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Box Canyon Road
About four months ago, a lightning fire touched this scenic drive. Turns out, it was just Mother Nature working her magic.
By Robert Stieve
The Melendrez Fire was started by lightning. Not a cigarette butt. It's an important distinction. One source, of course, is natural; the other is not. In either case, the effects of fire can be devastating. But not always. As you make your way along Box Canyon Road, you'll see that in some cases, when fire is allowed to run its natural course, it can make an already scenic drive even more beautiful. This is one of those cases.
Although Box Canyon Road comes with a lesson in fire management and ecology, it still meets our prerequisite of being scenic. It also offers a nice contrast to the "fall drives" in this month's cover story. The all-dirt road begins about 3 miles north of the entrance to Madera Canyon, which ranks as one of the most spectacular places in Arizona. Among other things, the canyon features four life zones and is home to more than 250 species of birds — even if you lean more toward Miss America than Miss Hathaway, you'll be impressed. Make time if you can. If not, the road awaits.
Heading east, the 14-mile route (washboard all the way) parallels the north side of the Santa Rita Mountains, and almost immediately, you'll see the effects of the fire, which burned 5,800 acres in late May. In particular, you'll see a sea of green. According to Heidi Schewel of the Coronado National Forest, the fire burned at a low intensity, which was very good for the landscape.
"There was little tree mortality," she says, "and the dried grass and brush was burned off. The resulting ash will act as a natural fertilizer. Remember Science 101 and photosynthesis? Living plants take in moisture from the roots and carbon dioxide through their leaves, and use sunlight and chlorophyll to produce energy. This energy is locked up in the biomass. When a fire of this sort burns through, those nutrients are returned to the soil and made available. Add a little rain and the grasses will flourish."
The sea of green notwithstanding, it's the mountains that stand out most on this scenic drive. The Santa Ritas are an impressive range, with plenty of oaks and cottonwoods, so you should see some fall color if you look to your right. To your left, the views will include the road's namesake, as well as open grasslands and impressive groves of enormous ocotillos.
After about 5 miles, you'll leave the Santa Rita Experimental Range (a project of the agriculture department at the University of Arizona) and enter the Coronado National Forest. The road along this stretch is narrow, winding and without any guardrails. Go slowly, and plan on stopping for photos. Eventually, after about 10 miles, the road reaches the top of its climb, where the views are dominated by grasslands that stretch as far as the eye can see. It's vintage Southern Arizona.
The road ends a few miles later at its intersection with State Route 83, just north of Sonoita. At this point, most people continue north toward Tucson, while some head south to grab a bite at Canela Bistro in Sonoita. Either way, it's an opportunity to think about where you've been, and how fire, when orchestrated by Mother Nature, can make an already scenic drive even more beautiful.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 14 miles one-way (all dirt)
Directions: From Tucson, go south on Interstate 19 for 24 miles to Continental Road (Exit 63). Turn left (east) and continue for 1 mile to Whitehouse Canyon Road (look for the signs to Madera Canyon). From there, turn right (east) and drive 7.3 miles to the intersection of Forest Road 62 and Forest Road 70. Veer left on FR 62 and begin the drive.
Vehicle requirements: Accessible to all vehicles.
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.