Mesquite trees punctuate the sprawling grassland near Kentucky Camp. Settling into the background are the Empire Mountains.
© Randy Prentice
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Ironwood ForestRagged mountains and some of the oldest trees in Arizona are highlights along this scenic route just north of Tucson.
By Roger Naylor
Tucson is a city interrupted. Mountains encircle the town and keep it contained. Such an arrangement creates a sprawling backyard of raw desert for those with an adventurous spirit. Ironwood Forest National Monument is like that, a quick escape right at the edge of civilization.
The drive begins on Avra Valley Road (Exit 242 off Interstate 10), just north of Tucson in the town of Marana. Head west and you'll soon cross the Santa Cruz River, a vital waterway that drew the first European settlers to Arizona. Just past Marana Regional Airport, you'll see a turnoff for Saguaro National Park. Don't be tempted to change course — a forest of towering cactuses rises in Ironwood, and seeing them doesn't require an entrance fee.
Rolling on, the route passes cotton fields and then mesquite-dotted rangeland. Just shy of the entrance to the Silver Bell Mine, the pavement ends and the scenic drive turns left onto Silverbell Road. The rough dirt road carves a route through classic Sonoran Desert. Rocky hills crowd the landscape, their slopes thick with ocotillos waving in spindly triumph.
The Sonoran Desert, more than any other American desert, is a study in textures. Paloverde trees and ironwoods throw off a shaggy charm with their haphazard tangle of branches. Chain-fruit chollas maintain an air that's both stately and comical — Dr. Seussian cactuses with swooping limbs capped in furious clusters of pads. Barrel cactuses all seem to adopt a sultry lean. And amid this spiny jungle, saguaros add the dominant vertical notes, growing ramrod straight and full of purpose.
After 9 miles on Silverbell Road, which includes bouncing in and out of arroyos, a sign indicates that you've entered Ironwood Forest National Monument. Named for one of the longest-living trees in Arizona, the monument protects 129,000 acres of pristine desert and hundreds of ancient Hohokam sites, some dating back to A.D. 600. The scenery within the monument doesn't change drastically, except that Ragged Top Mountain muscles into view. Unlike neighboring mountains with their clean, cactus-lined crests, Ragged Top is a brutish thrust of more than 3,900 feet, crowned by a jumble of sheer cliffs.
Another half-dozen miles from the turn takes you back to pavement, amid a neighborhood of homes. It's an abrupt and unwelcome transition. Take solace in the fact that plenty of other adventures await in Tucson's amazing backyard.
Meanwhile, retracing your steps back to Avra Valley Road can be a bit confusing. Save yourself the headache. About 7.5 miles after resuming pavement, Silverbell Road crosses Trico Road. Turn left onto Trico Road, which becomes Trico Marana Road, and follow it for 6 miles back to I-10. Trico Marana Road is Exit 236, which is 6 miles north of Avra Valley Road.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 55 miles round-trip
Directions: From Tucson, drive west on Interstate 10 to Avra Valley Road (Exit 242), turn left (west), and continue for 22 miles to Silverbell Road. From there, turn left (west) and continue to Trico Road, which becomes Trico Marana Road. Continue for 6 miles to I-10.
Vehicle Requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is required on the unpaved section of Silverbell Road.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don't travel alone and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Also, keep in mind that smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered along this route. Visitors to Ironwood Forest National Monument should avoid anyone engaged in suspicious activity.
Information: Bureau of Land Management, 520-258-7200
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.