Railroad Tunnel Trail

  • Washington Park Trailhead, Payson AZ (follow directions in link, google maps is off)
  • 3.4 miles, roundtrip – about 2.5 hours (with breaks)
  • Rating: Moderate

“History never really says goodbye. History says, “See you later.”” – Eduardo Galeano

There’s a piece of history that has been silently standing still for over 100 years that can be found in Payson, Arizona. The only way to reach this desolate area is by hiking toward it and exploring it for yourself.

In the late 1800s the entrepreneurs of the Arizona Mineral Belt where looking to build a railroad to transport ore from Globe, AZ to Flagstaff, AZ. Although by building this railroad it meant that over 3,000 feet would have to be tunneled through the Mogollon Rim — also known as the “backbone of Arizona.” The Mogollon Rim is an uplifted cliff that rises 2,000 feet in places and spans 200 miles across Arizona. It begins in the Colorado Plateau and continues on to New Mexico. Needless to say, this was not going to be a small task.

These ambitious businessman began tunneling through the Rim, but during the construction, the company had various financial issues that cut funding for this project twice. Ultimately they went bankrupt in 1888, leaving the railroad tunnel unfinished and alone with just 70 feet tunneled through the Rim.

Luckily for us hikers, we can go visit and keep it company for a while.

The beginning part of this hike to the Railroad Tunnel begins on a dirt road known as the Colonel Devin Trail #290. This trail is named after Colonel Thomas C. Devin who had guarded this land against Apache raids. The trailhead is located in Washington Park.

Trail begins to the right of the AZ Trail sign

From the parking lot there are three trails that branch off and only one of them has a trail marker. The trail for Col. Devin is the dirt path to the right of the Arizona Trail Sign.  This little dirt path meets up with a dirt road that you can see from the parking lot as well. This section remains straight and is steep in certain areas (but nothing too intense). It follows along the East Verde River, which you can hear from a distance – making this very peaceful.  In springtime, butterflies and wildflowers keep you company on the trail and if you’re lucky maybe a butterfly will hike with you for a while.

Steepness of trail

At just before the .7 mile mark, there is a secret spot! Tucked away to your right there is a little babbling creek. It’s not very deep but it’s a great place to sit, relax and take in the outdoors – and also potentially a great spot to see some of those butterflies, too.

Secret spot!

At the one mile mark, the dirt road forks and you can either go straight or turn right. To get to the railroad tunnel, you need to go right. From here, the trail veers away from the creek and at around 1.4 miles you will come across a sign directing you to trail #390,  the Railroad Trail. From this point you enter the forest area surrounded by tall pine trees and sandstone underneath your feet. The trail becomes switchbacks and is clear to see.

Turn Right towards the Tunnel
Entering the forest and the beginning of switchbacks

At 1.6 mile there is a sign directing you to go straight to the tunnel. Once you start following it along, it gets a little unclear as to where the trail is. Some vegetation has grown and covers up parts of the path. Thankfully there are cairns directing you. There are loose rocks and loose dirt along the entirety of this trail, but if you take it slow and watch your footing you will be fine.

Area where cairns mark the way – keep your eyes peeled!

Once you reach a stone structure, the trail continues beyond and to the left. It has been said that this structure was to serve as a powerhouse for the railroad but it never made it that far. Go around the front of the foundation and towards the left. From there you will then see the tall unfinished railroad tunnel. This is a little further than 1.7 miles.

Stone structure
First view of tunnel. (notice the structure is now on the right)

At first, the tunnel looks a little haunting. You can feel the cool breeze coming from it and it looks like this dark tunnel goes in deep. As you enter you’ll soon discover that those looks are deceiving. As mentioned earlier they were only able to build 70 feet in and you can touch the back wall. Being in there you can’t help but feel the cool and damp mountain walls carved out from workers of the past.

This tunnel quickly turns into a friendly spot once you explore it a little. There are rocks along this area that would make for a great area to have a snack or eat some lunch before heading back.

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