Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff
By Leah Duran
“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” So wrote the prolific adventurer and naturalist John Muir. If you’re headed south from Flagstaff and want to prolong your stay in the pines, try West Side Mormon Lake Road (County Road 90). The ponderosas framing this 17-mile, partially paved route to Munds Park may not unlock fantasy worlds such as Narnia, but they will open myriad doorways to the mountains, where the magic of scent, shade and scenery prevails.
As a bonus, begin your journey just south of Flagstaff at Lake Mary Road, also known as Forest Highway 3 (Exit 339 off Interstate 17). The next 26 miles are scenic in their own right, with panoramic views of Lower and Upper Lake Mary — azure pools topped with lime-green patches and surrounded by indigo peaks. The lakes, created by twin dams in 1907, are named for the daughter of Flagstaff pioneer Timothy Riordan. Watch for bald eagles and ospreys that hunt near the water.
Follow the sign toward Dairy Springs Campground, and turn right onto West Side Mormon Lake Road. Drive slowly as the road meanders toward the small town of Mormon Lake Village. Be mindful of pedestrians, horseback riders and campers.
About 3.5 miles down the road, look for Dairy Springs Campground, where Mormon settlers started a dairy farm in the late 1870s. The asphalt surrenders to dirt a mile later, at Forest Road 240. Turn right a few seconds before you get to the sign for Milepost 5. The bumpy road immediately angles uphill and crosses stands of Gambel oaks. After a mile, glance left for a clear view of ponderosas stretching to the horizon. Keep your eyes open for ATV users, who frequent the windy roads and surrounding forest. If you’re lucky, you might also spot elk.
Pass a cattle guard and follow the road as it levels to the intersection of Forest Road 132A toward Mormon Mountain. Keep left to stay on FR 240. Another mile ahead, spindles of aspens intersperse with pines and create white gates to lower elevations. As sharp curves wend downhill, drive only as fast as your eyes can feast on fallen trees and the shrub-like New Mexico locust.
After 9 miles, continue right on FR 240 as it passes a farmhouse and spills onto spacious meadows. Crooked wooden fence posts guard wildflowers in the summer, along with the feathery-tipped grass known as foxtail barley. The next 6 miles make up a flat, easy drive through prairie lowlands frequented by pronghorns. The mahogany-colored road passes around the backside of the farmhouse and meets with Forest Road 700. Turn left to stay on FR 240, and follow it to the secluded Casner Park, named in honor of horse rancher Mose Casner, who lived near these quiet meadows in the 1880s. Here, mountain bluebirds flit between the pines, rustling the needles along with the breeze.
Steer over several humble hills and a dry wash to an iron gate, which marks FR 240’s transition to a paved road called Pinewood Boulevard. The entrance to I-17 is about 2 miles down the road. The well-manicured Munds Park offers gas, food and a farewell glance at the pine-studded portals into the mountains.
Photo: Gambel oaks mingle with ponderosa pines, forming a canopy over West Side Mormon Lake Road. | Robert G. McDonald
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 17 miles one way (from Lake Mary Road)
Directions: From Flagstaff, go southeast on Lake Mary Road (Forest Highway 3) for 26 miles, past Lower and Upper Lake Mary, to West Side Mormon Lake Road (County Road 90). Turn right onto West Side Mormon Lake Road and continue 5 miles to Forest Road 240. Turn right onto FR 240, which later turns into Pinewood Boulevard, and continue 12 miles to Munds Park and Interstate 17.
Vehicle requirements: None
Information: Flagstaff Ranger District, 928-526-0866 or www.fs.usda.gov/coconino