Superstition Mountains, Tonto National Forest
By Kathy Ritchie | Photo by George Stocking
Relationships are funny things. To make them work, you have to compromise. The same rule can be applied to scenic drives. Some scenic drives, anyway. Queen Valley Road in the Superstition Mountains is a good example. If you’re like my driving companion, Jon, who loves the adrenaline rush that comes from plowing across boulder-strewn terrain, then you’ll love the second half of this drive. It requires four-wheel-drive, which makes me nervous, because all I can think about in those scenarios is driving off a cliff. If you’re like-minded, and prefer stunning views to white-knuckle switchbacks, then the first half of this trek will be right up your alley.
After turning left onto Queen Valley Road off of U.S. Route 60, east of Phoenix, we drive more than a mile before turning right onto Forest Road 357 (Hewitt Station Road), which is where we zero out the odometer to officially measure this scenic drive. The road meanders for a good 2 miles before hitting Forest Road 172, on the left. The turnoff is well marked but requires some attention — there are several offshoot roads for quads and bikes. The dirt road quickly narrows, and at mile 3.5, we come to a fork. Unsure, we veer right.
The landscape is at once brutal and beautiful. Owl clover and Mexican goldpoppies are juxtaposed against the harsh, jagged hills. Around mile 5.3, we drop deeper into the Superstitions’ inner sanctum. As the canyon walls close in around us, layers of rock appear otherworldly. Spindly cactuses cover the rocky hillsides, and saguaros stand like sentinels at the edge of the road. Their arms hang over us like protective giants. We’re on Mother Nature’s turf, and it’s absolutely divine.
By mile 14, the saguaros are gone, replaced by piñon pines and juniper bushes, which cover the hillsides. A tight switchback at mile 15.9 forces us to pull over and make a three-point turn. The road looks gnarly, so we decide it’s time for four-wheel-drive. As we continue our climb — vertically — we come to a T junction and veer right onto Forest Road 650. At this point, the road is practically impassable without four-wheel-drive. As we crawl over small boulders, the road narrows, and navigating it requires some finesse. Jon is in his element and loves every moment. Fists clenched, I decide compromise is for the birds.
Around mile 20, we see remnants of a fire. Contorted branches that look like witches’ fingers reach out and scratch our SUV. The narrow road ahead hugs the mountainside like a ribbon. There’s no room for another vehicle to pass, no guardrail.
The next 10 miles feel endless as we begin our descent down a rocky hill made up of nauseatingly tight switchbacks. At mile 24.9, we come to another T junction. There are no signs, so we turn right and hope for the best. After crossing several sandy washes, we spot U.S. 60 up ahead. After 33 miles, we’re finally back on pavement. Jon comes down from his adrenaline high, and my stomach slowly settles.
“That was awesome,” Jon says.
“Yep,” I reply. “That first part was really stunning.”
Photo: Queen Valley Road, which runs through the Superstition Mountains, pairs scenic desert landscapes with narrow switchbacks.
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 33 miles one way
Directions: From Phoenix, drive east on U.S. Route 60. About 3 miles past State Route 79 at Florence Junction, turn left (north) onto Queen Valley Road. From there, drive 1.6 miles to Forest Road 357 (Hewitt Station Road), turn right and continue 2 miles to Forest Road 172. Turn left onto FR 172, drive 14 miles, and turn right onto Forest Road 650. From there, continue 17 miles to U.S. 60.
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: Tonto National Forest, Mesa Ranger District, 480-610-3300 or www.fs.usda.gov/tonto