Alpine, Arizona? Yeah, sure. A geographical fake news story. Not so fast. Though the original inhabitants stretched their imaginations by describing Alpine as “resembling a town in the Swiss Alps,” But at over 8000 feet in elevation Alpine is among the highest towns in Arizona.
As a stopover for hiking, skiing and fishing visitors, Alpine boasts two tackle stores, a food market, two restaurants, a post office and a Forest Service Office, supporting the town’s scattered population of about 600.
A short distance away, like a snare lying in wait to snag passing clouds, Escudilla Mountain – Arizona’s third highest mountain – towers above the town and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest to a height of 10,955 feet.
There aren’t too many viewpoints of such a height that can be accessed without pitons and climbing ropes. Or the reverse – that have a paved road, parking lot and refreshment stand with crowds of visitors perched on top. Escudilla Mountain, on the other hand, has a well-maintained three-mile hiking trail that climbs through a dense aspen grove above the alpine meadows of Terry Flat to the summit.
Despite the altitude, the trail rises only moderately as it climbs through thick forests and across sweeping meadows, flaunting summer wildflower displays among the best in the state. This whole area is a designated wilderness area – no vehicles allowed. Even the tower attendant has to hike in.
This was home to the last Grizzly in Arizona, one of the last in the west. Aldo Leopold, after the death of this historic bear wrote, “Somehow it seems that the spirit of the bear is still there, prowling the huge meadows, lurking in the thick stands of aspen and spruce, wandering the steep slopes that looking down from is like looking out of the window of an airplane.”
We hiked up the initially rocky trail for a mile or so until the first break in the thick forest of trees opened up into Toolbox Meadow, a panoramic overlook of the countryside below and covered with wildflowers. On we climbed, passing through deep forests, then emerging into another huge wildflower-strewn meadow, where ahead we could see the old forest service road leading to the tower. The last section was steeper and rocky, and just a bit further on we could see the fire tower, its metal legs stretching into the sky.
As expected, the views from the top are to forever, and the lookout tower is open to visitors when there is an attendant on duty. On a clear day, you can see the San Francisco Peaks to the northwest, Mt. Graham to the southeast, and the Mogollon Mountains and Black Range of the Gila Wilderness Area to the southeast, as well as the Blue Primitive Area directly south.The tallest mountain in the state, 12,633 foot Humphreys Peak near Flagstaff – 200 miles away – is visible on clear days.
We passed a few other hikers on our way down, but not so many that we lost our feeling of being alone in the silent, tranquil wilderness. Strolling among the nodding vivid heads of the wildflowers, we delighted in the rich scent of the pine and fir trees, happy to be high above the busy “real” world thousands of feet below us.
Drive six miles north of Alpine on Hwy. 180, then turn right on USFS Rd. 56 for five miles past Terry Flat. The gravel road is suitable for passenger cars in good weather.
US Forest Service Alpine Ranger District
Since it is a national forest there are FS campgrounds and plenty of places to boondock when exploring the mountain and other trails in the area, so check in with the ranger station for maps..