White Mountains, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests
Noah Austin

Fire does what it does. On just about any scenic drive in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona, you’ll be reminded of that. But the forest does what it does, too. On this easy loop drive just south of Big Lake, you’ll see ample evidence of the Wallow Fire, which was sparked by an improperly extinguished campfire and scorched more than a half-million acres of this landscape in the summer of 2011. But you’ll also see what it looks like when the forest undergoes a vibrant rebirth — and in summer, that rebirth is lovely to see.

Start the loop on Three Forks Road (Forest Road 249), which is what State Route 273, the road south to Big Lake, becomes once it passes the reservoir. From this road, go west on Forest Road 249E, a wide gravel road that winds past mature ponderosa pines, tall aspens and a handful of grassy meadows. After 2.1 miles, turn left onto County Road 68, which heads south through an area heavily affected by the fire. Here, bare ponderosa and aspen trunks are lasting reminders of Wallow’s path of destruction, but the forest is already beginning to recover: Tens of thousands of young aspens have appeared beneath the burned trees, and in June and July, their green leaves make a hypnotic sound as they dance in the wind.

By Mile 9 of the drive, you’ll be out of the heavy burn area and back in a stand of healthy ponderosas, and you’ll get a nice view of the mountains to the south before you begin your descent to a lower part of the forest. Wallow left its mark here as well, but here, it did what fire is supposed to do: clear the forest’s understory and allow new trees to take root. Here, that means countless young ponderosas thriving beneath their more mature relatives. If Charlie Brown had come to this part of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests to choose a tree for the Christmas play, he would have had plenty of choices. He might also have seen mule deer, elk, wild horses and multicolored wildflowers, all of which are thriving in this changed landscape.

At Mile 11.8, CR 68 crosses the West Fork of the Black River, which runs through an idyllic, ponderosa-lined clearing. Shortly thereafter, turn left onto County Road 25, which skirts a ranch as it heads east. Before long, you’ll reach Forest Road 25H, the turnoff for Caldwell Cabin — a century-old homestead that now is part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rooms With a View cabin rental program. You’ll need reservations and a gate code to get close to the cabin, but you can get a glimpse of it from the gate.

Back on CR 25, you’ll cross the West Fork again before turning left onto County Road 24, which runs north through a healthy landscape of aspens, ponderosas and assorted other evergreens. As you climb a ridge at Mile 19.5, you’ll get another nice panorama of mountains and an unspoiled ponderosa forest on the left. Then, shortly before you return to FR 249E and backtrack a short distance to complete the loop, you’ll pass a few more Wallow burn areas. The young aspens are doing their thing here, too. It’s part of the cycle, after all. Fire does what it does. And the forest endures.

Note: Mileages are approximate.

Length: 27.4-mile loop (from Three Forks Road)
Directions: From Three Forks Road (Forest Road 249) just south of the Big Lake turnoff, go west on Forest Road 249E for 2.1 miles to County Road 68. Turn left onto CR 68 and continue 11.1 miles to County Road 25. Turn left onto CR 25 and continue 3.7 miles to County Road 24. Turn left onto CR 24 and continue 9.7 miles to FR 249E. Turn right onto FR 249E and continue 0.7 miles back to the starting point of the drive.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance vehicle, such as an SUV or truck, is recommended, but the route is passable in a standard sedan in good 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: Springerville Ranger District, 928-333-6200 or fs.usda.gov/asnf