Manzanita and oak trees line Carr Canyon Road near Reef Townsite Campground.
© Randy Prentice
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Editor's Note click to expand
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Carr Canyon RoadOne-lane switchbacks and hairpin curves add a little excitement to this scenic route in the Huachuca Mountains..
By Roger Naylor
Editor’s Note: Carr Canyon Road was badly damaged in the Monument Fire, which burned in the Sierra Vista area earlier this summer. At press time, forest service officials planned to reopen the road on August 20. Before attempting the drive, however, please contact the Coronado National Forest to check the road’s status.
Parts of the West resist taming. They cling to the wildness of the frontier era and shrug off the passing of time. Carr Canyon Road is such a place. Climbing into the upper reaches of the Huachuca Mountains above Sierra Vista, the narrow dirt road very much resembles the wagon track it once was.
Built around the turn of the 20th century to provide access to gold and silver mines in the high timber, the road slashes up the slopes at a dizzying tilt. Without guardrails or retaining walls, travelers might experience a whiff of anxiety as they navigate one-lane switchbacks and hairpin curves. This is not an elbow-out-the-window, one-hand- on-the-wheel kind of casual Sunday jaunt. But the hearty souls making the drive are treated to breathtaking views across the San Pedro River Valley that bristle with the rugged thrusts of distant mountain ranges.
Carr Canyon Road is paved for the first 1.4 miles. It enters the Coronado National Forest beneath a shaggy canopy of oaks, mingled with junipers and dense chaparral. The renovated Carr House Information Center is nestled in the lower section of the canyon and offers nature and history exhibits. Manned by volunteers, the rustic stone structure is open only on weekends.
Past the Carr House, the road begins a relentless ascent. It hugs the mountainside, forming a slender shelf as it snakes upward. Small pullouts are tucked in the elbow of the switchbacks. Overhead looms Carr Reef, a massive band of exposed rock cliffs forming the Huachuca Mountains' eastern front. Following heavy rains, a frothy 200-foot waterfall tumbles down the mountainside. A pullout marked by a multitrunked oak provides an overlook of the intermittent cascade — but keep well back from the wet boulders. Over the years, several people have fallen to their deaths scrambling around on the falls.
The road levels off as it reaches 7,200 feet. Two campgrounds sit atop the crest of the hill amid an airy forest of ponderosa pines. The Reef Townsite Campground spreads across the former location of the mining outpost of Reef. Campsites include tent pads, picnic tables and fire rings. A short loop trail departs near the group picnic area and meanders through original mining claims with informational markers providing a historical narrative and breaks in the timber serving up far-ranging panoramas.
A little farther on, Ramsey Vista Campground marks the end of the road. The stacked white cliffs of Ramsey Peak dominate the skyline. Two major trails, Comfort Springs and Carr Peak, leave from the campground to connect with a broader network of trails that penetrate the Huachucas.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 7.5 miles one way
Directions: From Tucson, drive east on Interstate 10 to State Route 90 (Exit 302), turn south, and continue 33 miles on SR 90 through Sierra Vista to State Route 92, and then to Carr Canyon Road.
Vehicle Requirements: Most of Carr Canyon Road is unpaved but usually suitable for sedans. Switchbacks are narrow and steep with no guardrails. In single-lane encounters, uphill drivers have the right of way. Motor homes are not permitted.
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: Sierra Vista Ranger District, 520-378-0811 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado.
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.