Maxwell Trail

April 22-23, 2006

For our first backpacking trip since my shoulder injury we chose a low-key trek to the east end of West Clear Creek. The Maxwell and Tramway Trails take off northwest of Payson from Forest Route 81E. An azcentral.com article recommended these trails for a "less crowded, more intimate look at the canyon." We met two fishermen on our way down and didn't see another soul for the rest of the trip.

The trail begins by threading along a narrow shelf that drops 700' to the canyon floor. The towering sandstone spires and dense forest cover contrast sharply with the classic high desert environment on the west end of West Clear Creek.

Take note of the double portholes across from the Maxwell Trail outlet -- it's not easy to spot the trail from the opposite direction.


After a dry spring, the water was relatively low. Although there were numerous pools, many of them were a little skanky. An exception was this nice deep hole about half an hour downstream.


There is a faint trail that crosses back and forth across the stream, so we barely got our feet wet. Excellent campsites abound on gravel bars and stone shelves above the river.


About 3/4 mile downstream, a sizable canyon enters from the north. Just this side of the canyon, there is a large campsite under a rock overhang.

There are countless petroglyphs at the base of the cliff, so it looks like this shelf has been a popular camping spot for many generations.


We should have passed the tramway -- an overhead cable that was part of a tram system used to stock the creek from the 1940s through the mid-60s. But there was no sign of the tram or the trail, although we did find loops of heavy duty cable on the south shore.


Sunlight is sporadic in this narrow canyon, and ice packs lingered in the shadows.


About two miles downstream, the trail disappeared and serious wading would have been required. We decided to backtrack to the gravel bar by the first deep pool.


BEFORE: Dennis braves 45° F degree water.

AFTER: Dennis wrapped in sleeping bag.


This was our first trip with our new ultra lightweight tent. It shaved three pounds off our pack weight, but is definitely designed for two people who get along really, really well.


I nearly stepped on this handsome toad, who was perfectly disguised as a lump of sandstone.


You know it's time to go home when you start seeing a cats' faces in rust rings on the rocks (okay, I helped it along in Photoshop, but only a little bit).


The return trip was easier than expected and only took us about 40 minutes. We profited by exploring the tip of the peninsula overlooking the confluence of West Clear Creek and Willow Valley.


This is a wonderful area that we will undoubtedly revisit in warmer weather. The map below shows our approximate route, from the Maxwell Trailhead about two miles downstream past the Tramway Trail.

P.S. Gourmet coffee has arrived in Payson. The Roadrunner is on the east side of 87 just south of junction with 260, and the Espresso Cafe is on the west side just north of the junction. The Roadrunner has outdoor tables and the Espresso Cafe is open on Sunday.