I wasn’t entirely sure what Sprocket and I were going to get up to on our way back from the Phoenix area while bound for Colorado. I figured I’d take a couple of days to make the drive and that we could adventure somewhere along the way. I’d debated between hiking Black Mesa, the Navajo County highpoint, and adventuring in the Bradshaw Mountains to Mount Union, the Yavapai County Highpoint. I didn’t really make up my mind until I reached the Bumble Bee exit on I-17.
I often rave about the wonders of taking the blue highways but I really outdid myself this time. It is only 45 miles on the interstate between Black Canyon City and Camp Verde and I managed to map out a route that more than doubled the mileage and took the original 45 minute drive and turned it into an adventure…
After climbing up from the Verde Valley, I passed through the small community of Crown King and then started following the Senator Highway north. The dirt road was in pretty good shape and we made good time (for gravel) and only hit snow in a few patches.
After so much quiet and lonely driving through the mountains, it was almost anti-climatic to get to the base of the Mt. Union spur road. There are private homes along the road (and the gun fire in the distance was sort of disconcerting) so we hustled our way up to the peak. I lazily didn’t change out of my flip flops so the little stretch of the road that was shaded by the peak itself was sort of interesting. (Oops.)
We scrambled up as far up the stairs of the lookout as we could, Sprocket braving the steep narrow extruded aluminum bravely, and looked around. The Bradshaw Mountains are not among Arizona’s most majestic but they really are in the middle of everything; the views were a little obscured by clouds but I got an idea of just how much I could see from that vantage point!
I decided to take FS 261 down to the highway and I was actually kind of surprised by it! I had to pick my line with some care in places to compensate for the stock XJ’s relatively low clearance. I could have made it up the road just fine but it would have been tough in a couple of spots. Although it felt like it had been a really full day already, I decided to push it all the way back to De Beque over a snowy Lizard Head Pass into Ridgway and then north to our own bed after a really busy week of friends and mountain tops!
My original plan, after visiting Mt. Lemmon and Rice Peak was go head down and climb Mt. Wrightson, the Santa Cruz county highpoint, but for reasons I can’t really explain, I just wasn’t feeling like it. I drove up through the mountains to the east and then circled back around to the west. And then, I just kept driving west.
During the winters I spent in Arizona, especially around the Quartzsite area, I’d really been wanting to hike or drive up Harquahala Mountain, the La Paz county highpoint. I’d heard that although 4 wheel drive is recommended that it doesn’t require high clearance. Sounds just perfect for an XJ! As I reached Gila Bend, I was pretty sure Harquahala was my destination. Darkness fell about the time I reached Buckeye but that didn’t stop us from tackling the approximately ten miles to the summit in the dark. Ruth handled everything masterfully (honestly the road was not that difficult and we did 90+% in two wheel drive and reached just one switchback where 4wd became necessary). Atop the summit, I had my sixth Arizona county highpoint!
At the summit, I realized the battery on my DSLR was dead. I’m super disappointed because the moon was SO BRIGHT that I kind of wanted to play around with some long exposures. Since that didn’t happen, I bundled up (although the breeze was warm) and Sprocket and I enjoyed the twinkling lights of the small towns to our west and of the I-10 corridor.
It was cozy cuddled with Sprocket in the back of the Jeep but as the sun started to rise, I crawled out of bed to take it all in. Absolutely incredible.
After wandering around a bit, we headed down hill, the sun still putting on a spectacular show (and illuminating the beautiful scenery we’d missed driving up in the dark).
This was an amazing drive! It wasn’t technical but the desert mountain views were incredible! It was such an amazing day to wake up and start the day.
Despite 1:15pm being a much later hour than I’d hoped to start the hike out to Pinal County’s highpoint on the slopes of Rice Peak, I decided to tackle the approximately 10 mile hike as a bit of a trail run racing darkness. Sprocket had seemed a little slow on our walk up to the Mount Lemmon summit and I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room so I left him behind in the Jeep and started hustling down the trail.
Oracle Ridge is sneaky. My Garmin measured about 3,300′ of elevation gain but, man, it felt like was constantly losing and regaining elevation! I ran down hill and motored up hill as quickly as I could and decided that I had time to scramble up to Oracle Ridge’s Middle Peak. This ended up being a little bit of a time suck as I had trouble refinding the trail when I descended and hurried on to Rice Peak.
I paused only momentarily on Rice Peak before wandering down its north ridge to the Pinal County highpoint at the Pima-Pinal County line. Just as I got to the highpoint I spotted some cougar tracks and started to get a little nervous about my fleeing prey status as the shadows lengthened. Instead of reclimbing Rice Peak, I pushed my way though the brush back to the trail. My capris left my legs totally open to the ravages of the cats claw and by the time I was on the trail, my lower legs looked like they had been attacked by a real herd of angry cats.
The colors of sunset were gorgeous and there was still plenty of light for hiking when I got back to the car after 11 miles of hiking with my fourth Arizona county highpoint completed!
After climbing Browns Peak, I treated myself to dinner in Globe before driving up Pinal Peak to spend the night. The road had a little bit of snow in places but was easily driveable all the way to the summit. (Thanks to Scott Surgent for the inspiration to go!). We slept excellently listening to the wind and enjoying the stillness. In the morning, we took in the views and then headed down the mountain. I decided not to hike the spur road to nearby Signal Peak but the summit of Pinal was the high point of the Pinal Mountains! Descending from Pinal we had a chance to take in all the views that we’d missed going up in the dark. It was really gorgeous.
After we returned to the highway in Globe, it was time to cruise south towards Mount Lemmon. I had studied maps and it appeared that we could drive up to the peak on Old Mount Lemmon Road approaching from the east near San Manuel instead of from the south near Tucson. Sprocket and I definitely have a penchant for taking the dirt route whenever possible.
The road was in remarkably good shape as we climbed out of the desert (except for that one time I took a random side road and ended up on a steep quad trail; thanks for saving my butt Ruth the XJ). The views kept getting better and better as we continued upwards and I admit to stopping to ogle the Galiuro Mountains to the east (Bassett Peak climb anyone?).
The road to the summit was gated at the ski area to my immense (Coloradan) annoyance. There was only a tiny amount of snow and since I hoped to make it out to Rice Peak that day as well the extra time for the hike to the summit was really frustrating but there was no helping it so off we went up the road. Sprocket was clearly ready for the walk:
We got a little tired of the road and decided to take our chances scrambling more directly to the summit. I had a pretty good laugh that this was our third day in Arizona and we’d played in the snow on all of them but there was no denying that Sprocket was a fan.
We tromped around the summit for a bit before heading back down to the car. I had another Arizona county highpoint, my fourth, under my belt and all was well. Sprocket, although he seemed happy to be out of the car, was moving a little slower than he had the previous day so I decided to leave him behind for the Rice Peak adventure since moving quickly was going to be key to making it out to the peak (and it’s county highpoint northern slopes) and back before dark but more on that soon!
After leaving Hubble Trading Post, I headed south for I-40. I’d hoped to have time to check out Petrified Forest National Park but I was running out of daylight for the stop (downsides of late fall adventure!) and decided to save that for another time. The benefit of this decision was that we had time to check out some Route 66 history!
I hopped off I-40 in Holbrook to follow the old route of 66 through town. I couldn’t help but stop at this Dairy Queen for a cone to enjoy as I cruised past old restaurants and the killer vintage-ness of the Wigwam Motel.
On the west end of Holbrook, we got back on I-40 and I kept taking the historic route 66 exits so we spent some time tooling along on frontage roads and then re-entering the highway. In Winslow, I followed the business route to downtown knowing that I wanted to get a photo on “The Corner” of Winslow.
I knew by the time we got to Flagstaff it would be dark so Sprocket and I took the opportunity to wander around a bit and stretch our legs before continuing on.
In Flagstaff, I tried a small sampler of beers at Mother Road Brewing Co. which only seemed appropriate after our adventures of the afternoon. The beer was just okay so I headed to a coffee shop to do a little bit of work and was recognized by Josh, a Twitter acquaintance of years(?) that I’d never met in person. Sadly, we didn’t have time for more than a hug and a “holy cow the world is small” moment before we were both off on our respective adventures!
Traveling south from Canyon de Chelly, I stopped at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. Located in Ganado, the Trading Post is still “operational” selling sundries in addition to visitors center like merchandise.
I poked around in the rug room and browsed the trading post, picking up few jars of salsa and jam for myself and a handful of small trinkets for Christmas gifts.
The visitors center was closed for lunch so I spend some time wandering the grounds checking out the sheep, the fowl, the bread oven, and poking around.
When the visitor center reopened, I paid my $2 to take a tour of the Hubbell residence. I didn’t take any photos inside but I found the house really compelling. It passed directly from the family to the Park Service so the furnishings are all original to the house and they even have the family china! It was just me on the tour so it was really informal but my guide was great and I really enjoyed it. (I was even a bit inspired by the hallway-less design of the house!)
I spent a little time browsing the Canyon de Chelly visitors center and trying to get a sense for what I should spend some time doing. I really only wanted to allot time for one of the rim drives but I didn’t stress out about it too much because in the spectrum of western drives, this isn’t too terribly far from the San Juan Mountains.
I started out driving along the South Rim, pulling over at each overlook to enjoy the view. As much as this fit my MO for the morning, I can’t imagine letting something like this be my only interaction with canyons in the southwest! This really just gets back to my issues with national parks, I love them and understand why they’re run the way they are but I really struggle with the restrictions and the way that they seem to encourage very passive consumption of national treasures. BUT ANYWAY.
Canyon de Chelly had been a place I wanted to visit for a long time, after having read a NYT piece about it. It really is gorgeous if occasionally it was sort of uncomfortable to politely turn down seemingly earnest Navajo jewelry and artist vendors in the park; I just don’t really know how to respond to someone trying to sell me a painted pictograph (when this area is characterized by petroglyphs) on a slice of sandstone. I don’t want it or need it but somehow I feel guilty for not buying it because, History. The world is complicated sometimes.
I decided to hike down to White House Ruins. It’s the only place in the monument where you can hike down to the floor of the canyon without a Navajo guide. Sadly, because Canyon de Chelly is part of the National Park Service, Sprocket had to wait for me in the Jeep.
The trail down to the White House Ruins is pretty great. It’s short, gorgeous, and pretty well constructed. There’s stairs carved into the sandstone at the rim and a couple of tunnels not to mention the ruins at the bottom.
Being on the canyon floor was pretty amazing. I’d really love to see more of the canyon. (Anyone want to go in on a Jeep tour with me?)
After I got back to the car, we visited one more overlook and I let Sprocket walk out with me. I’m not sure if pets are allowed but I figured the warning sign implied that they were? Sprocket was delighted to get out and walk around on slickrock and no ranger chased us down so it all worked out.
One of the bonuses of being a teacher is that a lot of school districts seem to have gone to week long Thanksgiving Breaks! This actually makes a lot of sense considering the number of families that travel for the holiday and missed some school anyway. Last year I took advantage of the break by spending some time in Denver and then flying to Connecticut to celebrate Lucy and Franz’s wedding. This year, I decided to return to an infant holiday tradition and go to Arizona to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with a dear friend from high school who had been kind enough to invite me to Thanksgiving in 2012 and 2013. I think she’s stuck with me now. 🙂
Thursday after school, Sprocket and I hopped in Ruth, made a quick stop at the gas station and headed out of town. I decided to take advantage of the long stretch of driving to run a fuel mileage test at about 55 mph so we weren’t making great time but I wasn’t worried about it at all; we were cruising down the highway listening to podcasts and simply enjoying the freedom of the open road.
I’d hoped to make it all the way down to Kayenta that night but I’d gotten a start about an hour later than I’d hoped plus it’s amazing what a difference driving 55mph for 200 miles compared to 70mph makes. (I think I drove about 40 from Monticello to Blanding…holy deer everywhere on the side of the road!) We made camp along the San Juan River knowing that it would be more difficult to find a good place to camp once we crossed the bridge onto the Navajo Reservation.
In the morning, we got our start just before the sun crested over the buttes to the east. It was lovely to cruise along watching the desert become fully light.
Originally, I’d planned to take the standard route to Flagstaff via Kayenta but, seizing the luxury of traveling alone with no real schedule, I decided to take US-191 south to Chinle and visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I’d passed right by the monument in 2013 but it just so happened to be during the government shutdown so even though the park is run as a partnership with the Navajo Nation it was no dice on visiting.
Roadtrips are my absolute favorite. I almost didn’t take this one to try and save some money but I am so glad I did and I’m excited to share stories of the adventure with you all.