On the trail: Crisp air, clear water await in Pinalenos
Rick Metcalf/Special to The Explorer, Narrowing significantly at 8,200 feet, Ash Creek drops rapidly through a slickrock section of canyon with noisy, cascading waterfalls.

ñHigh in the Pinaleño Mountains near Safford, Ash Creek tumbles off the east flank of Webb Peak toward the desert below.

Across State Road 366 (Swift Trail) from Columbine Visitor Center, namesake Ash Creek Trail begins a descent at 9,555 feet. Twenty-nine miles west off Highway 191, this ever-winding, climbing road delivers hikers to the trailhead at an altitude accompanied by cool, refreshing mountain air.

Traveled and maintained lightly, the trail drops steeply through a jumble of downed trees before crossing a small tributary creek. Once on the other side, an old logging road used in the early 1900’s defines the pathway.

Steel beams, cast iron machinery, heavy cables and buildings were abandoned throughout this area with the coming of more profitable means to timber. Much is still visible today. Steel plates from this era are now used to strengthen the trail in the lower sections.

Following a short, gentler descent, Ash Creek is crossed. Soon this beautiful clear water drops sharply into a steep canyon, leaving the trail high above.

Numerous trees have fallen across the trail, slowing progress. Shortly after a good-sized tributary enters from the east, the forest opens to a wide meadow, at which point Ash Creek rejoins the trail.

Large pools in the creek hold the Arizona state fish, native Apache trout. With backpacking and fishing gear carried, reeling in these beautifully colored fish would be a bonus to the adventure. Fishing barbless lures allows the trout a quick, safe return to the water.

Narrowing significantly at 8,200 feet, the creek drops rapidly through a slickrock section of canyon with noisy, cascading waterfalls to enjoy. Pools below the higher falls provide ample water for an invigorating dip. Dozens of Swallowtail butterflies flutter amidst the lush creekside growth.

Reversing course in the direction of the trailhead, reaching the summit of Webb Peak will enhance an already outstanding day. Where Ash Creek joins the trail, a large abandoned piece of logging equipment and sign mark the path to the peak.

Not surprisingly, any destination, with peak included, usually means a calf-burning ascent awaits. For close to two miles, the trail — still part of the old logging road — climbs both steep and gentle inclines.

A gorgeous stand of Aspen dominate a midpoint area, delighting the eyes with lime green leaves set against white tree trunks and deep blue skies.

One last steep struggle upward, and the summit is achieved.

At 10,029 feet, Webb Peak is slightly lower than Mt. Graham, the high point of this 10,717-foot Sky Island. For the more adventurous desiring even more climbing, a lookout tower will take daring climbers another 100 feet, to an unobstructed 360-degree panorama overlooking the Pinaleño Mountains, and the desert far below.

Forest rangers reach the lookout via a dirt road, which winds gently down to the Swift Trail Road, followed by an easy quarter-mile return to the trailhead.

This adventure might best be enjoyed as a day hike, during a camping experience at one of the many campgrounds atop the mountain. A delightful day was enjoyed in crisp mountain air next to a crystal-clear creek, briefly escaping the desert heat.

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