Prescott National Forest, Camp Verde
By Roger Naylor
Everything you need to know about Camp Verde can be learned by driving Salt Mine Road. It highlights the town’s rural character and provides multiple history lessons and delicious scenery. Most significantly, it accentuates the life-altering dynamics that exist where desert and riparian habitats collide.
Salt Mine Road begins as a tree-draped country lane. On the left, you’ll spot a big stone house built in the 1870s by William “Boss” Head, who ran the sutler store at Fort Verde and later became an Arizona senator. The road rolls past tidy ranch homes where you’ll see more horses in the yards than dogs. After a mile, residences thin out and the landscape starts to widen. On the right side you’ll see the road’s namesake, a mound so defiantly white it would put a gleam in Captain Ahab’s eye.
For a closer inspection, turn onto the small dirt track and park at the gate. Tucked among the hills are decaying timbers, crumbling foundations and hulking, rusted machinery, remnants of a salt-mining operation that ceased in 1933. What’s not immediately apparent is that this might be the site of the oldest underground mine in America.
During commercial operations, the company began unearthing artifacts such as woven yucca sandals, ax handles and torches. After two mummified miners were discovered, an anthropologist was brought in. The anthropologist discovered ancient tunnels and determined that salt was being mined throughout the Sinagua era, a.d. 1300-1450. Further studies led to speculation that the mine may have been worked for 2,000 years, as long as man has inhabited the Verde Valley.
Back on Salt Mine Road, the scenery alternates between domesticated groupings of ranchettes and sprawling open terrain. At about 3.5 miles, the road crests a low ridge and exposes a striking panorama. Limestone hills ring the valley and craggy mountains muscle up behind them. In the distance, the toothy cluster of the San Francisco Peaks gnaws the horizon. A corridor of green and gold curves along the valley floor, as cottonwoods and willows canopy the Verde River along its winding path. At the peak of the season, this serpent-like mass blazes with autumn hues.
The road meanders through scrubby foothills with rocky slopes rising on all sides. Nestled along the Verde Rim, the rarely visited Cedar Bench Wilderness looms to the south. Just past 8.5 miles, the road bends sharply left and soon afterward the pavement ends. Continue on this easily managed stretch of gravel for another mile or so to Beasley Flat, a day-use area on the banks of the river.
In spring this is the put-in spot for kayakers and canoeists. It’s an idyllic location any time, with white cliffs rising from the opposite bank, gouged with scores of crevasses and caves. Tree-lined banks shelter an array of wildlife, including Sonoran mud turtles, beavers and river otters. Swimmers and picnickers swarm the grounds during summer, when the mercury punches through the top of the thermometer with a blood-red fist. In autumn, a sense of tranquility settles over the waterside nook, radiant with fall color. Too bad all dead-end roads don’t reach such joyous conclusions.
Photo: The cool greens of summer give way to golden cottonwood trees in the Verde Valley. | Jeff Kida
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 11 miles one way
Directions: From Phoenix, go north on Interstate 17 for 87 miles to State Route 260 (Exit 287). Turn right (east) onto SR 260 and continue for 2.8 miles to Salt Mine Road.
Vehicle Requirements: None
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: Verde Ranger District, 928-567-4121 or www.fs.usda.gov/prescott