Cedar Mesa, Tonto National Forest.

Mogollon Rim seen from Forest Road 322

Cedar Mesa
is the kind of place you just don’t stumble upon. The desolate, flattop spread
resides at the end of a ridiculously undulating road at the base of the Mogollon
Rim south of the community of Pine.

Gate on Cedar Mesa

It
takes effort to get to it but the payoff is a pleasant, uncrowded diversion from
the old standard hikes in the area.

Milk Ranch Point, a prominent nose on the Mogollon Rim

The hike follows Forest
Road 322 that begins at a dirt pullout along heavily-travelled Control Road (Forest
Road 64) near where numerous trailheads and cliff-climbing routes provide
connectivity with major travel corridors.

Hikers walk the rough road to Cedar Mesa

The road is an easy snare for curious
hikers wondering where the heck it goes. Open to both motorized and foot travel
alike, the rough dirt two-track in Tonto National Forest reveals its colors immediately with a steep
ascent to a crest where visitors are treated to the first set of magnificent
views and a welcome breath-catching moment.

The hike’s
ubiquitous landform is the imposing rock jetty of Milk Ranch Point, that towers
to over 7400 feet. Patches of vivid green foliage clinging to its escarpments expose
the locations of Red Rock and Pine springs that serve as reliable water sources
along Highline Trail which is part of the state-traversing Arizona Trail. From
here, the climb continues on a milder slope, gradually exposing bigger and
better vistas of the Mogollon Rim–a wall of uplifted rock that spans roughly
200 miles from New Mexico to the Sedona area.

Follow the fence line on Cedar Mesa to extend the hike

Although the difference between
the hike’s high and low points is only 358 feet, the out-and-back route’s
constant ups-and-downs adds up to more than 1000 feet of elevation change. As
the road moves southeast through forests of cypress, pinion pine and a fringe
of manzanita, the peaks of the Mazatzal Mountains appear as hazy purple mounds
on the western horizon.

A baby horned lizard blends in with the local rocks.

At the 1.2-mile
point, the route heads left at a 3-way junction where the road narrows as it
descends through a rocky corridor fringed with scrub oak, Alligator junipers and
a smattering of Ponderosa pines.

Mazatzal Mountains on the horizon

This is where the first good glimpses of the destination
come into view—a low slung mesa fleeced in conifers with three quad-burning
dips-and-climbs in between. From here, the Payson airport, a brush pit and the chiseled
watershed of the East Verde River and its tributaries are visible to the south.
Once over the last major hump, the trail emerges on Cedar Mesa proper, encountering
a gate at the 2.6-mile point.

Hikers contemplate the undulating route.

The hike features beautiful Rim Country views

Although the
road disappears beyond the fence, it’s possible to extend the hike by exploring
on the irregular-shaped mesa that’s just over a mile across. Vegetation on the sparse, breezy plateau is a
homogeneous labyrinth of junipers, so a good sense of direction or GPS skills
are essential to avoid getting lost. An easy way to wander and stay found is to
follow the barbed wire fence line that encloses the summit for more spectacular
Rim views from a seldom-visited, hard-won platform.

The route has many ups and downs.

LENGTH: 5.2 miles roundtrip

RATING:
moderate

ELEVATION:
5495 – 5853 feet (1183’of accumulated elevation change)

GETTING
THERE:

From the junction of State Routes 87/260 in Payson, go 12
miles north on SR 87 to milepost 265 (2 miles north of Tonto Natural Bridge
State Park), turn right on Control Road (Forest Road 64) and continue 0.8-mile
to the parking pull out at Forest Road 322.