When I’m looking for routes that are worthy of being featured in Arizona Highways, I spend a lot of time on the internet. Most of the time, what I find there can be trusted. But there’s a reason I actually go out and drive these roads.
Case in point: Forest Road 202, which runs from the pines of the Mogollon Rim to the Sonoran Desert north of Globe. An online write-up described this route as an “easy road with a few rough stretches [that] will not take as long as you think.” That isn’t the case, and in my opinion, all-terrain tires are a must for this lengthy trek. But the views along the way are more than worth the effort.
The drive begins on Forest Road 512, the northern section of the Desert to Tall Pines Scenic Road — which becomes State Route 288 in Young and is the main north-south route through Pleasant Valley. Fifteen miles south of State Route 260, you’ll turn left onto FR 202, initially a wide, well-maintained dirt path lined with ponderosa and piñon pines, along with oaks. Junipers appear as the road descends, and at Mile 5.7, you’ll go left at a “Y” intersection to stay on FR 202. The road gets rougher from here, but the views get better: At Mile 7.5, the canopy opens up, giving you a view of the Hellsgate Wilderness to the west and the Sierra Ancha to the southwest.
Next, FR 202 descends into a canyon that cradles a few tall ponderosas, and soon after that, you’ll make the first of several crossings of a clearing for overhead power lines. By Mile 10, you’ll be back in the ponderosas, but only briefly. The road keeps descending out of the high country, and gets even rougher, before reaching a “T” intersection. Turn left to stay on FR 202 and traverse a large clearing dotted with stately alligator junipers, with views of distant mountains in all directions.
Past the clearing is a several-mile stretch of piñon-juniper landscapes mixed with grassy meadows and creek crossings, and as your descent continues, more agaves and yuccas appear along the road. (You’ll also reach a gate, one of two on this road; if either is closed, you may open it to pass, but be sure to close it behind you.) After another brief return to ponderosas at Mile 27, you’ll come to a section of road with a dramatic drop-off on the left, offering amazing views of the valley below and the mountains to the distant southeast.
The next stretch is one of the route’s roughest, and it’s also where I acquired one of my least favorite Scenic Drive surprises: a flat tire. If you’re rocking all-terrain tires, that probably won’t happen, and you’ll be able to comfortably continue descending toward a small grove of Arizona sycamores (at Mile 32.5) and enjoy the views to the south. The final descent begins at Mile 34, and the road thankfully smooths a bit as you roll toward a left turn at a “T” intersection with Forest Road 203 (Cherry Creek Road) at Mile 39.6.
This road has a few rough stretches of its own, but it also features hillsides guarded by tall, healthy saguaros; large sycamores and cottonwoods along Cherry Creek; and a view of Theodore Roosevelt Lake near the road’s conclusion. Once you’ve returned to pavement on SR 288, you can continue south to the Globe-Miami area or go north to return to Rim Country. Either way, you’ll have gotten plenty of scenery — and, if you’re like me, a reminder that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 56.8 miles one way (from Forest Road 512)
Directions: From State Route 260 east of Payson, go south on Forest Road 512 (the Desert to Tall Pines Scenic Road) for 15 miles to Forest Road 202. Turn left onto FR 202 and continue 39.6 miles to Forest Road 203
(Cherry Creek Road). Turn left onto FR 203 and continue 17.2 miles to State Route 288 northwest of Globe.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance vehicle, such as an SUV or truck, is required, and all-terrain tires are highly recommended. Four-wheel-drive is not necessary in good weather. Do not attempt the drive after recent heavy rain or if rain is in the forecast.
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: Payson Ranger District, 928-474-7900 or fs.usda.gov/tonto