Approaching Prescott, drivers get a broad view of Mingus Mountain across the valley to the east.
© Nick Berezenko
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Editor's Note click to expand
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Williamson Valley RoadSharp turns, steep grades, wide-open spaces, breathtaking views ... this route is the epitome of a scenic drive.
By Roger Naylor
As soon as you start down Williamson Valley Road, an official sign warns of "narrow roads, sharp turns and steep grades." The trouble with highway signs is they tell only a portion of the story.
Yes, the road might be narrow in places, but that just leaves more room for wild country, rolling grasslands and juniper-clad hills. Yes, some of the curves are sharp, but most are not. Most are swooping curves flowing across the Arizona highlands. Most are languid, seductive curves luring you onward. To be completely accurate, the sign should also warn drivers of wide-open spaces, of idyllic settings far from civilization, and endless, breathtaking views.
Williamson Valley Road begins in Seligman, the birthplace of Historic Route 66. Allow yourself some time to explore the character-rich town, then take the frontage road south of Interstate 40. After a half-mile, the pavement ends and doesn't resume for 47 miles. Yet for a dirt road, this one is surprisingly smooth and can be easily navigated by passenger sedans.
The first portion of the road crosses sweeping plains fringed by the thrust of modest mountains. An immense beast of a sky drapes this country, where tall grass shimmers in the sun's haze. It seems entirely appropriate that the first animals you're likely to see are a herd of buffalo grazing in the fields of a hilltop ranch. They appear right at home on this remote and quiet prairie.
Big ranches stretch across the Williamson Valley. The buffaloes are behind a fence, but this is open range country, and you'll spot herds of horses and cattle, some right at the edge of the road. Drive with care. Pronghorns can sometimes be seen standing in deep grass, looking lithe and poised to vanish in a twinkling.
Despite the warning of steep grades, the rise to higher elevation is so subtle as to go unnoticed. Only the increasing number of junipers gives it away. Soon, forests of Utah junipers and piñon pines replace the grassy slopes. To the west is the Juniper Mesa Wilderness, a broad tableland shaggy with trees. To access the wilderness and a trio of hiking trails, turn right onto Walnut Creek Road, which junctions with Williamson Valley at about the 34-mile mark of the road trip.
A trestle bridge crosses Walnut Creek, named for the many Arizona walnut trees lining its banks. Ranch houses hunker peacefully under shady branches. Soon the clusters of junipers thin out and grasslands re-emerge. Just as your wheels touch pavement again, the toothy crest of Granite Mountain dominates the skyline. As you approach the mountain, ranches give way to ranchettes and finally to the suburbs of Prescott wrapped around its mighty flanks.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 68 miles one way
Directions: From Seligman, go south on Williamson Valley Road, also called Yavapai County Road 5, and continue south to Prescott.
Vehicle Requirements: Williamson Valley Road is accessible to all vehicles, but should be avoided in wet weather.
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: Prescott National Forest, Chino Valley Ranger District, 928-777-2200 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/prescott
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.