While the elevation gain and average slope for this trail indicate significant climb, the first 4 miles from the trailhead are mostly level and along the creek, with only a few exceptions. After the final creek crossing, the steep climbing begins.
Similarly, the condition and difficulty ratings vary across the trail—after the first 3.6 miles, there is a significant decrease in quality and increase in difficulty.
In September 2014, Hurricane Odile caused a major flood event in the eastern Chiricahua Mountains which severely impacted the South Fork Trail and Road. Large portions of the trail were washed out and covered in rock rubble, and the road was shortened and the trailhead moved.
As of July 2019, multiple volunteer and Conservation Corps projects have occurred on the South Fork Trail, first to simply restore a trail corridor, then to reroute old and heavily damaged sections of trail up above the canyon bottom to keep them out of the water and future flood zones, and most recently to build a new section of singletrack trail from the new to the old trailhead and move hikers off the old roadbed to the bank beside it. The trail is now in good condition for the first 3.6 miles to around the apple tree.
Above the apple tree, conditions are intermittent—large sections of original trail still exist and are in good condition, pieced together by rougher or washed out sections. Flagging tape and cairns can get you up quite far, but once the trail reaches the final crossing of the South Fork of Cave Creek, conditions deteriorate. There are still some good sections in the next two miles from that point, but extensive and severe damage as well. Approaching the Burnt Stump Spring Trail, the trail has almost disappeared under overgrowth and downfall. Above that point, it has not been surveyed since 2014.
Length: 7.2 mi
The South Fork Trail is accessible from four locations.
The lower-elevation northeastern terminus is at the end of the South Fork Road (FR 42E). Due to severe flood damage from Hurricane Odile in September 2014, the original trailhead has been abandoned and a new trailhead has been constructed approximately 0.4 mile before. (31.87345, -109.18478)
The Burro Trail connects in near Maple Camp, 2.08 miles above the new South Fork trailhead. While there were originally two signs here, only the Burro Trail sign remains after flooding swept the other away. This junction has been repositioned slightly as of early 2017, and is better protected from future flooding and more visible to hikers in both directions, with the sign again securely set in the ground. (31.84975, -109.19836)
This segment of the South Fork Trail is world-renowned by birdwatchers and is likely the most popular trail in the entire range for that reason. During spring mornings, the first few miles of the trail can be packed with birders out hoping to catch a sight of the Elegant Trogon. The area is also very popular due to the beauty of the canyon—a large portion of the trail lies along a lush riparian area with a mix of pine, oak, maple, sycamore and others. The canopy in this region of South Fork was largely unaffected by the 2011 Horseshoe 2 fire, though very light backfires were set to clear the underbrush. In 2014, however, the remnants of Hurricane Odile caused a massive flood which damaged the road and trail in numerous locations and forcing the construction of a new trailhead less than half a mile before the original.
Starting at a large earth berm at the end of the South Fork Road, the first 0.4 mile of trail parallels the old roadbed as it makes its way through forest and across gradually varying terrain to the original, abandoned trailhead. Once reaching the the old turnaround loop, you can follow the trail around to the southern end of the loop, where the South Fork Trail turns back to proper singletrack trail and parallels the creek for much of its first 4 miles, crossing back and forth frequently. Within another approximately 1000 feet, you will cross the Wilderness boundary, marked by a sign.
After two creek crossings, one right after another, the next third of a mile follows the right bank of the river, climbing above it briefly as the trail narrows, before dropping and crossing again at a pair of large Arizona Cypress. 200 feet beyond lies another crossing, this one at The Bathtub, a large pool of water with a boulder cascade above it. The trail swings to the right here, crossing a muddy stretch where a seep leaks water onto the trail and briefly climbing a low rise to bypass the waterfall before dropping back down and crossing the creek once more.
400 feet beyond, a small drainage from a side canyon comes in from the left and crosses the trail to connect with South Fork. (31.85890, -109.19001) There is usually no water in this drainage, but just beyond, creek rerouting from Hurricane Odile can occasionally cause water to flow along the trail for a short stretch. Nearly half a mile beyond, a second, larger side canyon connects in from the same direction, its creek also crossing the trail. (31.85288, -109.19319) This is Log Canyon, which the Burro Trail crosses upstream at two points during its ascent to Horseshoe Saddle. It is possible to walk up it easily from here. Log Canyon proper narrows and forks off to the west after 0.55 miles (31.84599, -109.19213), and a series of small smooth rock waterfalls follow—that stretch of the canyon is better traversed from the top down at the Burro Trail's first crossing. The left fork, an unnamed canyon, is larger and continues to the southeast where a large walled-in box with a (usually dry) waterfall is encountered after a quarter mile. (31.84389, -109.18939) It is possible to ascend the rock slope to the left of the box and continue beyond a short distance, where two more waterfalls can be encountered. The third and final is not easily passable.
The South Fork Trail continues from the mouth of Log Canyon and enters into an area of severe trail damage. A series of volunteer projects over the past few years have rerouted much of it away from the creek and up on the side of the slope as much as possible to get it out of the flood-prone rubble at the canyon bottom. After 0.18 miles another small, rocky, side canyon is passed, this one on the right side of the trail. Some times of the year it can be flowing and the trail drops down off a slightly elevated position on the side of the canyon to cross it before climbing back up onto higher ground. From here the trail sticks to the right side of the creek for the final two tenths of a mile to the Burro Trail junction, climbing once more right before dropping to the sign. The junction was also moved slightly as part of the recent rerouting in this area, elevating it and moving it away from the creek to better protect it. The South Fork trail here is missing, but the Burro Trail sign is securely installed at the new junction. (31.84975, -109.19836)
Turn left and cross the creek to get onto the Burro Trail, which ramps up the opposite side of the canyon. Turn right to continue on the South Fork Trail.
Heading out from Maple Camp, you will begin to encounter maples at an increasing frequency. Over the next 1.1 miles, the trail tends towards the north edge of the canyon, climbing up the side away from the creek for occasional stretches. At a point where the trail makes a U-shaped bend while contouring around a side drainage, certain older USGS maps show an extension of the Fossil Spring Trail connecting in from the Snowshed Trail at Fossil Saddle, but there is little evidence of it here. (31.84388, -109.21410)
After another quarter mile up on the north slope of the canyon, the trail drops back down to creek level, where it remains for the remaining approximately half mile before the final creek crossing. 800 feet after returning to the creek, you will pass an apple tree on the left side of the trail—one of several in this canyon. (31.84066, -109.21941) The last stretch of this segment crosses the creek semi-frequently and the canyon is especially lush here when the maples have new leaves out.
At the final crossing, the canyon forks, with the creek taking the right fork to the west where it continues for another three and three quarter miles to its headwaters below Snowshed Peak, while the trail turns south-southwest away from South Fork and begins to climb.
The first 120 feet after crossing the creek continue to roughly parallel it on the left side while climbing to a higher level, then the trail—bypassing a rock outcrop—swings to the south and leaves the creek behind. From here it's nearly a continuous climb up the bottom of a canyon. The trail is somewhat less maintained through here but generally remains easy to follow for the majority of this segment. After two thirds of a mile, you will pass beneath Pinnacle Rock, a large rhyolite spire on the cliffs to the right of the trail. (31.82813, -109.22664) 0.82 miles beyond, the canyon narrows briefly between rock outcrops on both sides, and a campsite with a fire circle sits just off the trail here. (31.81932, -109.23159)
500 feet above the campsite, the trail levels out near the end of the canyon and the trail heads west. This area has been somewhat washed out and it can be easy to lose track of the correct route. The trail sticks to the right hand slope for 0.16 miles before contouring around to the south and beginning to climb out of the canyon bottom, where it becomes easily visible again. After 420 feet of gradually climbing to the south, the trail switchbacks to the northwest, then swings around to the west, then back to the northwest again where, 600 feet after the previous switchback, it reaches the Burnt Stump Trail junction. That trail takes the left fork to the south, while the South Fork Trail continues along the right fork to the northwest. This junction is marked with a sign.
This segment has many faint stretches, but can still be followed, partly due to flagging and rock cairns along its length, and partly because it was rebuilt shortly before the 2011 Horseshoe 2 fire and so its path is still visible despite erosion.
Heading northwest from the Burnt Stump Trail junction, the trail stays on the southwest slope of the canyon it's traveling up for the next 0.21 mile, with two sets of switchbacks along the way to keep it up off the bottom of the canyon. Finally, it cuts east sharply and crosses the drainage bottom (31.82040, -109.23889) before resuming its northwesterly course on the opposite side 130 feet later.
Over the next 0.2 mile, the trail arcs to the west before crossing the drainage again and making a switchback to the southeast, then another 200 feet later, ultimately heading west-northwest and following the drainage from above before emerging on to somewhat flatter terrain and heading away to the west. It can be quite overgrown and covered with logs through here, so watch for flagging tape and cairns to find the route. The trail loosely parallels the creek—though higher up—intermittently for 0.21 mile before swinging southwest, crossing a side drainage, swinging northwest again and climbing 150 feet to the first of the major switchbacks to the top.
Last updated July 26, 2019.