Sierra Ancha, Tonto National Forest
“Over the river and through the woods” isn’t a saying you’d expect to apply to the Sonoran Desert, but Greenback Valley Road, which winds into the rugged Sierra Ancha south of Payson, has a way of defying expectations. In 14.2 pleasant miles, this route offers running water, varied plant life and mountain views — all of them a reminder of some of the surprising things you can find in Arizona’s largest desert.
Reset your trip odometer in Punkin Center — a small community on State Route 188, which connects State Route 87 near Rye to U.S. Route 60 in the Globe area. In under a quarter-mile, you’ll be on Greenback Valley Road (Forest Road 71), and soon after that, you’ll come to the “river”: Tonto Creek, a wide waterway that usually has at least some water in it. After severe storms in winter and monsoon storms in summer, the creek’s flow increases substantially, and a crossing should be attempted only when the water is calm and shallow.
After crossing the creek, you’ll pass through a residential area before the pavement ends at Mile 1.7. The road, now an easy dirt path, winds east toward the southwest slopes of the Sierra Ancha, a range known for dramatic canyons, archaeological sites and a relative lack of modern encroachment. Cholla and prickly pear cactuses mark this early stretch, along with a handful of saguaros. Then, at Mile 4, the road curves to the north and provides a glimpse of the rocky ridge you’re about to follow into the mountains. When it curves back to the east a mile later, you’ll see a pristine stand of saguaros below the road, in the gully on the right side.
Past a series of ups and downs, at Mile 7.2, Greenback Valley Road crosses a wash and briefly doubles back, giving you a glimpse of the lookout tower atop 7,103-foot Mount Ord to the west. By now, owing to how far you’ve climbed, the cactuses have largely been replaced by junipers, piñon pines and yuccas. After another mile comes another vegetation change as you pass through a grove of Arizona sycamores, easily identified by their white trunks and spindly branches. They seem an odd fit for this desert landscape, but you’ll shortly see a few more of them along the creek on the left side of the road.
At Mile 10.3, as you crest a hill, the peculiar “V”-shaped rock formation straight ahead is likely to catch your eye. You’ll see more outcroppings of these dark rocks in the next few miles, as the Sierra Ancha foothills close in on the road. At Mile 12.7, you’ll come to a “Y” intersection. Head left onto Forest Road 236 and enjoy an expansive view of the ruddy cliffs on the peaks ahead. A little more than a mile later, you’ll reach an unlocked gate. A quarter-mile past the gate is a clearing that marks the stopping point for the drive.
Medium-sized evergreens line the roadside here and provide ample morning or evening shade. If you’ve packed a picnic lunch, this is a good place to enjoy it. If not, simply stretch your legs and get ready for the return trip. As with much of the unexpected beauty of the Sonoran Desert, the scenery along Greenback Valley Road is even better the second time through.
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 14.2 miles one way (from State Route 188)
Directions: From Payson, go south on State Route 87 for 15.8 miles to State Route 188. Turn left onto SR 188 and continue 13.4 miles to Old State Route 188 (follow signs for Punkin Center). Turn left onto Old SR 188 and continue 0.2 miles to a “Y” intersection. Bear left, onto Greenback Valley Road (Forest Road 71), and continue 12.5 miles to another “Y” intersection. Bear left, onto Forest Road 236, and continue 1.5 miles to the clearing that marks this drive’s stopping point.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance vehicle, such as an SUV or truck, is required.
Special consideration: Do not attempt to cross Tonto Creek when the water level is high, such as after a monsoon storm. Check with the Tonto National Forest before heading out.
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 Basin Ranger District, 602-225-5395 or fs.usda.gov/tonto