The Old Safford Bridge spans the
Gila River along the Black Hills Back
© George Stocking
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Black Hills BywayPrison laborers and Geronimo once roamed this area. It's historic, in many ways, and the scenery is pretty special, too.
By Kelly Kramer
Cruising among the Black Hills near Safford, it's easy to get carried away in an imaginary game of cowboys and Indians. Patches of prickly pear cactuses and fields of native grasses cover the talus slopes, which were crafted by volcanic activity more than 20 million years ago. The foliage would make for some seriously great cover should a battle break out or, better yet, a pretty prickly corner into which the enemy could be backed. Either way, it's easy to see why Geronimo wandered these hills during raids into Mexico and back.
The 21-mile drive begins at its southern point off of U.S. Route 191, approximately 20 miles east of Safford. You'll turn left onto the Black Hills Back Country Byway, a gravel road that's maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. Although a four-wheel-drive vehicle isn't necessary — unless you plan to explore one of the numerous side roads along the way — a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
Prison laborers built the byway between 1914 and 1920, during which a few managed to escape. Most, however, behaved. Just as the hillsides are great for a Wild West game of hide-and-seek, they're also foreboding. If you venture outside the car for a closer look, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for rattlesnakes and other desert critters.
Several interpretive areas pepper the route, and there are other potential stops along the way. The first comes approximately 3 miles into the drive, where the road crests above the Twin C Ranch. There, you can take a side trip to the Black Hills Rockhound Area in search of fire agate or continue past an abandoned mine shaft. Just down the road, a cinder pit looms red and dusty against the onyx hills. In the 1950s, miners pulled pumice from the pit and trucked it to Safford, where it was converted into cinder blocks.
This is a good spot to look up. On a crisp, clear day, a swath of mountain-studded desert paints the horizon, and the Dos Cabezas Mountains rise a scant 50 miles away. From there, the road climbs steadily into the hills as cholla and bursts of yucca punctuate the abundant prickly pear. The road reaches its highest point near the 12-mile mark, and then descends in a series of twists and turns.
The remnants of the labor camp, where the prisoners rested each evening, are a quick walk from the roadside between Mileposts 16 and 17. The old structures are nothing special — just block and rebar — but they do speak to the ruggedness of the terrain. Life in the Black Hills at the beginning of the 20th century couldn't have been easy. Nor is the sight of the Phelps Dodge open-pit copper mine at Morenci easy on the eyes. Mining is big in Eastern Arizona, just as it was during Arizona's boom days, when cotton and copper were king in this neck of the woods.
The road winds back to U.S. 191 after traversing the Old Safford Bridge, which crosses the Gila River. The bridge, constructed in 1918, doesn't look a day over 39 — its concrete is wrinkle-free. You'll have to use your imagination, though. Unless you're passing through after a good rain, the Gila River usually runs dry.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 21 Miles one way.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is required to travel the roads that branch from the byway.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so beware 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: Bureau of Land Management, 928-348-4450 or www.blm.gov
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.