Afoot In Arizona's Apache Country

In the fortress-like Mazatzal Wilderness, you can barricade yourself in solitude.
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In the fortress-like Mazatzal Wilderness, you can barricade yourself in solitude.

Rugged canyons once prowled by Apache warriors, an extensive trail system, 100-mile views from wind-swept summits, no people-you could hardly ask for more from a hiking destination, unless it's all a mere hour from town.

The 25,500-acre Mazatzal Wilderness, one of Arizona's best kept backpacking secrets and a mere 50 miles from the outskirts of Phoenix, satisfies on all counts. The wilderness embraces a surprising array of terrain, from saguaro-studded desert to mountains draped in Douglas fir, and everything in between. "Mazatzal" is an Aztec word meaning "area inhabited by deer," and befitting its name, mule deer are everywhere, and so are coyotes, javelinas, ringtail cats, and rattlesnakes.

Piece together a 2- or 3-day trek through the scenic heart of the wilderness by starting at 4,200 feet on the Barnhardt Trail (#43). The trail climbs steeply along the south side of Barnhardt Canyon-creek music is within earshot most of the way-before joining with the Mazatzal Divide Trail (#23) at a saddle on the crest. Along the way, twisted rock layers testify to the forces that built these mountains.

Once at the saddle, turn right and hike north along the Divide Trail. A short spur trail (#264) leads to Chilson Spring, an old cowboy camp that's a fine place to hang your hat for the night. It's a real treat to munch dinner while watching the alpenglow paint Mazatzal Peak.

To finish the loop, continue north on the Divide Trail for 2.8 miles to the Rock Creek Trail, where Hopi Spring usually has water. You'll find several campsites in the pine forest west of the spring. Stay on the Rock Creek Trail and you'll reach the crest of the range (the trip's high point at 7,077 feet), where you can catch your breath while savoring the panoramic view of the Mazatzal Mountains. The trail soon drops into Rock Creek, a boisterous cataract in spring but a trickle in August. At the mouth of the canyon, follow the Half Moon Trail back to the trailhead.