How to hike the Highline National Recreational Trail

What is the Highline Trail?

Well it is a trail that follows the Mogollon Rim outside the town of Payson, Arizona and it’s official name is the Highline National Recreational Trail. It is located in the Tonto National Forest.

In my opinion, this is the most under-rated hike in Arizona. People talk about Havasupai all the time, which is absolutely beautiful and worth the astronomical costs, I agree. But, the Highline is a free and amazing thru hike in Arizona.

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I went in May of 2017 with three friends of mine from work. The three of us were decently experienced backpackers. This trail is over 60 mile long when the whole thing is hiked.

How do you get there?

Depending which way you go the trail starts or ends at the 260 trail head just off of Highway 260. Travel east of Payson, Arizona on the 260, just over 26 miles, and the turn off is on the left or, the north side of the road. Park here to hike the entire trail. Or you can start from Horton Creek like we did, check the map below.

***Note, This is a thru hike, be sure to have at least 2 cars, and have someone park one at the Pine Trailhead in Pine Arizona where the trail ends.

These are my buds left to right, Isaac, me, Richard, and Chris.

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Horton Creek

Havasupai Falls Backpacking

You can take many other offshoots of the trail that will lead you to many beautiful places along the way. Or you can start at one of the many offshoots and link up to the Highline.

Here is a map from Hike Arizona you can use to help.

My friends and I decided to hike the Horton Creek Trail to the Horton Springs. At the end of the Horton trail it veers right to the spring, and also goes left to continue on to the Highline Trail.

Day 1

Day 1 was a big day, we had a lot of ground to cover, and some getting used to our packs. We started the hike at Horton as previously mentioned, and were trying to bust out a lot of miles in the first day, since we were filled with excitement and energy. Our plan was to find a good mid-way point between the start and our half way point at Washington Trailhead.

This is Horton Creek.
Had to fix the sign, it fell down.
We dropped our packs here and checked out the spring with is very close to this sign.

After a short break at the Horton spring, we continued on along the rim. we were headed west to Pine, Arizona, where we would be ending our trek.

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Continuing on the Highline Trail.

The trail is pretty well maintained most of the hike and if you think your lost, just keep going and you will see the red and white diamond shaped trail markers nailed to trees. Some are small metal plaques as well.

Part of the crew.
We found a ton of wild flowers.
The plant life is so diverse along the whole trail, there are several sections where the ferns are as tall as your shoulders.
Make sure to stop and enjoy the views from the rim at high elevation you can see for miles.

What will you see on this hike?

We saw tons of wildlife, deer, elk, snakes, other reptiles, and different types of birds. The entirety of the trail is quite diverse. The scenery is always changing. You will meander through several spring fed creeks. Forest and desert landscape makes up most of the hike. There are Ponderosa pines, everywhere, and alligator juniper, ferns, wildflowers and a plethora of other fauna.

Cruising along the trail, still feeling good mid day.
Still cruisin’ along.
Taking a little break on the trail for a bit to hydrate and snack.
It’s not always up and down hill, some parts are somewhat flat.
We have made it back into the ferns, I love these little trees!
This was our campsite for the night.

After hiking around 10 miles or more, we decided this was a good stopping point to relax and rest for the night. We set up camp and built a fire ring, and some chairs from stones to sit around the fire. We were right next to a creek, unfortunately it was quite dry other than some puddles. Luckily very close by was another very small spring that we were able to fill up our water reservoirs.

By buddy Isaac looking for a spot to set up his bivy sac for the night.
We had an awesome campsite there, and spent the night hanging out and sipping on a little whiskey.

Weird story alert!

When we got to this spot where we camped for the night, I mentioned earlier that the creek was dry except for a few puddles. My friends can back this story up. In the middle of the night, I heard a trickle of water and just figured one of my buddies had gotten up to go pee. I went back to sleep and thought nothing of it. When we all woke up, the dry creek, was running as if it had never stopped. This confused all of us. We tried to make sense of this and thought, maybe there is a home north of us and someone has the creek damned up and then let it go in the night, or maybe the tide pull from the moon, pulled water from an underground spring that fed the creek. We really weren’t sure. Another friend and I did happen to see a man off in the distance the night before walking around through the forest in a white t-shirt, and when we hollered hello, he made his way away from us, never said anything, and we never saw him again. We got back to our other two friends and asked if they had seen him and they said no, not at all. The whole ordeal was very strange.

Day 2

Day two we woke up to a beautiful morning, and said farewell to our friend Isaac, he had somewhere to be the next day and had to hike back to his car so he did not continue the trail with us. We all had breakfast, cleaned up camp and headed back out on the trail. We had another big goal this day to make it to the Washington Park Trailhead.

This was the fire pit we made, and the small rock chairs we also made to sit on.
This is the small and beautiful spring fed creek we found near our campsite the night before, where we filled up on water, and again before we continued on our hike.
We continue on through the ferns.
We made it to Bonita Creek to fill up water, and take a seat for a bit.
My dudes fillin’ up their water as well.

We filtered our water mostly with a water filter from the MSR Trail Shot, and the Sawyer Filter. They worked great!

Still stoked and happy to be outside, right where I belong.
We pressed on, through all the ups and downs.
Rich and Chris
Back in those lovely ferns.
I believe this was a section of the where the Dude fire had burned.

The dude fire?

Part of this trail was burned by the Dude fire on June 23, 1990 where 6 firefighters were killed in the blaze. The scars were clear when we were on the trail, and it felt a little barren in spots. Some of the trees were still blackened. I found out a few months after this hike, there was another fire that burned a portion of the trail again. I did not take many photos of the burned trees though.

Seconds after this photo was taken we heard the familiar rattle from a black rattlesnake. It was cool to see, as we are used to seeing the diamond back rattlers down in the Phoenix area.
Almost to the Washington Park Trailhead, I knew there was a campsite there from previous travels by vehicle.
Behold fire!

We had made it to the Washington Park Trailhead. We set up camp, ate some food, rinsed off our smelly and sweaty bodies in the creek, and just stayed lazy for the night. We went to bed shortly after the sun went down, and as soon as my head hit the sleeping pad, with the sound of the creek near by, I was out.

Day 3

On day three our plan was to hike to Geronimo Trailhead. We had several miles to go yet again but not as many as the day before. So we were off!

This was the Trail we came in on the night before, and the creek that we all rinsed off in.
About to leave Washington Park.

At the Washington Park Trailhead, the Highline Trail meets up with the Arizona Trail (another long thru hike from the south border or Arizona to the north border.) I was excited to get to do a small portion of the AZT. The AZT trail will take you the rest of the way to Pine, AZ, the ending of the Highline Trail.

Some areas in the higher elevations of the trail, the pine trees grow super tall, its sick!
Notice the diamond trail marker on the tree, find them, if you get lost they will show you the way.
At a point you’ll come to this sign, there is a water filling opportunity and it was kind of cool, a small spring is here that you can fill up from.
Here is the spring that you can fill up from, and take a nice rest in the shade of the pine trees.
We started heading down in elevation again, and you can see the rim from here, and it looks so cool.

We finally made it to the Geronimo Trail head. Its a beautiful area, and the Geronimo kids camp is in the area. Here you will find Webber Creek, another beautiful creek along the trail. Campsites are plentiful around here across from the creek, more ferns, more water to fill up on, and great scenery.

Almost to the Geronimo Trail
The sign for the Geronimo trail head, and the AZ trail sign next to it.
The trees are tall in the Geronimo area, I love it.
The trees get a little thicker once you pass the creek in this area.
The creek near the Geronimo Trail Head.

We all were feeling pretty good at this point and even though we were going to camp out at this spot, we decided to press on to the end on day 3. I knew we were close to Pine, and I told my friends about That Brewery and how they had great beer and food. Plus I told them my families cabin was near and we could all stay the night and shower. We started moving toward Pine!

The trail becomes more exposed as you get moving along. You can see for miles.
The vegetation becomes more thick as you travel along high up on the trail.
We found this cool watering hole that was used by people long ago, I would not personally drink this water, it was the nastiest on the trail, but a cool spot for sure!
The trail started to drop fast from the water hole, and descended down into the canyons, I knew where we were now and the end was in sight.
Less than a mile to go!
We made it!

We finally made it to the end of the trail. It was a long haul on the third day, but even though we were sore, beaten, and bruised we all had smiles on our faces and a sense of a huge accomplishment.

First stop was to That Brewery, less than a quarter mile down the road from the trailhead. We got beers and burgers and enjoyed the rest and real food! It was delicious. I don’t think the other patrons enjoyed the smells emanating from us, but we didn’t care! Afterward we moved on to the cabin and showered, cleaned up, watched a movie, and crashed out. We had to go get our other vehicle from the starting point the next day before heading home.

This was an awesome trip and I’m so grateful for the experiences shared with my friends. I hope to have another huge adventure with my buddies in the future. Until that time, I had a blast dudes! Thanks for everything!

The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.

-John Muir


9 thoughts on “How to hike the Highline National Recreational Trail

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  1. I love going to the Mogollon Rim in the fall. We camp at Aspen (I am a trailer girl, I had enough of tents in the military!) and do day hikes with our 11 year old. We always hike around the lake too!

  2. Woods Canyon Lake. It’s part of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. I am sure it is crazy there in the summer but in the fall it isn’t too crowded.

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