Our first day was a long one. It started simply enough with an “oh-early-thirty” morning scramble to the airport to catch the first flight in our trip for my brother and I. By the time we landed in Phoenix Arizona, we had jumped over two time zones. We grabbing our bags, loaded the rental car, and headed North to Payson. When we finally sat down for “lunch” in Payson, it had been over eleven hours since our first meal of the day.

We would spend the next week or so, searching for the elusive elk. While we can have a great, long discussion on the pro’s & con’s of forest and game management some time, the basic truth is, the precipitate of this travel was my brother’s fondness for hunting game and his lottery draw of an Arizona elk tag for this year. So with an offer to go along, hike and explore a new part of the country, we’re off to Arizona.

Once we had arrived in Payson and got settled in to a motel, we spent the first day and half doing rapid recon and exploring the various areas South of the Arizona Mogollon Rim, where we would be spending some quality time over the next week. My brother had even found a contact who was willing to drive up from Phoenix and spend a half day driving us around, highlighting preferred spots, and offering area tips.

The Mogollon Rim is an amazing land feature slicing across the lower half of the state, creating a massive rim with the upper plateau to the north and the lower elevation sprawling South. This area under the rim is where we spent the week hiking, bushwhacking, and looking for Elk. Using the Motel 6 in Payson as our “base camp”, we explored and tried new areas, which we thought might be promising, each day. We would get up at about 0430, layer up our clothing, grab our gear, grab coffee and a quick bite on the way, heading out for the hills.

Some of these “hills” under the rim started at around 4000 to 5000 feet and work their way steeply upwards to the Mogollon Rim escarpment rising at about 8,000 ft. We spent about 10-12 hours exploring, hiking in, hiking up and down and around. Each night we’d come back to the motel, unload gear, more often than not, dry gear (the bathroom had an awesome ceiling heater which made quick work of drying everything from packs to boots), make lunches for the next day, and repack. We would go out for dinner in the evening, talking and exploring the extent of the local dinning opportunities.

The weather for the first couple of hunt days, not unexpectedly, changed overnight from sunny and comfortable to overcast cold with rain and/or snow (depending if you were trying to keep warm, dry, or both). The rain and wetness turns the normally dusty dry red Arizona “soil” into a magic thick clay goo which you could make bricks from. There were unavoidable patches of bare ground you had to cross and then the mud demons would stick to the soles of your boots, building in thickness until it was hard to walk, then need serious work to scrape most of it off. The weather cleared nicely for a few days, then we were blessed with opening-day type weather on the last day. 

While no elk were harmed in the telling of this tale, we were fortunate enough to see lots of elk, elk sign, and plenty of signs of other wildlife including mountain lions and javelina’s (or peccary). I think it was the end of the second or third hunt day when I saw my first elk close up. We were coming in to Payson at the end of a long day, traffic was backing up a little right next to this local golfing neighborhood. Then I saw what was slowing the cars down. There was a small herd of elk off the shoulder of the road. I pulled over and got out to take a closer look. I was able to get within 50 feet of them before they moved off a little. In town and so close to the road and neighborhood, it seemed they knew they were fairly safe and not too worried about spectators watching them. It’s one thing to see them a couple thousand yards away, it’s another to be close enough to almost touch them. 

The fourth day we arrived early to a different hunt area and jumped a herd of elk bedded down in a small box canyon. I was on point, walking quietly down a path along the rim of the small box canyon in the predawn glow. I noticed some very symmetrical V-shaped “branches” which seemed to be looking at me. I paused, frozen still, while trying figure out what I was looking at in the grey morning light. Finally the bull elk turned his head. To my surprise, the one turned to many as at least a dozen cow elk stood from where they had been bedded down in the brush around him. I hunkered down and quickly changed places with my brother. By the time he go to where I had been the one bull elk had grown to three, and the herd was on the move, dispersing and opening the distance between us as they blended and faded in to the brush as they moved away. 

My brother and I live in separate states, so being able to spend some of this quality “guy” time together traveling and exploring together really made for a special fantastic trip. Overall we probably hiked around 20 miles of various parts of the Arizona back country, some on trails (including small incidental pieces of the Arizona Trail running under the Mogollon Rim), most off trail. We were able to experience viewing some great wildlife, toured the Shoofly Village Ruins, explored the Tonto Fish Hatchery,and poked around the dammed lakes and rivers around Tortilla Flats and Phoenix. We even did a little antiquing in Payson. Even if he wasn’t able to fill his hunt tag, I know he enjoyed too, being out in the wilderness exploring.

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Travel Footnote:

If you ever end up in Phoenix-Mesa, and are looking to book a cheap place (ya gotta luv travel booking through the internet) for your last night in Arizona, while you wait for your early morning flight out, there is a special little sweetheart of a motel called Knights Inn-Mesa, I really, really, could not offer a recommendation. At all. Ever. They try, kind of, but no, don’t do it!