Horses roam the scrubby grasslands of
high-desert stretches between
Cottonwood and Sedona.
© Larry Lindahl
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For more scenic
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Roads. Now in its fifth
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Bill Gray-Sycamore LoopLiterally, this route crosses a scenic valley ringed with mountains and mesas; figuratively, it goes back in time to the days of miners and pioneers.
By Roger Naylor
On a map, this route appears as a misshapen loop — lumpy in spots, like a poorly planned balloon animal. There's no way of knowing until your tires hit the gravel that the little road showcases a mix of dazzling scenery and intriguing history, with additional adventures lurking down side roads.
From Cottonwood, head east on State Route 89A for about 2 miles, turning left on Bill Gray Road. You won't have trouble spotting Bill Gray. It squeezes between the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and Mago Earth Park, which is populated by a cluster of fanciful statues.
After the paved entryway, Bill Gray, also known as Forest Road 761, turns to gravel. In spots, the road can be as washboarded as a Depression-era laundromat or as smooth as a sidewalk in Sedona, depending on when the grader last passed. Either way, you'll have no problem in a passenger car.
The road stretches across the valley floor, ringed with mountains and mesas. To the northeast rise the salmon- and ivory-hued sandstone buttes of Sedona. Vegetation is lanky and leggy, exhibiting the spindly defiance common to sun-gnawed lands.
At about 2.8 miles, a small brown sign marks where the Lime Kiln Historic Wagon Trail crosses the road. This was once the main route used by Sedona pioneers to sell their goods to miners in Jerome. In 2006, the Lime Kiln reopened as a 15-mile multiuse trail connecting
As you curl deeper into the outback, vistas stretch in all directions. The humped ridgeline of Casner Mountain guards the border of Sycamore Canyon. Waves of grass crash against low-shouldered hills. Keep an eye peeled for pronghorns, which like to graze this scenic savanna.
After nearly 11 miles, you'll pass through an isolated section of private property, and pass by a few homes and horse ranches tucked among thickets of mesquite and juniper. Just beyond the ranches, FR 761 ends at a junction with Forest Road 525C. Bearing right leads to SR 89A, but hang a left if you're looking for extra adventure.
The road rambles 6 miles to Sycamore Pass, the main access route to this portion of Sycamore Canyon, a spectacular deep-cut cleft with high red walls. Sycamore Canyon is a wilderness area and may be entered only on foot or horseback. The road ends at a small parking area for the Dogie Trail. You'll want a high-clearance vehicle for the last mile.
From the junction with FR 761, FR 525C traverses rolling countryside for about 3 miles, ending at Forest Road 525. Once again, an intriguing side trip awaits. Turn left on FR 525, also known as Red Canyon Road, to see some of the area's best preserved prehistoric ruins: Palatki and Honanki. Carved out of scarlet cliffs, the ancient Sinaguan ruins offer impressive displays of rock art dating back 6,000 years. Reservations are recommended for Palatki.
After returning from the ruins, Red Canyon ends at SR 89A, 5 miles southwest of Sedona, where you'll find a few more world-famous adventures.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 19 miles round-trip.
Vehicle requirements: Accessible to all vehicles; however, roads may not be passable following a heavy rain. If driving the Sycamore Pass spur, a high-clearance vehicle is recommended for the last mile. A Red Rock Pass (or equivalent) is required on any vehicle parked at heritage sites.
Information: Red Rock Ranger District, 928-282-4119 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino; Palatki Heritage Site, 928-282-3854 (reservations are recommended)
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.