West Fork Black River
Drive from Big Lake south into the Apache-Sitgreaves National along the scenic West Fork of the Black River. The trail offers gorgeous scenery as it passes through Wallow Fire damage before ending at an overlook of the Black River. Easily extend your trip with the numerous other forest roads in the area.
Special considerations: The middle portion of this trail passes through area damaged by the Wallow Fire in 2011. The area is recovering but the Forest Service advises visitors to always be on the lookout for falling or already fallen trees along the trail. The ground can still be unstable and washout so use caution and stay on trail in burned areas.
Where to go:
The trail begins near Big Lake at the junction of AZ-273 & AZ-261 about 16 miles south of AZ-260. Head south on AZ-273/Three Forks Road past Big Lake for 3.0 miles. Turn right off of the paved road and onto F.R. 249E. Parking/staging is available on the left at a few spots before F.R. 24. Visitors coming from Alpine can complete East Fork Black River Trail, and then do this trail in reverse to make a loop out of it.
From paved Three Forks Road, head west on F.R. 249E. The road is a wide graded dirt road. After 0.7 miles, make a left turn onto F.R 24 to head south. The road crosses a meadow and slowly drops. After the 1.4 mile mark, the trail enters an area burned by the Wallow Fire.
It is weird to imagine what it must have been like when the fire was going as you drive through. Stick to the main trail and always be observant of fallen trees and washouts in the fire damage area. The road continues in and out of healthy and dead forest. Ignore side roads. At 5.5 miles the trail splits and you have an option for an alternate route. F.R. 24 continues to the left and is easier, wider, and has a good overlook of more fire damage. F.R. 25J continues to the right and is more challenging (requires high-clearance) but follows along a small stream. Both roads end near the West Fork. We ended up taking both throughout our trip. The next 2 paragraphs describe each way.
Staying on F.R. 24 – the road continues to weave in and out of burned forest as the elevation decreases. At 7.7 miles, the road makes a long left turn downhill where you have a decent view off to your right. Shortly after the trail makes a right turn to head south before coming to a 4-way intersection on the East Fork of the Black River at 10.6 miles. This trail continues to the right to the West Fork of the Black River, but remember this junction for later. Continuing to the left on F.R. 276 is East Fork Black River Trail leading to Alpine. F.R. 24 continues straight. Turn right onto F.R. 25 to continue this trail. Stay straight at 11.3 miles where F.R. 25J joins from right. Reset odometer and skip next paragraph if you drove this way, or consider:
Going right on 25J – the trail immediately gets narrower and rockier. The trail drops downhill as you pass through more fire damage. After 2 miles on this trail, you’ll notice a small stream start creeping in from the left. The trail and the stream meander south together and is quite a scenic drive. Stay left at 2.7 miles. Off to the left after this point are a few homes and a small ranching operation. Watch out for cattle on the trail. Stay left again at 4.6 miles. 5 miles from the split, the trail picks back up the main trail at F.R. 25. Reset your odometer and turn right to continue the trail.
After only 0.3 miles, the road crosses over the West Fork of the Black River. It’s worth stopping to hike down and take a picture. The trail ends here, although you can continue south along a rougher trail to a nice overlook of the Black River, past a cabin, and to some nice camping spots. See description of optional spur trail below.
Continuing past the West Fork of the Black River, after 0.2 miles, turn left onto 25H. Reset odometer. The trail heads south across a meadow before turning left into the trees. There are some nice tent camping spots off to the left. After half a mile, stay right where roads to the left lead to a cattle operation. The trail parallels a long meadow before splitting again at 0.9 miles. Stay right. To the left is the access road to Caldwell Cabin, available for rent from the USFS. Consider looking into this if you want to spend a few days in the area – it is a really great place. The trail passes above Caldwell Cabin as it makes a long right turn followed by a sharper left turn over a cattle guard and stream.
The trail gets progressively rockier and more rutted. Depending on the time of year, expect some good sized mud puddles. At 2.2 miles, the trail begins following along a small canyon and the Black River off to the left. There are several good spots to hike out to the edge of the ravine and look down to the Black River which has picked up steam downstream of the individual forks. The trail passes a tank as the river briefly meanders away from the trail. At 2.8 miles the trail turns right and picks back up the river and ravine. The trail ends at 3.2 miles at a tank where the trail fades off. Return 4.5 miles back to the East Fork at the 4-way junction for more trails or camping, or pick your own path through the forest - there are many additional roads to explore.
Notes & Trail Ratings:
The “main trail” or F.R. 24 from Big Lake to the West Fork bridge is easy. That section is rated at ‘1’ out of ‘10’. Taking F.R. 25J bumps the difficulty up to a ‘3’ out of ‘10’ as the narrower trail requires high clearance and a slower pace. The spur trail to the Black River overlook is also a ‘3’ out of ‘10’ where high clearance is needed. 4-wheel drive could come in handy if there is a lot of mud on the trail. We managed in a high clearance, 2WD SUV. From Big Lake to the end of the trail near the Black River overlook is 15.2 miles one-way. Allow for about an hour to do the trail one-way at a leisurely pace. There are many ways to return back to “civilization” – it all depends on what your destination is. You can return the way you came to Big Lake which is 15.2 miles back. Alternatively, you can take the gorgeous East Fork Black River trail back to Alpine to make a loop. Numerous other forest roads crisscross the area. Easily extend your trip by camping and exploring the surrounding mountains and rivers. Consulting a map and knowing where you’re going beforehand is advised. This is also a great area for ATV’s and UTV’s – there are miles and miles of additional forest roads. Because this is a high elevation trail, it receives a lot of snow in the winter and is therefore closed.