Early on a weekday morning the kids and I pulled into the Derrick Trailhead near Christopher Creek, one of only three vehicles parked in the normally busy lot. Our first destination, Horton Creek Trail, is a popular hiking trail, and I hoped that the combination of an early start and weekday timing would keep the crowds low, a constant concern of mine in these COVID-19 times. After checking over the gear we followed a short connection with Horton Creek Trail, taking a use trail with a few scattered fishers along the way, and then cutting through a small campground before hitting the real trail.
My initial impression of the area was of disappointment. The creek was dry, our route an old two-track, and the intermittent shade made for a toasty walk, even with cloud cover. Eventually the path narrowed and shade increased, and then, spotty at first, the playful trickle of Horton Creek began to bounce through the forest. Kids didn't mind either way. They were happy to kick up dust and run far ahead, greeting every person along the way.
This trail climbs up Mogollon Rim, gaining a thousand feet over three miles. Most of the grade was gentle enough to barely notice, with only a few steep sections and switchbacks. I decided that the spring at the top of the trail would make for a good first break and, even though there were a few complaints, the kids seemed fine with it. If we could get Horton Creek Trail out of the way then most of our elevation gain would be behind us.
The spring was a delight. Water gushed out of a break in the rock, more of a roar than a spring, and the kids enjoyed the numerous little waterfalls and drops below. There were at least five groups here, a real surprise, as it didn't seem like we had been passed by that many people in the morning. Perhaps some of them had come down from the Rim above. Anyways, it was too crowded to do more than a brief rest, so we headed downstream to a small bridge for a proper snack break.
First step of the hike down, now it was time to start looping the loop. Highline is a long, fantastic trail that dances along the side of the Mogollon Rim, and it cuts right below the spring here. Our next steps were to take that south for a few miles and then descend on Derrick Trail, which takes us right back to the Jeep.
Highline Trail was another delight. Where Horton Creek Trail seemed like a re-purposed road, this was a true single-track, and it played along the contour lines like the designers were having fun. It cut through large meadows and under huge pines, offering vistas to the west at times, showing off the Mazatzal Range in the distance, and I quickly fell in love. The kids didn't enjoy it as much, with all the constant little climbs along the way. At least we had plenty of cloud cover to keep the sun at bay.
We stopped for a longer lunch break near the Derrick Trail junction. As we drank juice and ate candy and other healthy choices I began to notice the growing rumble of nearby storms. It had been cloudy all day, with a few showers here and there, yet this was the first real threat of serious action. We rushed through the last of the treats and pushed on, none of us thrilled about being caught in a thunderstorm.
Derrick Trail showed up with its own challenges. It was downhill and rocky, stones rolling easily underfoot, and the only vegetation around us was manzanita, which gave us no comfort from the storms or handholds for the trail. I mandated a hand-holding policy to reduce sore behinds and we slowed down, carefully dropping down the side of the Rim.
Near the bottom the pines showed up again, just in time to give some shelter from patchy rainfall, and we trotted the last few hundred yards to the Jeep, reaching it a few minutes before the sky opened up. Perfect timing. The drive to Payson was quick and the sun showed up as we got some ice cream to eat in the parking lot, one last treat for a band of tough hikers.