Mesquite trees punctuate the sprawling grassland near Kentucky Camp. Settling into the background are the Empire Mountains.
© Randy Prentice
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Editor's Note click to expand
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Kentucky CampThe route to this old mine winds along the high-desert grasslands of scenic State Route 83, passing a winery and historic ranch along the way.
By Kathy Montgomery
Aspens are the essence of fall in Arizona. If you're not of that opinion, you might change your mind after driving along Hart Prairie Road (Forest Road 151). This 10-mile scenic stretch is an easy addition to a day in Flagstaff or a worthwhile diversion on the way to the Grand Canyon. The journey into golden splendor begins approximately 10 miles north of town, just off U.S. Route 180.
A medley of yellow-tipped mullein, purple thistles and lavender asters offers the first splashes of color beneath an awning of ponderosa pines. As the dirt road crests the hill after 1 mile, you won't miss the first glimpse of aspens, neon beacons shining through a sea of pines on the right. These saplings herald a small taste of the treasures to come.
Add a half-mile along a road that curves like a river, and the pines part to reveal open skies and meadows accented by the San Francisco Peaks. When the Grateful Dead wrote Fire on the Mountain, the band's inspiration could have been Humphreys Peak. With bright plumes of aspens flanking its sides, the mountain appears swathed in a vibrant flame.
Intimate views — close enough to see carvings of names and hearts marring the trees' white bark — first appear around 3 miles. The air might be chilly, but it's worth rolling your window down to view autumn's brilliant colors, as orange leaves mingle with green grasses and auburn ferns. Pass over a cattle guard, and clumps of aspens dominate fields to the left as the road reaches a plateau.
When the scenery morphs into meadows, look for songbirds like swallows and flycatchers near Hart Prairie Preserve, a former homestead. From 1892 to 1901, stagecoaches taking visitors from Flagstaff to the South Rim stopped here for rest and refreshments. Now, herds of elk and deer frequent the area. The Nature Conservancy offers guided tours of the preserve until early October.
Barbed wire and wooden fences farther along mark private property; be alert to runners, walkers and ATV riders sharing the occasionally rutted and rocky road. At 6 miles, FR 151 intersects Bismarck Lake Road (Forest Road 627). For those wanting to hike, this detour leads to a trailhead in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness.
Nature showcases her own magical version of the yellow brick road as aspen leaves line the way forward. More still swirl downward at the slightest breeze and create a melody of soft bells. Those that don't reach the ground cling like ornaments to the needles of subalpine fir. Wait to pull over and take pictures when the road widens to fit two cars at 7 miles.
Ghostly spires of charred pines are jagged tombstones giving way to aspens, early successional species that thrive after natural disturbances. Glide smoothly along gently rolling roads as you bid farewell to the last sprinklings of fall foliage.aformer mining camp on the eastern flanks of the Santa Rita Mountains, Kentucky Camp makes a pleasant destination for an afternoon drive from Tucson. Most of the drive to the heritage site in the Coronado National Forest winds along the high-desert grasslands of scenic State Route 83, passing a winery and a historic ranch before turning off for the last 6 miles onto a gravel road.
The handful of adobe buildings that make up Kentucky Camp served as headquarters for the Santa Rita Water and Mining Co. from 1902 to 1906. The firm was the brainchild of California mining engineer James Stetson. Mining the area's rich placer deposits required water to separate the gold from sand and gravel, but the surrounding arroyos were dry. Stetson's company intended to channel seasonal runoff into a reservoir large enough to support operations.
But Stetson tumbled from a Tucson hotel window in 1905 and died, and his partners couldn't keep the operation going for long. The area was used for cattle ranching until the 1960s, and was then sold to another mining company. The Forest Service acquired Kentucky Camp in 1989 through a land exchange, and it's restoring the camp's buildings as an interpretive mining camp with the help of volunteers.
The headquarters building can be reserved for day use for up to 50 people. A smaller cabin can be rented overnight. With no heat or indoor plumbing, the overnight cabin offers four twin bunks in a single bedroom, an outdoor sink and vault toilet in an outbuilding. Although minimal, these amenities are welcome enough for hikers passing through on the Arizona Trail.
But the real pleasure of a day trip to Kentucky Camp is, as they say, in the journey. From Tucson, take Interstate 10 to State Route 83, a designated scenic highway that's flanked by straw-colored grasses dotted with yuccas, prickly pears and mesquites.
Charron Vineyards lies about 7 miles south of I-10, a half-mile past Milepost 53. The tasting room, open Friday through Sunday, sits inside a sunny, screened-in porch with views of the vineyard, rolling hills and the distant Santa Ritas. Five dollars buys a sampling of four wines, a souvenir glass and $2 off tastings at Sonoita-area wineries.
Just past Milepost 40, Empire Ranch is worth a visit. The 160-acre homestead and cattle ranch was the setting for a number of Westerns, including Red River and Last Train From Gun Hill. The Bureau of Land Management acquired the headquarters and surrounding 42,000 acres through a series of land swaps. It's now Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, a black-tailed prairie dog reintroduction site. Built along cottonwood-lined Empire Gulch, Empire Ranch headquarters forms a green oasis about 3 miles from the highway, with the adobe ranch house and barn open to the public.
The turnoff to Kentucky Camp lies just 3 miles past Empire Ranch. The gravel road winds nearly 6 miles through waist-high grasses shaded by tall, graceful oaks. A small parking area lies outside the gates to Kentucky Camp, which is an easy, quarter-mile walk. The headquarters building serves as the visitors center. Perch yourself on the pleasant, shaded porch and the prospects for a pleasant afternoon feel rich, indeed.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 49 miles one way
Directions: From Tucson, drive east on Interstate 10 for approximately 22 miles to State Route 83, turn right (south) and continue for approximately 21 miles to Gardner Canyon Road. Turn right (west)onto Gardner Canyon Road and drive 0.75 miles to Forest Road 163. Take FR 163 approximately 5 miles to the Kentucky Camp gate. Park in the designated area, and walk approximately 0.25 miles to Kentucky Camp
Vehicle Requirements: This route is accessible by passenger vehicles, but the last 5 miles may be muddy 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.
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.