When we left off last month, our group of five rigs was working its way across central Arizona, wheeling from trail to trail and camping out along the way. We had started at low elevation in the desert outside Phoenix, and had worked our way to more than 7,000 feet passing through chaparral and getting into tall pine forests.
Tanner Lamb had brought together a group of us and we had two Toyota pickups, a Jeep CJ-7, a Jeep TJ, and an 80-series Land Cruiser. We were following a portion of the Great Western Trail that runs from the Mexican border to Canada. We were near Antelope Hills outside of Jerome, Arizona, and were headed north. Jerome is an old mining town, but beyond that we were in remote country, probably best suited for cattle ranching.
Our travels through the Kaibab National Forest introduced us to much more mud as the snow was melting rapidly and soaking everything in its running path. We traveled through the forest roads and found some interesting side trails to explore. These areas had seen little to no travel over the winter, so we picked our way through muddy tracks and over the occasional fallen tree. Eventually, we were back on a main dirt trail and headed into the town of Williams as the sun was starting to drop lower in the sky.
Williams is a town that attracted gold miners and sheep and cattle ranchers. It's named after a mountain man and fur trapper named William “Old Bill” Sherley Williams. The town was founded in 1876 and eventually came to lie along the historic Highway 66 route. We spent a frigid night here in a warm motel to enjoy hot showers and a nice bed before hitting the trails again.
From Williams, we took the highway east near Flagstaff, and turned down paved Oak Creek Canyon. This deep-walled canyon is bounded with bright orange-red cliff faces. The canyon declines from about 7,000 feet to about 4,300 feet into the town of Sedona. Sedona is a modern tourism spot given its stunning red rock terrain, but its history is intriguing, too, and dates back to early human habitation some 12,000 years ago.
We headed into Sedona to seek out red rock 'wheeling on sandstone formations. We needed to buy Red Rock passes so we could park along the roads here. When we pulled into the tourism office, the woman working there was convinced we had stopped to ask for directions to a car wash. We assured her we were not looking for one yet.
We spent a great day crawling over the sandstone hills and ledges and taking in the picturesque views. We explored trails with names like Greasy Spoon and Broken Arrow, then tent-camped along a stretch of Oak Creek with its seasonal cold melt flow. The next morning was our last day out. We unlocked hubs a final time and headed home.
At the end of our expedition, we had traveled about 520 miles, with about two-thirds of that on dirt. We had been in choking dust and slimy mud, and from dry desert to towering pine forests. What had started as an idea to explore a portion of the state by backcountry had been a success. It was a 'wheeling adventure we would not soon forget.
Step By Step
We were following portions of the Arizona leg of the Great Western Trail, which is a trail system that spans more than 3,000 miles across Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.
High desert scrub is common here, yet in the distance you can see the towering ledges with orange stone formations. Much of this southwestern region is composed of unique geological layers where time, force, and temperatures have molded many amazing landmasses.
We found an abandoned sandstone quarry up in Coconino County and spent some time exploring the expansive remnants of rock. Large sandstone deposits are common in the Coconino plateau. We couldn’t quite tell how old this quarry was or how recently it had been abandoned, as there were little remains here other than the rock remnants.
We left the old sandstone quarry and continued our way along this leg of the Great Western Trail farther north.
The afternoon temperatures were very comfortable and we stopped along the way in Kaibab for a lunch break. To our pleasant surprise, we also stirred up a herd of about 15 elk in the woods.
As we entered the pines in Kaibab National Forest, we found plenty of snowmelt running through the area. A snowstorm had hit about a week before our trip and warmer days had followed. The 1.6 million–acre forest borders the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon.
We finished our day in Sedona on the Broken Arrow trail, another breathtaking red rock trail with some stair-step challenges and slickrock climbs. Submarine Rock lies along this trail, as well. It’s a huge horizontal mass of smooth red rock. Our final camp night would be in Sedona, camped along the vibrant Oak Creek.
At one point, the trail crossed over an interesting slot canyon via a small concrete bridge perched between the opposing rock walls. This area is quite remote and traffic is sparse here.
We followed dirt trails north of Jerome. We crossed this old steel bridge over the Verde River near the tiny community of Perkinsville.
Tanner Lamb’s 1982 Toyota Pickup on 41-inch Super Swamper IROK Radials rolls across a small creek in the northern pine forest. Each of us had packed all the gear we needed for the four-day expedition and we were all running our rigs a little heavier than usual.
Our topo maps guided us to an old fire road through the trees, so we followed the route to do some exploring. It had been some time since anyone had been through this trail and we encountered plenty of mud and some downed trees from over the winter.
We never got the chance to actually ’wheel in significant snow, but we would have had we been here a week earlier. However, we welcomed the warmer weather, yet temperatures still dropped to freezing overnight at this elevation.
The town of Williams is situated on the historic Route 66 that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. Williams was the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by the speedier I-40 in 1984. The town is about 50 miles from the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, and it is also the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway.
Our first taste of red rock ’wheeling was on Greasy Spoon, just west of Sedona. This is a fairly mild trail, but very scenic. You’re likely to encounter tour jeeps loaded with visitors on these trails. Weekends can get crowded on the trails, but we dealt with little traffic on the weekdays we were there.
Red Rock passes are needed around Sedona if you pull off the highway and park to hike or sightsee. The forest service does not make it very clear whether a pass is needed for ’wheeling on the trails around here if you don’t park. We played it safe and bought the $5 daily passes for each vehicle.
Ken Shields crawls his way around a tree on the Soldier Pass trail in his 1994 FZJ80 Land Cruiser. Soldier Pass is named for the route General George Crook’s soldiers would follow moving from their camp to nearby hunting grounds. General Crook was head of the U.S. Military Department after the Civil War and was sent to this area to address any Indian issues.
There’s a giant red rock sinkhole about 60 feet deep known as the Devil’s Kitchen up on the Soldier Pass trail. Here, an underground cavern collapsed in about 1880. The Grand Piano rock in the bottom fell in the early 1970s.