One of the things I like best about Arizona is that it is so diverse. People who haven’t really explored it often assume the state is one giant barren desert of scorching sand. If you only flew into Phoenix for a short trip, you might easily be forgiven for that mistake. The state is so huge that you have to allow a lot of time in order to see even a tiny fraction of what it has to offer.
That was a big motivation for making the recent tent camping trip that I’ve been describing over the past few blog posts. We are now officially Arizona residents, complete with drivers licenses, vehicle registrations, and (soon) voter registrations. This is our home base between Airstream trips. I want to know this place that I’m calling home. So I mapped out a 700-mile round-robin (click map for larger view) to see the high-altitude parts of northern Arizona that we never venture near during the winter.
Our trip started up the Devil’s Highway (Rt 191) through Arizona’s White Mountains, and then brought us across the Mogollon Rim, staying almost exclusively above 7,000 feet elevation. This is the gorgeous green part of Arizona, where pines and black bears and tourists all flourish in the summertime.
The Rim, the focus of today’s adventure, bears some explanation, as it is not nearly as well known as the Grand Canyon to the northwest. But it is nearly as grand. It is a 200-mile long escarpment, sharply defining the edge of the high plateau. As you can imagine, standing at almost any point along the edge of the Rim yields fantastic views to the south, perhaps even more stunning in some ways than the Grand Canyon because you can often see five or more forested mountain ranges in succession over distances of up to a hundred miles.
To enjoy the view, you need only drive up Rt 260 from Payson and stop at the visitor center just at the top edge of the rim. But to really see the Mogollon’s many views, you’ll need to drive on some gravelly National Forest roads, namely FR300, and grit your teeth against the dust and constant jarring. This probably explains why the Mogollon Rim does not have the stature of certain other western sights. You have to really want to see it, and there are no signs along the paved highway indicating, “Turn this way for awesome views!”
We drove almost all of FR300, about 38 miles in total. With regular stops for photo and exploring, the trip took over two hours. Most of the travelers along this way are in pickup trucks, so our lowly Honda stuck out, but there’s no need for a high clearance or 4WD vehicle in good weather. The key is to go slowly, but why would you rush? Every turn yields an astonishing view from the Rim.
Bring a good map. The Forest Roads form a maze along the Rim, and Mapquest is not your best tool when planning this trip. It’s easy to stick to FR300 all the way (signage is good) but without a map you’ll be hard-pressed to figure out how to get back to pavement, should you wish to cut the trip short. Otherwise, it’s a long rugged drive from one end to the other.
Camping is available at many spots along the rim. With a few exceptions, you can camp anywhere within 300 feet of a road. Toward the eastern end of the road are several established campgrounds, all of which were mobbed on this Saturday of peak season. Ten to fifteen miles further west, the crowds disappeared and so did the campgrounds, but we spotted dozens of incredible single tent sites right on the edge of the rim. At a few, you could hang your feet out of the tent door and your toes would be dangling in mid-air. Most of the sites were occupied, but we passed a few others we could have snagged. The memory of the previous night’s huge thunderstorms were fresh in our minds, and we didn’t want to choose a campsite atop an exposed 7000-foot elevation escarpment if those storms returned again. This time, we were going for something in the trees.
Kehl Springs camp fit the bill. This old National Forest camp sits in a little valley, well sheltered from storms and apparently less-loved by campers than boondock spots along the maze of Forest Roads. We were only the second occupants of this 8-site campground. I can’t imagine why — it was shady and quiet, with the benefit of pit toilets nearby (but no water), and like our previous camp it was free.
This was perhaps the best night of the trip. We arrived at camp hours before sunset, with absolutely nothing to do. The sun was shining through the trees and the air was scented with pine, fairly dry and beautifully cool. As often happens in western camping, there were no biting insects, either, just lots of friendly butterflies.
So lacking anything structured to do with our time — the essence of vacation — we proceeded to make camp, pitching our tent just inches from the biggest tall pines at the campsite. We read our paperback books at the picnic table and made an Indian dinner over the camp stove with the gas lantern hissing in the background. It may not seem very traditional to be eating Trader Joe’s Indian food at camp, but we liked it just fine.
This was to be our last night above the Rim. Knowing that it would be well over 100 degrees by the time we reached the desert floor, it was hard to contemplate leaving this forested oasis. But at least we were rewarded on our final night with light cool breezes, a peaceful night among the trees, and no thunderstorms.