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 Mountains Trail System.
The White Mountains 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 out to the communities of Clay Springs and Linden in 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 opens selected trails to cross-country skiing.
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 & 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 non-profit 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.
THE RESULT: From 10 miles of USFS approved, designated trails in 1987 to over 200 miles in 2014 and still growing.
In Spring, 1987 trail development began in Pinetop-Lakeside's beautiful Woodland Lake Park. Partners: 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, quickly decided that the strategy would be to develop urban trails and forest trails. The two efforts began with major emphasis on developing National Forest trails that connected to Pinetop/Lakeside and Show Low.
Because of the ambitiousness of the project, White Mountains Trail System started to get attention from locals, businesses, and the press. At one point, United States Senator John McCain stopped into one of our planning meetings 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 & other users, and first class signage. The first 10 miles has become 200+ miles of a major trail system.
THE PEOPLE: With up to 350 volunteers in 2015 - in rural communities no less!
A lot of wonderfully talented and generous folks help build the WMTS. They just started and keep appearing. Young and old, strong and fragile, individuals, families, friends, strangers, and groups. They all work together ... a labor born of love.
Long-term stewardship of the WMTS is TRACKS’ responsibility. 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 Mountains Trail System was the hit of the conference. Attendees were amazed at the scope of the project.
MONEY: Raising up to $100,000 for trails and financially in the black every year since 1987.
TRACKS started with no funding, but money flows to a good idea. 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.
The Town of Pinetop/Lakeside becoming a focal point of support. Besides much needed encouragement, since TRACKS was an “ad hoc” committee, the Town provided staff time, administrative support, office supplies, and access to town fund-raisers like Winterfest and Tastefest. Additionally they dug deep, even when receipts were down, to provide some operating monies.
THE MANAGEMENT: Managing 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 “their” 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.
THE INNOVATION: Innovation in trail design, management, and trail marking techniques
Besides 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 had 3 workshops on sustainable trails provided by the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) thru funding by Subaru. These workshops have been invaluable in teaching TRACKS volunteers good trail building & maintenance skills and perspectives.
THE AWARDS: Recipient of State and National awards
Members of the Pinetop-Lakeside TRACKS Organization have received several State of Arizona awards for the TRAILSYSTEM 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.
Other awards include:
- 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
- Millenium 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.
- Awarded Arizona State Parks Premier Trail System - 2017
COMMITMENT: A strong supporter of National Trails Day