By Tom Pfaendler
Ahhh… Pine Creek Canyon. This is one of the most popular places to experience the full splendor of Red Rock. The trailhead is at the ten-mile point around the scenic loop drive and features RV parking, restrooms and even some nice interpretive signs. You may need to arm-wrestle someone for a parking spot but your patience will be rewarded because Pine Creek offers something for everyone.
It’s a great place to walk around a bit and take in the view, but it’s also a perfect spot for an outing with the kids, as the trail is fairly easy and even educational. Birders and naturalists will enjoy the meadow and riparian areas; hikers will love the world-class rock scrambling in the canyon, and climbers have more than enough routes to keep them busy for days.
The main obstacle at Pine Creek is the rather steep descent from the parking lot down to the canyon leg of the trail. The original access route was longer and softer but a few people began shortcutting down the side of the hill and eventually created this somewhat challenging 12% grade that has now become the “official” trailhead. It doesn’t take many people cutting a trail to impact the desert permanently. See… it’s already educational!
Be sure to pack some water and don’t forget your camera or sketchbook because this hike offers plenty of inspirational scenery. The first thing on your agenda should be a little side trip along the Fire Ecology Trail to learn about the desert’s natural fire recovery process.
This educational trail loops back onto the main route where you continue west until you cross the intersection of Dale’s Trail. Check out the remains of the old stone gate here that used to mark the entrance to the Wilson ranch.
The mountain views from this point are fantastic; Mt. Wilson to the far left, Rainbow Mountain, Rainbow Wall and Juniper Peak, Mescalito straight ahead and Bridge Mountain on the right. The towering red, black and gray mountains combined with juniper, pine and various deciduous trees create our own “color country.” In the fall when the leaves are turning this hike can become a sensory overload!
The next stop along the Pine Creek Trail is a little fixer-upper opportunity called the Wilson Homestead. At first glance it seems to be a plain old foundation from a small cabin, but take the time to look a little closer and you’ll begin to experience the history of this place as you imagine the people that once lived here. You can still see traces of yellow paint on the concrete walls and bits of embedded wood from a window sash.
You wonder what life must have been like for the Wilson family so long ago. Listen quietly to the singing birds overhead, water bubbling peacefully in the creek below, and wind softly blowing through the canyon, rustling the leaves of the trees. There are spirits here, and they’ll tell you their story if you take the time to listen.
From the cabin, the trail continues across the meadow toward Pine Creek. Look closely at the well-traveled dirt path and among the boot tracks and dog prints you’ll see evidence of the nighttime visitors as well.
Deer, coyotes, burros and other critters all leave their prints in the meadow. You can hike a one-mile loop trail from here by crossing the creek and making a right turn. The path can be a little tough to follow so pay attention to the route and try not to make any new short cuts. The loop is a bit more challenging than the main trail, but you’ll be rewarded with deep canyon scenery, lichen-covered boulders and magnificent Ponderosa pine trees.
As you drop down into the wash you can pick your way across the rocks to stay on the loop and return to the meadow, or you can venture further into the canyon along the wash toward Mescalito Peak. The south fork will take you into an area called “The Terraces” and the north route leads into “Fern Canyon” and the famous “Dark Shadows” climbing wall. Be forewarned, however, that these hikes are R-rated and not suitable for all audiences.
Pine Creek Canyon is vastly popular for it’s variety and accessibility. The overall experience scores high on my 1 to 10 rating system, but loses a few points for the steep access trail, crowds of people and noisy rock climbers. Even with those distractions Pine Creek Canyon scores a solid seven boots!
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