Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Lee Valley Recreation Area

The Lee Valley Recreation Area accesses the highest elevations in the White Mountains and one of the highest in elevation in Arizona, Mount Baldy.  Baldy Peak is the second highest peak in Arizona.  The summit of Mount Baldy is on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and is closed to non-tribal members.  However, hikers can still reach an elevation of up to 11,200' just below the summit of Baldy Peak, which stands at 11,403'.  Spruce-fir and aspen forests, the Little Colorado River, high grasslands, and Lee Valley Reservoir highlight the habitat selection in this area.  Sought after birds in this area include American Dipper, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Dusky Grouse, and the rare-in-Arizona Pine Grosbeak.  This is a very beautiful area, and many Arizona folks think it holds the most beautiful scenery in the state.

Getting to Lee Valley Recreation Area:  The Lee Valley Recreation Area is located on Highway 273, and the most convenient way to get to Highway 273 is from Highway 260 whether coming west from Eager or east from Show Low.  From Eager, travel west on Highway 260 for 18.7 miles and turn left (south) onto Highway 273.  Head south on 273 for eight miles (past Sunrise) until the Lee Valley Recreation Area is reached.  From Show Low, head east on Highway 260 for 35.7 miles before turning right (south) onto Highway 273.  Once the Lee Valley Recreation Area is reached after eight miles of driving on Highway 273, use the guide below and mileages for each hotspot listed below for a preferred birding destination.  NOTE:  This area is closed in winter due to road conditions, which are not maintained.

Lee Valley Recreation Overview Map:  For a better overview of the six hotspots that are mentioned and written about below, take a look at the map here- Lee Valley Recreation Area Birding Hotspot Overview Map

West Baldy Trail No. 94:  After a half-mile of entering the Lee Valley Recreation Area, look for the turnoff to the West Baldy Trail # 94 on the right (west) side of 273.  This will be 8.5 miles of driving on 273 from 260.  The trailhead for the one way, seven mile, West Baldy Trail # 94 is found here.  There are restrooms and parking.  Another access point for this trail is found at Sheep's Crossing another half-mile south on Highway 273 (see next hotspot).  This West Baldy Trail takes the birder/hiker through the heart of the Mount Baldy Wilderness in elevation ranging from 9,200' to 11,200'.  This hike isn't for everyone.  The trail climbs rapidly in places, although the first 4.5 miles of the trail increasingly climb at a more comfortable level.  After 5 miles, the hike climbs much more rapidly before topping out at close to 7 miles.  The highest one can go on this trail is 11,200' in elevation, which is just below the summit of the 11,403' Mt. Baldy.  Baldy Peak itself is part of the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation, and only tribal members themselves have access to the immediate peak area.  Do not go to the summit.  Once reaching the end of the West Baldy Trail # 94, one has an option of hiking the East Baldy Trail # 94 for 7-plus miles (see more below on the East Baldy hotspot), or one can go back the same way they came up.  From 273, the East Baldy Trail No. 95 Trailhead is 3 miles south of the West Baldy Trail No. 94 Trailhead.  It helps to have two vehicles in a party to avoid three more miles of hiking if wanting to complete a loop.  On the West Baldy Trail, the habitat along the first 3.5 miles parallels the Little Colorado River.  Surrounding the river is spuce-fir and aspen forest, as well as open meadows filled with wildflowers.  It is a stunning and picturesque location and hike, possibly Arizona's most beautiful.  After 4 miles, one will be in dense spruce-fir forest for the remainder of the trail which contains Englemann spruce, subalpine fir, and more.  As the scenery and trail are incredible alone, the birds add a lot to the hike also.  Birders can get lucky on this trail and see five of the most sought after birds in the White Mountain region on this one trail.  This trail holds the chances to see American Dipper, Gray Jay, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Dusky Grouse, and the rare Pine Grosbeak.  Look for the American Dipper in places along the Little Colorado River.  Listen and watch for Gray Jays anywhere along the trail.  For Three-toed Woodpecker and Dusky Grouse, start looking after the trail starts to go through thick timber at about 4 miles of hiking.  Look up (of course!) and listen for foraging activity of the woodpeckers, and for the Dusky Grouse, watch for them moving on the forest ground or sitting nearly motionless on a fallen log (there are fallen logs, many of them).  Pine Grosbeaks have bred in this area in recent years.  They have been seen and heard near 4.5 miles of hiking up the trail.  Once entering the heavily timbered areas on the trail, a few creeks are crossed before the trail parallels an open meadow for a short period.  One will then come upon a creek/drainage crossing that flows more heavily than the others.  It is somewhat challenging to cross this wide and flowing creek.  Once past this point, the next half-mile to a mile of the trail has been where the Pine Grosbeaks have been detected, seen, and confirmed as breeders in recent years.  Near the summit of Mt. Baldy, also keep an eye and ear out for breeding White-crowned Sparrows.  The upper elevations of the Mt. Baldy area have been one of the only places the sparrow has been confirmed as breeding in Arizona.  Other than those five sought after Arizona birds, some other species that are found on the West Baldy Trail include Wild Turkey, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-naped and Williamson's Sapsuckers, Downy Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Clark's Nutcracker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrush, an occasional Swainson's Thrush, Virginia's, MacGillivray's, Yellow-rumped, and Red-faced Warblers; Green-tailed Towhee, Lincoln's Sparrow, Western Tanager, and Red Crossbill.  Although the West Baldy Trail is very popular among hikers, remember to not hike alone.  Be sure to bring plenty of food and water and to drink and snack regularly, as well as warm clothing and rain jackets.  At 11,200', temperatures can change and have serious effects rapidly!  For more on the West Baldy Trail No. 94, a selection of bird and scenic pictures, an eBird link to the area, and a map overview of the area can be found on a separate page by clicking on the link here- West Baldy Trail No. 94

Sheep Crossing:  After driving for 9 miles south on 273 from 260 (or 1 mile south after entering Lee Valley Recreation Area), Sheep Crossing is reached.  A bridge on 273 crosses the Little Colorado River at this point, indicating the crossing.  Before the bridge is a parking area on the right (or west) side of 273.  Park here and walk down to the river or on paths above the river to explore the area.  Paths on both sides of the 273 bridge along the Little Colorado River are very convenient for exploring and birding Sheep Crossing.  This location is very popular with fisherman and fisherwomen, go early to avoid large crowds.  If walking on the trail west of Sheep's Crossing, it goes quickly into the Mt. Baldy Wilderness area and eventually turns into the West Baldy Trail No. 94 after a half-mile.  Many hikers access the West Baldy Trail from here rather than the actual trailhead itself.  The scenery at Sheep Crossing is beautiful and looks similar to much of the West Baldy Trail.  When walking through the Sheep Crossing area west of 273, take the Railroad Grade Trail over the Little Colorado River for a short distance to the south.  This will take one into spruce-fir forest, where Gray Jay, American Three-toed Woodpecker, and Golden-crowned Kinglet may be seen.  The bird that is most highly sought after at Sheep Crossing is the American Dipper.  It is here that North America's only aquatic songbird is most reliably viewed in the White Mountains.  To find the American Dippers, try going early and walking up-and-down the river slowly.  Look for white-wash on rocks to indicate where Dippers have been present.  They may be heard singing and calling, but most times, they just randomly appear in front of people!  At times, they can be very tolerant of people at this location and may allow a close approach.  Besides American Dippers, Sheep Crossing is excellent for viewing a variety of mountain riparian and mixed-conifer species.  Also look for Great Blue Heron, Osprey, Red-naped and Williamson's Sapsuckers, Olive-sided, Cordilleran, and Dusky Flycatchers; Steller's Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Violet-green Swallow, all three Nuthatches, Orange-crowned, MacGillivray's, and Virginia's Warblers; Green-tailed Towhee, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Red Crossbill.  For more information on Sheep Crossing that features pictures of the birds and location, an eBird hotspot link, and a map of the area, a separate page gives all of that and it can be viewed at the link here- Sheep Crossing

Winn Campground:  After 10.4 miles of going south on 273 from 260 (or 2.4 miles of going south after entering the Lee Valley Recreation Area), the turnoff to Winn Campground is on the right (east side) of 273.  Follow a dirt road for roughly one mile to the campground.  The road to the campground takes one through grasslands before the campground is reached.  Watch for Horned Lark, Eastern Meadowlark, Mountain Bluebird, raptors, and more.  Winn Campground is a big campground and has several camping loops.  It has more grassland habitats nearby, and the campground itself is mixed conifer and aspen forest.  Walking through the campground and birding can be a neat experience here.  Gray Jays are seen at times coming in for food at the campground.  Look for a variety of birds that favor mixed-conifer and aspen habitats.  For a map overview on Winn Campground, it will be included on the Lee Valley Reservoir page (see next hotspot).  To see a list of birds that have been observed in Winn Campground, a link for the eBird hotspot to this location can be found at the link here- Winn Campground on eBird

Lee Valley Reservoir:  After 10.5 miles of driving south on Highway 273 off of Highway 260 (or 2.5 miles of going south after entering the Lee Valley Recreation Area), the turnoff to Lee Valley Reservoir is on the left (west) side of 273.  Follow this paved road a short distance to the lake.  Lee Valley Reservoir is a small but very beautiful lake.  At 9,420', it is Arizona's highest reservoir in elevation.  One can walk around the lake in about twenty minutes.  The round lake is surrounded by spruce-fir and aspen forest as well as some open grassland meadows.  The dam on the west side of the lake forms a wetland area, and the creek past the dam is also worth exploring.  Look for Ruddy Duck, Eared Grebe, Sora, and Spotted Sandpiper in summer and for anything else of interest on the water throughout the year.  Around the lake and surrounding forest and meadows, also keep an eye out for a variety of birds in spring and summer that include Wild Turkey, Double-crested Cormorant, Osprey, Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds, Williamson's and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Hairy and American Three-toed Woodpeckers; Gray Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, all three Nuthatches, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Western and Eastern Meadowlarks, and Red Crossbill.  For a separate page to access on Lee Valley Reservoir with photographs of the location, an eBird link, and a map of the area (Winn Campground included in the map too), click on the link here- Lee Valley Reservoir

East Baldy Trail No. 95:  The West Baldy Trail No. 94 is so popular among hikers in the White Mountains that it's counterpart is often forgotten about.  With it's trailhead sitting three miles south of the West Baldy Trail, the East Baldy Trail is also a 7 mile hike up near the summit area of Mt. Baldy, where it accesses the highest elevations in the White Mountains.  It connects with the West Baldy Trail after 7 miles and one can do loop hike through the Mount Baldy Wilderness when going up on the east trail.  To get to the East Baldy Trail No. 95, head south on Highway 273 from Highway 260 for 11.6 miles.  The trailhead will be on the right (west) side of 273, and it is signed off and has a nice parking area.  Like the West Baldy Trail, the East Baldy Trail starts off by going along the East Fork of the Little Colorado River, but the river doesn't run along the trail's side for even half as long as it does on the West Baldy Trail.  The East Baldy Trail goes through similar habitats as West Baldy does, but it does have a lot of different scenery, and it compliments it's western counterpart quite well.  This trail climbs in elevation from 9,400' to 11,000'.  It is a steady climb for most of the hike, but there are some strenuous sections on the trail.  On this trail, look for birds that inhabit mixed-conifer and aspen forests, open meadow areas, cliff and boulder areas, some burned areas with healthy and regrowing understories, and an abundance of spruce-fir forest.  A similar cast of birds may be found here that are found on the West Baldy Trail.  Keep eyes and ears out for Dusky Grouse, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, and the rare Pine Grosbeak (in the higher elevations of the trail).  Near the end of the East Baldy Trail (or at the beginning if accessing the trail from the West Baldy Trail), there are some areas with burned trees that have shrubby understories.  White-crowned Sparrows have bred in these locations in recent years at an elevation close to 11,000'.  Other than the San Fransisco Mountains area north of Flagstaff (which contains Arizona's highest point, Humphrey's Peak), this is the only other place in Arizona where White-crowned Sparrow has been known to breed.  This trail is just as worthy of birding and exploring as it's counterpart.  As mentioned above in the West Baldy description, make sure to avoid going to the very summit of Mt. Baldy due to it being on White Mountain Apache Tribal Lands.  When hiking in this remote and pristine wilderness area, be sure to bring plenty of food and water and consume them regularly when hiking.  Just because the weather is cooler doesn't excuse us from drinking water.  Speaking of cooler weather, bring appropriate layers of clothing, because temperatures do change rapidly if suddenly coming under the weather in a high wilderness area such as this.  To access a separate page on the East Baldy Trail that contains photographs of birds and scenes along the trail, an eBird link to the location, and an overview map, click on the link here- East Baldy Trail No. 95

Gabaldon Campground:  Gabaldon Campground is a campground designed for horses immediately near the Mount Baldy Wilderness.  It is a small 5 unit campground where fees aren't required, and it is in spruce-fir forest just south of East Baldy Trailhead.  This is a good place to visit to look for spruce-fir species, and walking through the campground is a pleasant little walk.  The East Baldy Trail No. 95 is accessed at the west side of this campground.  Nearby meadows and Little Colorado River will quickly add other species beyond the spruce-fir birds.  This is the last birding spot in the Lee Valley Recreation Area, and it is found after driving for 12 miles south of Highway 260 on Highway 273.  It will be on the right (west) side of 273 when coming south.  It is also 0.4 miles south of the turnoff to the East Baldy Trail.  To access a link to the Gabaldon Campground hotspot on eBird which shows the species that have been seen here, click on this link here- Gabaldon Campground on eBird


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