Col. Devin Trail will challenge tough hikers
For casual travelers, the East Verde River is synonymous with water-play destinations along Houston Mesa Road north of Payson. The Water Wheel, First, Second and Third Crossing recreation sites offer walkup access to the canyon-bound water course.
A tributary of the mighty Verde River, the slim waterway begins as trickling springs that emanate from rugged escarpments below the Mogollon Rim.
The river’s enchanting watershed can be explored via the Col. Devin Trail #290 that follows its course from Washington Park to the springs that feed it.
Named for Col. Thomas C. Devin, who used the route for military endeavors in the 1880s, the dirt trail that alternates between a rutted two-track and a slender path also makes up the last 2 miles of the Highline Passage of the Arizona Trail.
The route’s proximity to the river and its drainages makes for a shady trek best done in fall or spring when water levels peak and foliage is at its most beautiful.
The first mile isn’t too hard
Although the Forest Service rates this hike as difficult, just about anybody can manage the first mile. Adding to the hike’s many natural attractions, the trail is bookended with tributes the area’s human history. At the Washington Park trailhead, the hike begins at an informational kiosk with plaques that describe past military operations, pioneers and economic development.
Take a moment to read the posters to gain an appreciation for the storied past of the territory you’re about to walk through. Beyond the kiosk, the path crosses the first of four bridges — two metal spanners constructed by the Arizona Trail Association and two split-log catwalks — that take the jump out of creek crossings.
Tracing the waterway through forests of mixed conifers, maples, boxelders, Gambel oaks and an understory of canyon grape vines and blooming shrubs, the first segment of the hike is a not-too-difficult visual delight. The sound of waterfalls and cascading rivulets adds a pleasant soundtrack to this leafy stroll.
One mile from the trailhead, the route merges with the decommissioned military road and begins its 1,000-foot climb to the top of the Mogollon Rim.
Starting to climb
The next half-mile is defined by a moderate ascent on the banks above the river where dribbling feeder streams and spring water tumble down to join the main channel. Where water glides across the trail, a smattering of aspens and Arizona sycamores sprout from moist soils and sandy washes.
The demanding work begins where the trail makes a sharp right at the Tunnel Trail junction. Enter the elephant in the room: the Railroad Tunnel.
An optional quarter-mile difficult side trip to a much-hyped, graffiti-spoiled excavation site can be an interesting diversion for history buffs and hikers who enjoy an off-the-wall diversion.
Plans by the Arizona Mineral Belt Railroad to bore through the Mogollon Rim to transport ore from the copper-rich mines around Globe to Flagstaff didn’t pan out. The 1880s tunnel project went bust and was abandoned, leaving behind mounds of rubble and a dank, 70-foot-deep stone cave that’s been defaced by modern-day vandals.
The final push
Unless you’re into visiting quirky bits of Arizona history, skip the gritty climb and continue uphill instead. The final ascent to Rim Road (Forest Road 300) creeps up a steep, rocky bench passing by some of the springs and seeps that are the source of the East Verde River. These inconspicuous trickles eventually funnel into the Verde and Salt rivers that converge more than 100 miles south of here and just a few miles east of Phoenix.
Major climbing ends at a pair of trail signs just below the road. Although the great views here make for a satisfying turnaround point, the hike ends a few steps farther up the road at the Battle of Big Dry Wash historical monument that marks an 1882 clash between the U.S. Army and the Apache Indians.
Use this bookend to a scenic and historically significant trek to either double back or continue north on the Blue Ridge Passage of the Arizona Trail.
Col. Devin Trail
Length: 2 miles one way.
Elevation: 6,097-7,280 feet.
Getting there: Use the Washington Park trailhead. From Payson, go 1.7 miles north on State Route 87 to Houston Mesa Road (Forest Road 199). Turn right and go 10 miles the T intersection at Control Road (FR 64) in the Whispering Pines community. Turn left, go 0.6 mile and take a right on FR 32. Go 3.2 miles to FR 32A (sometimes signed as Belluzzi Boulevard), turn right and go 1 mile to the trailhead. From the big Arizona Trail sign, cross the bridge, head left and go right at the Trail 290 sign. Roads are maintained dirt suitable for all vehicles. No fees or facilities at the trailhead.
The upper part of the Col. Devin Trail is steep and rocky.