If you hike only one trail in the White Mountains of Arizona, make it this one

In the White Mountains region of Arizona, Thompson Trail #629 is one of the go-to hikes for the true taste of the best of this picturesque part of the state.

Sign at beginning of Thompson Trail #629 in the White Mountains
Sign at beginning of Thompson Trail #629 in the White Mountains

What to expect on this hike

You’ll start out on a relatively easy stroll through a varied landscape of gravel, grass and the occasional downed tree. At times you’ll be fully exposed to the sun, only to be find yourself under a dense canopy of shade a short while later.

Hike summary:

  • Length: 3.2 miles each way, 6.4 miles round-trip
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Highlights: West Fork Black River, Ponderosa Pines, wildflowers, mountains
  • Precautions: Rugged shoes and 1 liter water recommended
  • Trailhead: Thompson Trail #629
  • Pass/permit required: None
Note: 1 mile = 1.6 kilometers

It’s not that difficult of a hike, although in a couple of spots you might catch yourself scratching your head wondering where the trail went.

Hint: watch for cairns (stacked rocks) and know that the trail tends to follow the bank of the creek.

West Fork Black River runs alongside Thompson Trail #629
West Fork Black River runs alongside Thompson Trail #629

Perhaps the most unique feature of this trail is that it parallels the West Fork Black River, a protected habitat for Arizona’s state fish, the Apache Trout. I can’t promise you’ll see any natural waterfalls, but there’s a cool man-made fall to keep non-native trout from infiltrating a stretch of river set aside to help this small endangered species in its comeback from near extinction.

Are there bears in the White Mountains?

Speaking of animals native to this area, beware that the White Mountains region is black bear country. Although bear sightings are rare, rangers discourage hiking alone. If you encounter a bear, talk to it assertively and back away slowly. Never turn your back on a it or show aggression, and stay as far as possible from any cubs tagging along with mama bear.

Check out this 3-D preview of my Thompson Trail #629 hike in Arizona’s White Mountains

The hike out from the trailhead is a little deceiving since the downward slope is so gentle, it feels like you’re on a relatively flat plane. But you are actually descending ever so gradually, along with the creek. Be sure to save enough energy and water to get back to the starting point after you turn around.

Wooden sign reads Thompson Trail 629 Forest Road 116
Learn from my mistake: This sign at 2.4 miles into the hike is not where Thompson Trail ends.

Don’t be like me and think you’ve reached the end of the trail when you come to the sign above. (The arrow was pointing back in the direction I came from.) If you keep going downstream past this sign another eight-tenths of a mile, you’ll reach the end of Thompson Trail. It intersects with West Fork Trail #628. If you hike the entire length, you’ll log a total of 7 miles, round-trip. By turning around at the sign, I only hiked 4.8 miles, out and back.

Know of other great trails in the White Mountains? Tell us where to take a hike in the comments.

Purple thistle flower rises above green meadow

Like solitude? You’ll love Thompson Trail

Although this is a fairly popular trail, I hiked it on a Friday morning in late August and only saw one other person – a trout fisherman who had yet to land one. Don’t worry; fisherman who come this far to catch a fish know the rules about handling them gently and returning them to the water as quickly as possible.

Be prepared for variable weather

Weather can have a big impact on your experience on this trail. Keep in mind, the elevation is over 9,000 feet and conditions can change rapidly.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have light cloud cover and maybe a few intermittent sprinkles. The sprinkles I enjoyed quickly gave way to a steady downpour. It didn’t take long for the river to swell and the trail to transform into a creek of its own. Although my rain poncho helped keep my upper body dry, there was no way to prevent my feet from getting wet as puddles formed on the trail.

Pro tip: Cell service is unlikely in this area

Since cell phone coverage is weak or nonexistent with most carriers, you’ll be wise to save a map and directions to the trail on your phone or print them out. Once you reach the parking lot, you’ll cross the road toward the south to pick up the trail on the other side.

If you like to hike and you ever find yourself in Arizona’s White Mountains, do yourself a favor and check out Thompson Trail #629.

Map to the start of Thompson Trail #629

Got questions? Drop them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

1 Comment

  1. That is a beautiful looking hike! I’ve wanted to get out there several times, but we’ve ended up opting for hikes a bit closer to Pinetop. Will keep this bookmarked though!

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