Kaibab National Forest, Williams
By Annette McGivney
Before there was the smooth, straight blacktop of Interstate 40 to ferry auto travelers across Northern Arizona, there was Route 66. And before Route 66, there was a little-known route called the National Old Trails Road. This coast-to-coast highway was established in 1912 to encourage auto touring, and it stretched for some 3,000 miles, from the East Coast to California. The expanse across the West generally followed the route of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, which allowed auto travelers to enjoy the comfortable Harvey House hotels in depot towns along the way. But in between, navigating the mostly unpaved and often-rugged road was more of a wilderness expedition.
Although the modern drive on I-40 between Ash Fork and Williams is little more than a blur of pine trees and speeding big rigs, taking Forest Road 124 — located a few miles north of the interstate — is reminiscent of the National Old Trails Road, circa 1920. The winding journey is full of bumps, scenic panoramas and the thrill of traveling a dusty road with no other cars in sight.
Before embarking on your own retro road trip, get in the mood with a visit to the Ash Fork Route 66 Museum, located on Historic Route 66. The museum is managed by the Ash Fork Historical Society and includes various exhibits on frontier life, as well as plenty of early 20th century road-trip memorabilia. From Ash Fork, head north on Double A Ranch Road — you’ll pass Settlers Cemetery on the right. Then turn right onto County Road 124, which becomes FR 124. Soon, the pavement ends and the real experience begins.
The graded red-dirt road winds north and then east through juniper scrubland and in between hillsides stacked with large, salmon-colored sandstone slabs. Several commercial quarries along FR 124 supply Ash Fork’s thriving flagstone business. After several miles, you’ll top out on a 6,000-foot plateau called Paradise Ridge, where undulating grassland sprawls in every direction and a spectacular view of Bill Williams Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks fills the horizon. On the right, look for the perfect picnic spot: a pullout and two sandstone benches, strategically placed to enjoy the view, under a large juniper.
As FR 124 descends off the ridge, railroad tracks parallel the road on the left, and the ruins of an old mining town at Cucamonga Junction are on the right. Eventually, the junipers, prickly pears and sandstone bluffs give way to broad high-country meadows that are filled with wildflowers in late summer. On your right is a marsh, called Mud Ketch Tank, where deer can often be spotted. FR 124 (also signed CR 124) becomes a bumpy washboard on the climb out of the marsh and into the pine forest just outside of Williams.
A National Old Trails Road travel guide published in the early 1920s by the Albuquerque Auto Trades Association describes Williams this way: “Here, the healthseeker or the sportsman finds his goal. The hills abound with deer and wild turkey, [and] numerous small lakes are stocked with bass. Lion, bear and wolves, while a menace to the stock industry, offer thrills for the big game hunter.”
Eventually, you’re back on pavement, and as you drive past the manicured greens of Williams’ Elephant Rocks Golf Course, it’s highly unlikely you’ll see a wolf or a bear. But you can enjoy the satisfaction of having experienced a vintage 1920 American road trip.
Photo: Forest Road 124 offers views of the distant Bill Williams Mountain as it winds from Ash Fork to Williams. | Nick Berezenko
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 45-mile loop
Directions: From Williams, go west on Interstate 40 for 15 miles to the I-40 business route in Ash Fork (Exit 146). Turn right onto the I-40 business route and continue 0.4 miles to First Street. Turn right onto First Street and continue 0.1 miles to Double A Ranch Road. Turn right onto Double A Ranch Road and continue 5.7 miles to a “Y” intersection. Bear right to stay on Double A Ranch Road (County Road 124), which becomes Forest Road 124 and later turns into Country Club Road, and continue 23.8 miles back to I-40 near Williams.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
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 plant to return.
Information: Williams Ranger District, 928-635-5600 or www.fs.usda.gov/kaibab; Ash Fork Route 66 Museum, 928-637-0204 or www.ashforkrt66museum.com