If you have ever driven from Phoenix to Payson in Arizona, you’ve had the chance to enjoy the beauty of the Beeline Highway. This road will take you up from the low-land Sonoran Desert to the temperate forests of Payson, and past exceptional mountain ranges to match. It is one of my favorite drive in the state, and so it stands that you might wonder what trails might give you some extra exploration of the landscape. There are several, in fact, but two of my favorites are the Ballantine Trail and Barnhardt Trails. This Part 1 post about hiking on the Beeline Highway will cover Ballantine Trail.
This is the perfect desert trail for exploring the transition from the desert to the higher elevation grasslands. There are exceptional stone formations along the way, and awesome views of the Beeline itself. If you are looking for a little bit of a challenge, and want to explore a diverse part of the Sonoran Desert landscape, this is the trail for you.
- 1 5 Reasons Ballantine Trail is for You
- 2 Exploring Ballantine Trail
- 3 Need to Know Information
- 4 How to Get There
- 5 Preventing Wildfires
- 5.1 Tips for Preventing Forest (and Desert) Fires
- 6 Safety Information
- 7 More on Arizona
5 Reasons Ballantine Trail is for You
If you don’t have a lot of time, or you’ve got a lot of trails on your bucketlist, here are 5 reasons that you might want to pick this particular path.
- You are looking for a biodiverse Sonoran Desert experience.
- You are looking for a winter, early spring, or late fall hike that isn’t too crowded or far out of town.
- You enjoy unique geology.
- You would like to explore more of the area between Phoenix and Payson along the beautiful Beeline Highway.
- You are looking to learn more about the impacts of fire on the Sonoran Desert.
And here are a few reasons why it might not be for you:
- It is TOO HOT! This is a totally exposed trail in the desert. It isn’t safe for hot conditions
- Storms are afoot. Yes, the desert is dry… but when it rains in Arizona, it can be very violent, and flash floods are common. In particular, floods are a bigger risk after fire as well. Do not travel this trail when it is storming.
- You don’t want to or aren’t prepared to navigate to prickly desert! There are many cacti on this trail along with some prickly plants.
Exploring Ballantine Trail
The trailhead is located right off the side of the highway, and is a small, dirt pull out. When I visited, there was no bathroom at this trailhead, so be prepared. This parking lot was closed for a long time after the 2020 Bush Fire, and you will see impacts of this massive burn while in the area. Nonetheless, the desert is in the process of rebounding, so this trail is still worth exploring.
From the trailhead, you will climb up into the hills. This trail has a pretty steady elevation gain throughout (for a total of 1,500 ft if you do the whole thing), but the beginning felt the steepest to me. As you hike into the mountains, towards the unique stony hillsides, take note of the biodiversity all around you. Before the Bush fire, this trail was a showcase for the main beautiful plants that call the Sonoran Desert home. Now, after the fire, the assemblage of plants has shifted somewhat. While this might be somewhat disappointing whether you are a new visitor to the Ballantine Trail, or are revisiting, but it is an opportunity to see what fires do to the Sonoran Desert.
A Unique Desert Landscape
Another thing to note as you hike are the stone washes that you will see from the bottom of the trail to the top. The trailhead is located between two ephemeral waterways, and the upper part of the trail follows a wash. This is the flip side to the burn scar. Water shapes the desert as much as it sculpts the rest of the world’s ecosystems. Depending on the time of the year, you may even have the opportunity to see water running through the landscape.
The common turn around point for this trail is when it branches in three different directions at a little over 3 miles in. However, this is a reverse lollipop, so you can turn around at any point. In fact, if you want a shorter hike, you can do the short loop at the beginning. However, I think some of the best views of the boulders and the mountains can be found higher up on the trail.
Whether you go all the way in or not, definitely plan on doing the other part of the loop on the way home. This will give you some new views. The northern part of the route passes over the wash, which is beautiful. The southern route climbs up a hill and offers perfect views of the highway (which is more beautiful than it sounds).
Need to Know Information
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Trail length: 6.6 miles
Elevation gain: 1,502 feet
Season: Winter, early spring, late fall
Land manager: Tonto National Forest
Fee: None (2022); if you have the America the Beautiful pass, put it up just to be sure.
Toilet facilities: No (2022)
4WD Needed? No, but you will be parking in gravel.
How to Get There
The Ballantine Trailhead is on the 87 (aka Beeline Highway) between Phoenix and Payson. In order to access the parking area, look out for signs for Ballantine. The parking lot is on the east side of the highway, and is easiest to access while traveling north. You can google the trail name for directions, or use 33°45’52.3″N 111°29’36.7″W. It is about 21 miles north of Shea and the 87, and 39 miles south of the last stop light on the edge of Payson. There are brown signs in either direction for Ballantine Trail.
The Bush Fire of 2020 burned a huge section of the desert to the east of the Beeline Highway. For visitors, it might be a disappointment, seeing the desert stripped of its former glory, with thousands of saguaros having burnt. But for local people, this fire was another trauma of 2020. The fire burned for nearly a month, and destroyed more than 100,000 acres of beautiful Sonoran Desert, which was once full of saguaros. Folks living in Fountain Hills could see the fire as it burned Four Peaks, and it looked like magma shimmering across the slopes.
Since this fire, both the community and nature has began to heal, but neither will ever be the same. Saguaros take many many decades to grow, and they rarely survive fires, especially if they are small. And a much beloved landscape will not recover in our lifetimes.
The Sonoran Desert is not a fire-adapted ecosystem, which means that the fires we are seeing now aren’t because of fire suppression. They are due to human activities, climate change and drought, as well as the proliferation of invasive grasses in the desert, which fuel fires.
What is the saddest thing about the Bush Fire (and many others) is that this could have been prevented. This fire was started by a person.
But what is empowering to remember is that this can be prevented. We can stop these human-started fires.
While some of these tips might sound familiar, others might surprise you. Refresh your memory before visiting Ballantine Trail and other natural wonders.
Tips for Preventing Forest (and Desert) Fires
(1) If you are towing a trailer, make sure that none of your chains are dragging; do not park over dry grasses.
Dragging chains and otherwise sparking vehicles can and have caused fires along highways and other roads. Luckily, this can be addressed. For chains, make sure that they are sized correctly so that they don’t drag. Better yet, you can add covers to your chains to prevent sparking if they hit the road while driving.
A more difficult thing to gauge is parking and pulling out in areas vulnerable to car-started fires. A good rule of thumb is to park in designated areas which will usually be paved, or gravel, in rare cases, also mowed grass. Avoid parking over or too close to dry grass. I know it seems silly, but yes, parking in dry grasses can cause fires.
(2) If you will be out in nature shooting, don’t use metal targets and don’t use explosives.
Metal targets can create sparks when hit, and those little sparks can cause huge fires. There are plenty of alternative target options out there.
It should somewhat go without saying, but also avoiding explosives out in natural areas is essential. And not just in regards to shooting. In 2017, an off-duty border patrol officer started the Sawmill Fire which caused $8M worth of damage with a gender reveal party that used tannerite.
(3) If you are out camping, make sure your fires are dead out.
This means that if you build a fire, actively tend to them while they are burning. Don’t leave any fire unattended.
When you are done with your fire, letting the fires burn down to embers isn’t sufficient. You need to pour water into the embers and stir with a stick until no steam or smoke comes out. I usually add even a little bit more water to make sure that I’ve put out all of the embers.
I say in every post that you need to take care of your own safety. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety. Here are some tips to stay safe:
More on Arizona
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