road begins a series of gradual ups and downs that land hikers at the East Verde River. The final descent into the river canyon is somewhat rocky and steep, but not too difficult.
The road meets the water at 1.8 miles where hikers may explore along the rocky banks and spindly velvet ash trees to spy trout swimming in deep pools.
While the river makes for a good turnaround point, hikers may consult the Tonto Recreation Alliance downloadable maps to extend the trip by way of several connecting roads.
Payson hike: East Verde River
Length: 3.6 miles to the river and back.
Elevation: 3,717-4,058 feet (781 feet of accumulated elevation change).
Getting there: From State Route 87 in downtown Payson, turn left on Main Street (at the light), which becomes Country Club Road and then Doll Baby Ranch Road (Forest Road 406) Go 6.3 miles to the trailhead on the right. Park in the dirt turnouts by the gate and the “502” sign.
Details: Tonto Recreation Alliance, tralaz.org.
Read more of Mare Czinar’s hikes at arizonahiking.blogspot.com.