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Houston Brothers Trail
Mogollon Rim
September 28, 2019
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map N 
  GPS Map S 
by Bill Zimmermann
Quy carefully sets up her camera for the group picture. [photo by John]
Trailblazers at Houston Draw Trailhead. [photo by Quy]
front:  Terry, Quy, Heather K., Badger Bill
back: Ian, Mimi, Bettye, Heather O., Pat, Sharon, Linda, John, Stacy, David, Chuck

On a gorgeous Saturday morning in late September, under deep blue, cloudless skies, five vehicles carrying 15 Arizona Trailblazers converge on a small parking lot adjacent to Houston Draw, located northeast of Clints Well on the Mogollon Rim, one of our favorite summer and fall hiking locations in Arizona. This wasn’t our original destination for today’s Houston Brothers Trail hike, but due to a road closure and detour it’s nevertheless where we wind up. And it turns out to be a better starting point anyway, eliminating the half-mile of very rough and unsigned dirt road that we originally expected to hike to the trailhead.

It’s all part of the adventure aspect of an exploratory hike, I tell everyone, as we pile out of our vehicles and prepare for today’s hike. Fall is definitely in the air this morning, with a cool and refreshing temperature of 62 degrees, as we begin hoofing our way up the road—before realizing we’re going in the wrong direction.

After backtracking, we eventually see a sign across the road from the Houston Draw parking area. After confirming this marks the trailhead, we finally strike out on the real Houston Brothers Trail. The time is 10:30 AM, as a cool breeze blows out of the southwest. Weather-wise, this looks to be a perfect day for hiking Arizona’s Rim Country. And according to the Trailblazers’ hiking schedule, this will be the last Rim hike of the year.

There’s no question we’re on the right trail now. [photo by John]
Chuck and David check the posted trail map. [photo by Quy]
And awaaay we go. [photo by Quy]
Arizona Trailblazers are on the move! [photo by David]
This late in the season a few colorful lupines still linger on. [David]
The Trailblazers last hiked this trail way back in 2010, but I wasn’t on that hike, nor was anyone else on today’s hike except for Badger Bill. Apparently Bill enjoyed the trail well enough to come back and tackle it once again. But for everyone else this will be an exploratory hike. From Sandy’s 2010 trip report to all the glowing comments I saw about this hike while doing a bit of research on the trail, including one stating “The Houston Brothers Trail might be as good as it gets on the Mogollon Rim”, it’s surprising to me that we haven’t hiked this trail since then.

So whenever looking for hikes to lead, as the first step I always refer to our vast and ever-expanding collection of trip reports—800 and growing at last count, and carefully managed and archived by our dedicated and hard-working Webmaster, Mr. Ted Tenny. If I have a specific hike in mind, for instance the Colonel Devin Trail, I’ll check the archives first to see if we’ve ever done the hike before, or if it’s been five years or more since we’ve done the hike. If I don’t see the hike listed, or if it’s been over five years since we’ve done the hike, then that’s a hike I want to lead next. On occasion I’ll even come across a hike the club hasn’t done for ten or more years. H’mm. I wonder. There must be an explanation.

This picture by John speaks the very essence of the Houston Brothers Trail. [photo by John]
This trail features some of the most spectacular forest cover on the Rim. [photo by David]
John leads the charge along this stretch of trail. [photo by Bill]
Pat, Sharon, and Ian pause along the trail. [photo by John]

I think it simply comes down to too many trails and not enough time. For many years I owned a T-shirt that proclaimed exactly that: “Too Many Trails. Not Enough Time.” And for Arizona trails, especially, that pretty much sums it up for the hiking community in general. But actually that’s a good thing, isn’t it? No matter how many trails we hike over the years and no matter how many years we tramp those trails, there are always more trails out there to explore and more new trails being built every year. Help! We’ll never catch up!

The Pinchot Cabin stands in a forest clearing. [photo by John]
Trailblazers make their way across a stream to reach the cabin. [photo by Quy]
The Pinchot Cabin, with Trailblazers looking on. [photo by John]
This cabin certainly has an interesting history. [photo by Quy]
Reading the story behind the Pinchot Cabin. [photo by Bill]
Pinchot Cabin sign and trail map. [photo by John]
Knock, knock. Is anyone home? [photo by David]

Like many Arizona trails, the Houston Brothers Trail is named after real people who played a role, however large or small, in Arizona’s colorful and diverse history. The Houston brothers were Arizona ranchers during the early 1900s who carved out this trail in the forest to make it easier to move their cattle from one part of the range to another. In later years the U.S. Forest Service used this same trail, by now well-worn from thousands of cattle hooves, to move fire fighters through the forest or fire lookouts to their cabins during the summer months.

Today the trail is used primarily by hikers and game animals, taking the path of least resistance. From the calling cards they leave behind as they travel, both elk and deer must love this trail.

The trail starts off as a fairly level and well-defined path through a heavy forest cover and dense stands of towering pine trees, including Arizona’s signature ponderosa pine, with occasional oaks and aspen as part of the overall mix. Although certainly not an issue today, with the cooler temperatures, this would be a great summer hike as well with the plentiful shade provided, courtesy of Mother Nature.

For most of its length the Houston Brothers Trail meanders along the bottom of Houston Draw, a colorful and picturesque little valley with a perennial spring-fed stream flowing through and providing an ideal riparian habitat for a variety of forest creatures. Had we started hiking several hours earlier, we probably would have seen a few of them.

At last—the first sign of fall colors. [photo by John]
Spider condos. [photo by Quy]
After roughly a third of a mile of hiking, we come to the old Pinchot Cabin and take a rest break here as we explore the cabin and surrounding area. This was one of several fire-lookout cabins strategically placed along the Mogollon Rim and manned during the critical summer fire season. This particular cabin was named in honor of Gifford Pinchot, who was instrumental in the formation of the United States Forest Service in the very early 1900s, serving as its first Director from 1905 to 1910.

Pinchot, known as the Father of Forestry, was on the forefront of the fledgling American conservation movement, along with President Theodore Roosevelt and Sierra Club founder John Muir. From over a century ago, here is one of Pinchot’s still timely quotes:

“Unless we practice conservation, those who come after us will have to pay the price of misery, degradation, and failure for the progress and prosperity of our day.”

Sound familiar?

Bracken Ferns showing the first signs of fall colors. [photo by Quy]
Some of these Bracken Ferns are chest high. [photo by Quy]
OK. Who took the tree that was standing here? [photo by Quy]
Some people have too much time on their hands. [photo by Bill]

Another 100+ yards down the trail, and we come to a cattle gate that we have to carefully maneuver our way through before continuing down the trail. The Houston Brothers Trail is actually part of the much larger Cabin Loop Trail System, which includes all or parts of the Barbershop Trail, General Crook Trail, Fred Haught Trail, and the U-Bar Trail. During the hike several of us discuss the various loop options offered by this trail system for future Arizona Trailblazers hikes. Most will likely be 10+ miles long. So many trails. So little time. But, there’s always next year.

As we continue hiking deeper into the forest, we notice increasing numbers of Bracken Ferns blanketing the forest floor. They become thicker and denser the farther we go and continue for mile after mile. Now a deep tan and bright yellow, as contrasted to their lush green summer colors, these large and leafy plants are the first harbingers of fall in Arizona’s high country since the coldest air always settles to the forest floor. Many of these stands of ferns are knee and even chest high, the largest we’ve seen since the Kachina Trail in the San Francisco Peaks area.

Trailblazers make their way through fields of Bracken Fern. [photo by Quy]

Next, we come across a couple of big mysterious holes alongside the trail (see picture) where large pine trees once stood. Since trees periodically fall in the forest as part of the normal cycle of life, we see these holes on many of our forest hikes. But there’s always a toppled tree lying right next to the hole, usually a large uprooted tree with its roots fully exposed and full of dried dirt and large rocks and even small boulders that helped anchor the tree in place as it grew and flourished and sent its roots deep into the soil.

Oddly enough though, there are no signs whatsoever of toppled trees next to either of these holes. So where did the trees go? Given enough time, downed trees will eventually break down and become part of the forest soil again. But by then the holes they left behind would have filled in and completely disappeared. But that’s not the case here since these holes are relatively fresh. Who knows what really happened here. The surrounding trees would certainly know, but they’re remaining silent and keeping all the forest secrets to themselves.

Trailblazers converge on the Aspen Springs Cabin. [photo by Quy]
This old cabin has certainly seen better days. [photo by Quy]
Bill and Linda pause by the historic old cabin.
[photo by Bill]
John in front of the Aspen Springs Cabin.
[photo by John]
Heather O. pauses for a picture by the cabin.
[photo by John]
Watch out for falling cabin, Ian!
[photo by Ian]

Roughly halfway to the designated turnaround point with the junction of FR139A, we come to Aspen Springs Cabin, the second cabin on the Houston Brothers Trail and a bit worse for wear than the Pinchot Cabin. In fact, this cabin appears to be almost on the verge of collapsing at any moment, apparently held together with chewing gum, baling wire, and high hopes. We take another break here and get a few more pictures, in addition to one last group picture in front of the free-standing fireplace and chimney. The fireplace is by far the most well-preserved part of the property and looks like it might even be good for another 100 years of service, with just a touch of maintenance and TLC, heavy on the TLC.

If only this fireplace could talk, imagine the stories it could share with us! With that thought in mind, we continue on down the trail, wondering if we’ll ever run into any other hikers today. So far, we’ve had the entire trail to ourselves. It always amazes me how some of the trails we hike are virtually overrun with hikers to the point of almost needing a reservation system, while other trails like this one today are almost hiker-free. In addition, today is Saturday, probably the busiest hiking day of the week, and we have perfect weather as well. Go figure.

Watch out for that bolt of lightning, Bill! [photo by John]
Group picture with a unique twist. [photo by Quy]
Pat, Ian, Sharon, Chuck, John, Bill, Terry, Quy, Heather O., Mimi, Heather K., Linda, Bettye
Still standing proudly after 100+ years. [photo by Quy]
Sharon poses next to the old fireplace and chimney.
[photo by John]
Quy is in her element.
[photo by Quy]
Not all of this trail is completely flat.  Some climbing required. [photo by Quy]

By now we have gradually broken up into three smaller groups—the faster hikers way out in front, the slower hikers in the rear, and everyone else somewhere in between—in other words your typical Bell curve of hikers. Seven of us decide to stop for lunch at the 3.5 mile mark in a shady and inviting forest glen with conveniently placed log seating.

I try to contact the others to let them know our plans, but reception is very spotty at best. We keep trying, as we break for lunch, but cannot seem to establish a good communications link with the rest of our hikers. I know the others will eventually come back and regroup, but at the same time I’m certainly not going to leave until they return or we establish radio contact and they’re close behind.

After taking an extra-long lunch break, Terry volunteers to scout ahead and see if he can round up some of the other hikers. After about 15 minutes he returns with five more hikers, and the remaining three rejoin us a few minutes later.

Lunch break in a beautiful forest setting. [photo by Quy]
Pull up a log, people, and have a seat. [photo by Quy]

All together once again, we start the long trek back to the trailhead. The return leg of the hike always seems to go faster, and today is certainly no exception. In seemingly record time, we’re all back together at the Houston Draw Trailhead by 2:30 PM. A quick check of my backpack thermometer indicates a temperature of 73 degrees. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to hike the Houston Brothers Trail. We’ll definitely be back, and hopefully well before another nine years slips by.

Trailblazers are heading back to the trailhead. Already? [photo by John]
John poses for one last picture in a sea of Bracken Fern. [photo by John]
Stacy and David pause by the Houston Brothers sign. [photo by David]
Post-hike discussions.  Where is lunch? [photo by Quy]

After a little discussion and some minor disagreement thrown in for extra measure, we finally decide on Macky’s Grill in Payson for a relaxing late lunch/early dinner. Many of us have been there at least twice or more in the past, and it seems to have become one of our favorite go to places in the Payson area. So we carefully work our way back out to AZ 87 and head south to Payson and Macky’s Grill.

Trailblazers enjoy a late lunch/early dinner at Macky’s Grill in Payson. [photo by Ian]
And now from the opposite end of the table. [photo by Quy]

So here’s yet another one for the Arizona Trailblazers’ growing trip reports archives. Let’s put this one to bed Ted, and call it a day.

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Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club, Phoenix, Arizona
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updated October 4, 2019