The Barnhardt Trail, located between Phoenix and Pay on the Beeline Highway of Arizona, is one of my all-time favorite trails. It traverses one of the state’s most beautiful mountains, and showcases a waterfall. It’s also perfectly placed for a relatively short drive into the wilderness. This isn’t a particularly quiet trail, but its distance from the city also means that it isn’t horribly crowded. It is also easily combined with a visit to Payson, Arizona for a perfect day away from Phoenix. Whether you are an Arizona local or a hiker visiting the state, the Barnhardt Trail is a trail not to be missed (unless its unsafe!). Continue reading to plan your trip to this beautiful trail.
Why Barnhardt Trail is One of My Favorite Trails in Arizona
When I first visited the Barnhardt Trail, I was blown away. It was a special time, and without being able to visit the trail regularly, I am not sure if this was just a hiccup in terms of the general conditions of the route. However, when I visited that first spring, the snow melt created waterfalls up and down the entire trail. And the beautiful red stone of the Mazatzal Mountains were accented by the crystalline white of snow that had yet to melt. The higher you hike, the greener the trail becomes as well.
Any time of year, one of the coolest things about this particular trek is that you will be climbing up from the drier, lower elevation, up into the forests of the mountain. This is one of the most accessible “sky island” experiences that I have had the opportunity to experience. I wouldn’t say that this trail is easy, by any means, but the elevation gain is more steady and gradual than many other trails that take you from the base of mountains as impressive as these, to the top.
This is really just one of the most beautiful trails that I have been on in Arizona. And it blows me away no matter what season I visit in.
Need to Know Information
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult depending on how high up you hike
Trail length: 6 miles out and back to the waterfall, but could be longer.
Elevation gain: 1,500+ feet to the waterfall
Season: Spring, summer, and fall
Land manager: Tonto National Forest
Fee: None (2022)
Toilet facilities: No (2022)
4WD Needed? No but high clearance might be necessary; it is a drive down a dirt road to the trailhead and when conditions have been wet or stormy, this road may become hard to navigate for cars.
The Barnhardt Trail is an out and back trail, that takes you from the base of the Mazatzal Mountains and up into their forested peaks. It is a steady climb throughout, but I found it to be gradual enough to be comfortable. That being said there will be parts that feel steeper than others, and your experience will depend on your level of fitness when you attempt the trail.
From the gravel trailhead, you will follow signs for Barnhardt trail. (There are other trails that originate in this same trailhead). It will take you through the scrubby forest at the base of the mountain, and offers a little bit of a warm up before you start with your elevation gain. From there, this long section of the trail heads gently up the slopes of the mountains, down a canyon. There aren’t many switch backs here, and generally the elevation gain isn’t too bad. That being said, don’t forget to stop and turn around here and there. The views all around you, as you head into the mountains, change quickly as you progress. And this is a beautiful place.
You will know that the conditions of the trail are about the change when you crest a butte and can view a set up switch backs to your left. Here, the trail is steeper and more difficult. But I never struggled with my fear of heights here. So, I’d suggest just taking your time in this section.
After this push up the mountain, the trail will become a little less steep and continue west, towards the upper mountains. It is this section of the trail, below the forested tops of the mountains, where several waterfalls can be found. Once you check out the waterfalls (depending on flow), this is a great place to turn around.
If you keep going, which I have done, you will hike up into the forests of the Mazatzal Mountains. To do this, you will continue hiking upwards, and there is a clear switchback where you transition from the lower, drier mountains to the forested, upper elevations. From here, the trail will continue upwards and through the now rolling, forested mountains.
It is pretty simple to get to the Barnhardt trailhead. Just south of Rye, there is a dirt road that heads west from the 87 highway, complete with a sign. Follow this road to the trailhead!
Best Seasons for Visiting Barnhardt Trail
My favorite season for hiking this trail is the spring, when the winter’s snows are melting. My favorite trek up Barnhardt was at this time, and there was water everywhere! There was also snow and waterfalls. It was magical. Of course, you need to be prepared for these conditions with water proof boots.
The tail ends of the summer and fall are also good times to do this trail. Although, you will be less likely to see waterfalls during these times.
Safety on the Trail
Remember, your safety on the trail is your responsibility. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety. Consider the following tips as well as others when going out into nature.
Like much of the Western United States, the landscape of Barnhardt trail is vulnerable to wildfires. Hikers generally don’t partake in potentially fire-starting activities, but it is still good to be aware of how to prevent wildfires and help spread that knowledge. This is particularly important when you consider that over 80% of wildfires in Arizona are human started.
And mountains as lush as the Mazatzal Mountains are highly vulnerable to fires. They have lots of tree growth, but the conditions of Arizona, along with drought and climate change, have caused these landscapes to become drier. Furthermore, many years of fire suppression has led to a proliferation of fuels.
If fires are natural, why be worried about preventing them? Well, the fires that we get now due to the conditions described above burn higher and hotter. They damage the forest from the depths of the soil to the tops of the trees. These kinds of fires are much harder for our forests to recover from. And on top of that, the Sonoran Desert is not fire adapted at all. Our beautiful saguaros are highly vulnerable to fire.
Some things to consider:
- Respect fire bans.
- If there isn’t a fire ban and you light a fire, please make sure it is dead out when you leave.
- Avoid parking over dry grasses.
- If you are towing, make sure your chains aren’t dragging and sparking.
The landscape of Barnhardt Trail is the ancestral home and territory of many Native American peoples. They have and continue to manage and protect the lands that we live on and enjoy. Be sure to continue respecting and caring for these lands!
Make It A Day in Payson, AZ
If you are in the Barnhardt trail area, you might consider making it a day in Payson. Check out my posts on what to do in Payson, including museums, parks, food, and (you guessed it!) more hikes!