If winter rains cooperated, springtime drivers to Alamo Lake will see owl clover and Mexican goldpoppies, in addition to other wildflowers.
© Larry Lindahl
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Alamo Dam RoadOn a list of unlikely places to see water and wildflowers, this drive might be at the top
By Roger Naylor
It seems like a joke — as if someone's pulling your leg — as you drive deeper into the sparse, sun-slapped hills. Despite the road signs asserting that this is the way to Alamo Lake State Park, you begin to wonder whether this country could actually shelter a body of water — certainly not one big enough to lure bald eagles and be regarded as one of the state's premier bass-fishing spots. But because it's a haunting, mesmerizing drive, you're willing to play along, even if it is a gag.
Alamo Dam Road launches from Wenden, a wisp of a town strung along U.S. Route 60 between Salome and Wickenburg. At first you'll pass a few modest residences, then fields of lush crops. Yet as soon as those rows of leafy greens are in the rearview, the desert — held briefly at bay by irrigation apparatuses — closes in around you.
The road climbs through Cunningham Pass, as the rocky hills of the Harcuvar range shoulder in close to the pavement. Beyond the pass, you drop into a broad valley, and views extend across the hardscrabble panorama, serving as a reminder that no lake lurks nearby. Saguaros dot the slopes among scrubby paloverde trees and creosote bushes. Sunlight splinters among the teddy bear chollas, fuzzy with tight clustered spines.
Wildflowers suddenly burst across the landscape. Brittlebushes, California poppies and desert marigolds predominate, but there's also owl clover, desert chicory, scorpionweed and Arizona caltrop mixed in. The wetter the winter, the more dramatic the display. The peak season is March and April.
Finally, the road rises off the basin floor at a gentle tilt and curves for the first time in many miles. More curves and dips follow as you glide through soft, rolling hills. Then, as you top a ridge, two things happen simultaneously. You spot a sign for the Wayside Inn and, beyond that, in the distance, a shimmering finger of water curled along the base of stark mountains.
Wayside Inn is a combination bar/restaurant/store/pool hall that sits 3 miles down a dirt road. It's a great place to snag a juicy burger on your return. But first, let yourself succumb to the siren song of improbable water. As you travel the last couple of miles to the park entrance, Alamo Lake comes into focus.
Fed by two intermittent rivers, the Big Sandy and Santa Maria, Alamo Lake was formed to provide flood control of the Bill Williams River that flows into Lake Havasu downstream. An earthen dam was completed in 1968. Alamo is a lanky piece of water sprawled at the feet of the Rawhide and Artillery mountains. Don't be surprised to see the lake dotted with boats — anglers vie for largemouth bass, channel catfish, black crappie and bluegill, and fishing tournaments are common in spring.
The journey ends at the dam, where an overlook offers wide vistas. Seeing the lake from this perspective, nestled against the mountains with cactuses lining the shores and the picturesque desert scene reflected on the surface, it's almost impossible to imagine it existing anywhere else in Arizona.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 78 miles one way (paved)
Directions: From Wickenburg, drive west on U.S. Route 60 for 48 miles to Wenden and turn right onto Alamo Dam Road (also called Second Street).
Vehicle Requirements: None
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.
Information: Alamo Lake State Park, 928-669-2088 or www.azparks.gov/parks/alla
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.