CAMP VERDE - In the family of Verde Valley wilderness areas, Cedar Bench is the redheaded stepchild -- a strong-willed independent and precocious stepchild.
Although there are no firm statistics, the Prescott National Forest believes it to be the least visited and, consequently, the least known of its inventory.
Cedar Bench, like Pine Mountain, is located on the Verde Rim. To understand where it is located you need only look up at Squaw Peak, the promontory overlooking Camp Verde from the south.
From the summit, the slope and rim to the left (south and east) is the wilderness area. It extends all the way down the mountain, reaching the Verde River below Brown Springs, where the river assumes its Wild and Scenic designation.
If it is solitude and unique views of the valley you are looking for, Cedar Bench is where you want to be. But understand that hiking in Cedar Bench is not a Sunday stroll
There are nine maintained trails within the wilderness, but some of them can be challenging to follow, due to lack of use.
The Forest Service promotes four of them. Three of them, Cold Water, Chasm Creek and Oxbow, are accessible by traveling south from Camp Verde on Salt Mine Road (aka Forest Road 574).
All three, along with Chalk Creek Trail, are also accessible from the top of the rim, by way of Interstate 17, then Dugas Road (Forest Road 68) and forest Roads 528, 9709M and 68G.
And all the trails except Chalk Creek are classified as "difficult."
Difficult is not how the first explorers passing over the Verde Rim described their journey.
In February 1864, shortly after Gov. John Goodwin arrived in Arizona to set up the first territorial seat of government, he organized an expedition to the east, to the relatively unexplored Verde Valley. Much to his dismay, the guides he chose, chose Chasm Creek as their point of entry to the Verde.
"On we went barely getting footing to prevent the animals from rolling headlong into the gulf below," wrote expedition chronicler Joseph Pratt Allyn. "On one side was a ragged mountain touching almost your elbow as you led your mule along; on the other, from your feet almost perpendicular was a chasm, the bottom you could not see.
"Such a sight, mules stumbling and recovering themselves, mules with heavy packs rolling two or three hundred feet, first heels up, then packs, over and over until they landed plumb against a tree; stones following them seemingly large enough to crush them, which never happened to hit."
No animals were killed, but it did take the governor's party two days to reach the river.
From the Verde River side, Cedar Bench is a lot of "up." From the Verde rim side it is a four-wheel drive to the trailheads, a relatively gentle walk up, and a steep descent down to the Verde.
But for all its challenges and difficulties, like the redheaded stepchild, you will be a better person for having made it a part of your world.
Trail maps are available from the Prescott, Tonto and Coconino National Forest. There is also detailed information on the individual trails available on the Internet and through several good trail guides.
For ways to get involved in the stewardship of existing and potential new wilderness areas, through volunteering, service projects, and special events, contact the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, www.azwild.org, or their Prescott office (928) 717-6076.