In 1987, at the first meeting of what was to become the White Mountains Horsemen’s Association, 25 equestrians discussed the closing of an increasing number of long-term riding areas and decided that an organization was needed to preserve non-motorized trails for equestrians, hikers and mountain bikers. Thus, began the long process of growing a trail system and TRACKS, a volunteer organization dedicated to work with the USFS in planning, developing, and maintaining the White Mountain Trail System (WMTS).
The White Mountain Trail System is a series of multi-use, major-loop trails and connector trails in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests ranging from the community of Vernon on the east to the communities of Clay Springs and Linden on the west.
The WMTS includes urban trails in the town of Pinetop-Lakeside, the city of Show Low, and the Wagon Wheel area. The multi-use trails are cleverly designed to take maximum advantage of regional beauty and vistas, with extreme care given to preserving the land, vegetation, wildlife, and wildlife habitats. Landscaped urban trails have multiple entrance points to ease access by residents and visitors.
The unique feature of the WMTS is the loop trail. Most trails traditionally go from point A to point B, requiring a return trip over the same terrain. The WMTS loop goes from Point A and returns to A. Loop trails are joined by connector trails making longer traverses possible. Loops vary in size allowing a pleasant evening’s walk, a day hike with a stop at selected picnic type areas, a several-day horseback trail ride, an adventurous backpack trip, or a scenic mountain bike tour. Winter transforms selected trails to cross-country ski trails.
The WMTS is more than trails, it is people—dedicated, caring people who want to preserve the very reason they chose these mountains to call home: a love of nature and outdoor experience. TRACKS was officially formed in 1990 to build and maintain non-motorized trails and has been phenomenally successful. For many years TRACKS was an ad hoc committee of the town of Pinetop-Lakeside, and became a nonprofit 501(c)(3) in 2013. With a current roster of about 350 volunteers, TRACKS is the heart of regional trail development and usage. The WMTS is still evolving with some 200+ miles currently in use and more trails planned for the future.
From 10 miles of USFS approved, designated trails in 1987 to over 200 miles in 2014 and still growing. In the spring of 1987, trail development began in Pinetop-Lakeside’s beautiful Woodland Lake Park.
The USDA US Forest Service, Arizona Game & Fish Department, White Mountains Horsemen’s Association, and Audubon Society—with funding from the Arizona Game & Fish Heritage Fund—came together and decided upon a strategy to develop urban trails and forest trails. The two efforts began with major emphasis on developing national forest trails connecting to Pinetop-Lakeside and Show Low.
The ambitiousness of the White Mountain Trail System project drew attention from locals, businesses, and the press. At one point, United States Senator John McCain stopped into a planning meeting for a quick briefing. The word was out. The WMTS was a major project run by folks who knew what they were doing.
While the big mileage was being developed in the national forest, the urban system sparkled with completion of Hitching Post Loop Trail in Woodland Lake Park (a 1.1 mile paved handicapped trail around the lake), and completion of Turkey Track, Meadowview, Eagle Scout trails, and a walking trail along the creek flowing from the lake. A brand new 80-foot bridge span on the Lake Trail gave a sense of just how comprehensive and thorough our volunteer efforts were becoming. The mileage in the forest seemed to explode as volunteers eagerly stepped forward. Expert guidance from the US Forest Service led not only to professional trail standards, but also to neat trailhead kiosks, large parking areas to accommodate horse trailers and other users, and first class signage. The first 10 miles has become 200+ miles of a major trail system.
With up to 350 volunteers in 2015—in rural communities no less—a lot of wonderfully talented and generous folks came together to help build the WMTS. They just started and keep appearing. Young and old, strong and fragile, individuals, families, friends, strangers, and groups. They all worked together in what is considered by all a labor born of love.
TRACKS provides the long-term stewardship of the WMTS. This 350-member group works as the head of the project. In 1990, TRACKS was the proud host of the first ever Arizona State Trails Conference. It was a great success. The White Mountain Trail System was the hit of the conference; attendees were amazed at the scope of the project.
TRACKS started with no funding, but money flows to a good idea. The organizations has raised up to $100,000 for trails and financially in the black every year since 1987. Local businesses donated seed money when times were tough. Sales of Fourth of July wind socks gave us a windfall profit, Navajo County gave a $1,000 start-up check to the fledgling project, and one corporate sponsor gave a check for $5,000 (no strings). Individual donations poured in and continue to this day to help cover costs of equipment and supplies, an Arizona Game & Fish Heritage Fund grant supported financial success of the project, and the town of Pinetop-Lakeside became a focal point of support. In addition to much needed encouragement—since TRACKS was an ad hoc committee—the town provided staff time, administrative support, office supplies, and access to town fundraisers such as Winterfest and Tastefest. Additionally they dug deep, even when receipts were down, to provide some operating capital.
TRACKS manages an extremely diverse partnership of federal, state, county, city, public, private, and business organizations to get the job done. The interaction with project partners is always professional. Everyone focuses on the goal of an excellent trail system. One of our best ideas involved putting decision-making at the trail level, with a trail boss who would develop a crew for his or her trail. Work crews, sometimes with as many as 35 volunteers, met at for breakfast and, with trained crew bosses, formed work parties to tackle high priority projects.
A wonderfully zany group of hard-core trail builders emerged. Calling themselves Pi-Square: A Guild of Trail Builders, this small cadre became the WMTS swat team, took on the toughest of trails, and seemed to relish the impossible. Formed in 1992, they met every Monday to work on trails. Numerous groups of scouts, Rotarians, school kids, even young offenders have helped TRACKS volunteers build portions of the system.
The town of Pinetop-Lakeside included the WMTS in all of its promotional programs. The WMTS is a major economic driver for tourism, which is a vital part of the regional economy. Articles about the WMTS have appeared throughout the United States and northern Mexico.
Innovation in trail design, management, and trail marking techniques contributed to the success. In addition to creatively generating funds from multiple sources, our partners developed numerous innovative solutions to trails problems. Our loop and connector approach, which have become US Forest Service designated trails, is now being used in adjacent and distant trail systems. Our clever, inexpensive circle code for trail signage was adopted by a well known national sign maker. (We asked them to make the product to our specifications since they had never heard of anything like them before. The next year our circles appeared in their full catalog of Codots.)
TRACKS has held three workshops on sustainable trails provided by the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) through funding by Subaru. These workshops have been invaluable in teaching TRACKS volunteers good trail building and maintenance skills and perspectives.
Recognized locally and nationally, members of the Pinetop-Lakeside TRACKS organization have received several state of Arizona awards for the TRAIL SYSTEM effort. The group won first place in the State of Arizona for the National Take Pride in America program. With this state award the group went on to win the national award presented by Bruce Babbitt, United States Secretary of the Interior on behalf of the President of the United States.
- Recognition for work done on the West Fork of the Black River Fisheries and Watershed Restoration Project; October, 1995
- Arizona Heritage Alliance Volunteer Service Award; 1994
- Forest Service Region 3 Volunteer Achievement Award; 1997 and 2003
- Millennium Trail designation (Land of the Pioneers) from First Lady Hillary Clinton; 2000
- National Award for Community Service from American Trails at its 2013 International Trails Symposium in Scottsdale AZ
- Arizona State Parks Premier Trail System; 2017
A strong supporter of National Trails Day