The plan was simple. Load up our rigs and set out across the center of the state seeking backcountry trails and interesting sites. We had planned on four days of expedition-style wheeling, camping out along the way. We covered more than 500 miles on our adventure, about two-thirds of that on dirt.
Arizona is home to a diverse array of climate conditions. Ranging from dry desert to chaparral to heavily wooded pine forests, the land areas span elevations from just above sea level to more than 12,000 feet in the highest mountains. We set out during a pleasant March week to explore central Arizona, much of it on dirt trails.
We began our journey just northeast of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest. We followed the Great Western Trail, a backcountry route that runs from the border of Mexico to Canada, including an 800-mile stretch in Arizona. We ventured northward and onto the Bloody Basin trail, composed of bright reddish soil.
We stumbled upon the Dugas Ranch along the Great Western Trail, part of an old community. The ranch was established around 1879 by Fred Dugas and a town grew around the area, and a post office was established there in 1925. However, by 1938, it was closed because of the subsiding population. A number of old and interesting buildings remain, including a windmill. They are privately owned and fenced, but we were able to admire the aging structures from the dirt road.
We headed northwest across the Black Hills and into the old town of Jerome, which incorporated in 1898 when Arizona was still just a territory. Gold, silver, and copper mining have led to boom and bust in this town as ore dictated much of the area activity. It was known for its lawlessness, and had a rough and tumble reputation. Today, the quaint community boasts a rich history and plenty of tourist draw.
Venturing back onto dirt, we traversed parts of the Prescott National Forest and spent our first night camping at Powell Springs. The next day, we drove back south of Jerome to the pine forest at Woodchute Trailhead, where we followed the Smiley Rock Trail, another piece of the Great Western Trail system. We dropped into Martin Canyon, where we found dense trees and a boulder-strewn creek bed. The trail encircles a large wilderness area, and we emerged into wide pastures with visibility stretching for tens of miles.
We watched a storm brew in the mountains thinking we would soon be drenched, but the rain played out and the clouds mostly disappeared before reaching us. While our shadows grew ever longer, we turned north again up the Great Western Trail and found a spot to camp just west of Antelope Hills. As the sun dropped well below the horizon and darkness fell, our tents went up and we settled in for another night of camping under stars far from any city.