By Kathy Ritchie
When people think about Arizona’s landscape, they typically think desert — a dusty, barren wasteland that’s inhospitable at its worst and devoid of beauty at its best. It’s a tough reputation to shake. After all, Arizona does have more than its share of arid land. In fact, the state is home to 22.3 million acres of Sonoran Desert. And while it can be uninviting, it’s also full of life, and one of the best places to see it is along the Florence-Kelvin Highway.
The 32-mile journey begins with a short run through a smattering of suburbia before arriving at the point where you’ll need your camera. In fact, after turning east onto the Florence-Kelvin Highway from State Route 79, you might even wonder whether you veered the wrong way. Don’t fret. In a matter of minutes, you’ll see creosote bushes, chollas and ocotillos, and, depending on the time of year, colorful wildflowers — in shades of yellow, red, orange and purple — that carpet the desert floor after heavy winter and spring rains. You’ll also see saguaros, with their giant arms reaching toward the sky.
The desert road is paved for the first 12.3 miles before turning into graded dirt. It’s an easy drive, and the traffic is usually light, allowing sightseers to literally stop and smell the wildflowers. At Mile 14.5, the road enters a box canyon (if the weather is inclement or rain is a possibility, don’t enter) and turns sandy. But it’s temporary. Once you’re out of the canyon, it’s back to gravel and those stunning Sonoran Desert views. The blue sky appears even more dramatic against the desert soil.
About a mile beyond the box canyon, after passing Barkerville Road, you’ll spot an outcropping of boulders. It’s a curious — and seemingly sudden — shift, and those dominant saguaros are dwarfed by the giant rocks that are piled on top of each other.
After crossing a cattle guard at Mile 18.8, the road opens up a little, and you might be tempted to speed up. But be careful. The road dips and unexpectedly goes from gravel to sand at times. The curves also become much sharper where the landscape morphs from vast, open desert to rugged mountain terrain on the approach to the Tortilla Mountains. In the distance, you’ll see a huge gash in the mountainside, courtesy of an open-pit mine. You’ll also catch a glimpse of a lush riparian area fed by the Gila River.
At Mile 27.7, the road passes the A-Diamond Ranch headquarters and begins to climb. Look to your right and you might see a stunning panorama of wildflowers.
By Mile 30, the journey nears its end, and before you know it, you’re back on pavement. After crossing the Gila River on the one-lane bridge called the “Jake” Jacobson Bridge of Unity, you’ll enter the tiny town of Kelvin, where the road connects with State Route 177.
PHOTO: Saguaros and paloverdes bloom along the route. Both plants usually bloom around the same time, between April and June. | George Stocking
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 32 miles one way
Directions: From Phoenix, go east on U.S. Route 60 for 21 miles to State Route 79 (Pinal Pioneer Parkway). Turn right (south) onto SR 79 and continue 18 miles through Florence to the Florence-Kelvin Highway. Turn left (east) onto the Florence-Kelvin Highway and continue 32 miles to State Route 177.
Vehicle requirements: None
Information: Florence Visitors Center, 520-868-5216 or www.visitflorenceaz.com
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.