Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests
By Noah Austin
Arizona has a lot of scenic beauty, but unless you count lakes, streams and the Colorado River on its western border, it lacks a coastline. However, get out of your car at any point along this 38-mile scenic drive on the Mogollon Rim, and you might start to wonder. If you close your eyes, you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the sound of the wind whooshing through the ponderosas and the sound of waves crashing against some tropical beach.
Of course, it’s not really a beach; it’s a back road with rocks, and some of them are pretty sharp. That’s why you’ll want to take a four-wheel-drive vehicle and tread carefully and slowly. The sweeping panoramas you’ll see atop the Mogollon Rim are worth the extra time it might take you to get there.
The drive begins in Heber, and after you pass a few houses and businesses, you’ll enter the Sitgreaves National Forest. A creek parallels the early part of the drive and crosses the road in a few places. It’s there that you’ll start seeing reminders of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the second-largest wildfire in Arizona’s history. The fire burned more than 450,000 acres in the summer of 2002. There’s plenty of living forest left to see here, but appreciate the burned-out areas for what they are: a reminder to put out campfires and dispose of cigarettes properly.
In addition to the scenery, the route features a number of informational markers. One of them, about 9 miles in, tells the story of Baca Meadow, a clearing where Juan and Damasia Baca built a home and raised eight children in the late 1800s. The meadow is also a great place to listen to the aforementioned wind through the ponderosas.
At Mile 12, you’ll see a turnoff for Black Canyon Lake, a popular fishing spot. A few miles later, you’ll find yourself on Forest Road 300, and at two points along it, you’ll see stunning scenery on both sides of the road. The wildfire robbed this drive of a lot of trees, but it also opened up the canopy, and the views of forest to the north and south are spectacular.
Gentry Lookout, a wildfire watchtower, is located at Mile 18. There are picnic tables and grills there, so stop for lunch, say hello to the ranger on duty (if it’s fire season) and enjoy another great view to the north. And don’t leave the Rim without checking out the view to the south from the pullout at Mile 25. It’s impressive.
Toward the end of this drive, you’ll arrive at Phoenix Park, a large, lush meadow ringed by ponderosas and other evergreens. Look for a sandstone chimney that marks where an old ranch building once stood. From there, it’s just another few miles to the end of the drive — 10 miles east of where you started, and even farther from the beach.
Photo: On the Mogollon Rim, common sunflowers fill the void left by the devastating Rodeo-Chediski Fire. | Paul Gill
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 38 miles one way
Directions: From Payson, go east on State Route 260 for 51 miles to Black Canyon Lane. Turn left onto Black Canyon Lane, a dirt road that soon turns into Black Canyon Road (Forest Road 86), and continue 15.3 miles to Forest Road 300. Turn left onto FR 300 and continue 14.3 miles to Forest Road 125. Turn left onto FR 125 and continue 4.9 miles to Forest Road 124. Turn right onto FR 124 and continue a half-mile to Forest Road 144. Turn left onto FR 144 and continue 3 miles back to SR 260 near Overgaard.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle is required. This drive is not recommended in inclement weather.
Information: Black Mesa Ranger District, 928-535-7300 or www.fs.usda.gov/asnf