Tonto National Forest, Globe Ranger District
By Kelly Vaughn Kramer
Crawl. Walk. Run. The evolution of human movement seems simple enough. But it’s a formula that also can be applied to other, non-bipedal modes of getting from one place to another — like driving. Creep. Cruise. Fly.
In the case of this drive, which curls in a loop through the Pinal Mountains near Globe, you’ll be tempted to fly. Instead — thanks to the ruggedness of the road (yes, you need a four-wheel-drive) and the draw of the scenery — you’re better off cruising, even creeping, in parts.
The route begins on Ice House Canyon Road (Forest Road 112), in a residential area just beyond Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park. After 3.7 miles, you’ll see a sign for the Tonto National Forest. Here, civilization fades away, left to the telephone lines, homes and corrals you’ve experienced up to this point. Manzanita, scrubby bushes and an occasional juniper comprise the landscape, and around Mile 4.7, you’ll come upon a view of Cobre Valley out the driver’s-side window. It’s marked by a cascade of granite boulders and will likely be commemorated through an “Oh, look at that” from you or one of your passengers.
As the road climbs, pine trees replace the scrub, though manzanita bushes remain commonplace throughout the drive. The pines get taller and the shadows grow deeper around Mile 7.2 as the forest thickens, and the well-maintained dirt road passes through the Pioneer Pass Recreation Area at Mile 8.6. Here, you’ll find restrooms and a place to stretch your legs. It’s also a great place to gather your wits, crack your knuckles and gird your belly for the remainder of the drive.
Once you’re past the recreation area, the road grows rockier — wilder, in a sense — and you may encounter an occasional grouping of bright-orange or red wildflowers as it descends toward Pioneer Basin. Around Mile 10.8, you’ll see the radio towers atop Signal Peak and begin cruising through more high-desert landscape. A mile later, you’ll come to a turnoff. You can go straight for Pioneer Basin, but, for the purposes of this drive, turn right onto Forest Road 221 at the sign for the Bobtail Ridge Trail and Doak Spring.
A couple of miles past the turn, you’ll see a sign for Pioneer Pass, but veer right to stay on FR 221. Hillsides of agaves and century plants become the primary scenery along this section of the drive, but you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for a variety of birds and white-tailed deer, which are common in this area.
The road turns and climbs, then descends, twists and turns again in this neck of the woods, and there will be moments when you won’t be able to anticipate what’s over the next ridge or beyond the next curve. It’s four-wheel-drive in these parts, and that’s why it’s important to creep while you’re on FR 221.
Around Mile 18.5, you’ll come to a burned hillside, the remnant of some long-ago fire. If it’s cloudy, the skeletons of trees will look eerie against the backdrop of a storm, but shortly thereafter, the valley stretches like a canvas.
You’ll come to a fork in the road just shy of Mile 20. Turn left onto Forest Road 651 and veer left, then quickly right, when you come to another fork less than a half-mile later. This road is a well-maintained respite after the primitive stretch of FR 221, and you’ll appreciate the pretty recreation area it runs through, rich with sycamores and oaks.
After a 5-mile cruise along FR 651, you’ll turn right (east) onto Kellner Canyon Road (Forest Road 55) to return to Ice House Canyon Road. Feel free to fly — within reason, at or under the speed limit.
PHOTO: Sotol flowers and century plants dominate the scenery along the Pinal Mountains Loop. | Rick Giase
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 30.5-mile loop
Directions: From Globe, follow the signs toward Besh-Ba-Gowah Pueblo Ruins. Just past the turnoff, turn right onto Ice House Canyon Road (Forest Road 112) and go south for 11.8 miles to Forest Road 221. Turn right onto FR 221 and continue 8 miles to Forest Road 651. Turn left onto FR 651 and continue 0.3 miles. From there, veer left, then take an immediate right to stay on FR 651. Continue on FR 651 for an additional 5 miles to Kellner Canyon Road (Forest Road 55). Turn right onto Kellner Canyon Road and continue 2.5 miles back to Ice House Canyon Road. Turn left onto Ice House Canyon Road and continue 2.9 miles back to the starting point.
Vehicle Requirements: A high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle is required.
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: Globe Ranger District, 928-402-6200 or www.fs.usda.gov/tonto
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.