As fall approached and the mercury dropped, we set out into the high desert with the High Country Renegades searching for the source of some of that metallic element. The Sunflower Mine (also called the National Mine) was a significant underground claim in the Mazatzal Mountains within Tonto National Forest, northeast of Phoenix. A number of claims were established over the years in this mercury mining area. The initial claims at this site were in 1911, when a prospector was searching for gold and claims were purchased by the Sunflower Cinnabar Mining Company. Production mining began here and lasted well into the 1960s, and to a smaller extent afterwards. There were four tunnels dug in the hills, with one about 500 feet long. The mine reportedly produced nearly 4,000 flasks of mercury, each weighing about 76 pounds. Other notable finds were quantities of copper, gold, and silver.
Within cinnabar ore are globules of mercury, and cinnabar was pulled from the tunnels here. The Sunflower Mine complex had a mercury processing plant that most likely also serviced cinnabar ore from other nearby claim sites. Crushed ore was heated in a large rotary kiln with coke, causing mercury gas release. The gas condensed in large, vertical cooling tubes and was then collected in liquid form. Mercury was often used for the amalgamation of gold as well as for common industrial and electrical needs.
Several large building structures had survived at this site for many decades. These included a three-story tower and a large building that housed the kiln and other parts of the plant. An ore chute built largely from timber sat on the hillside above the processing plant. A forest fire sparked by an incendiary shotgun round in 2012 ravaged this area, after which it was closed for a few years and most of the plant structures were removed.
We followed dirt roads back toward a more remote loop trail leading to the mine. We locked hubs, dropped tire pressures, and soon wheeled into a lower canyon with a trail that zigzagged across a rocky wash bottom. We found plenty of obstacles to play on as we worked our way toward our primary destination. The terrain we found made it easy for us to enjoy the journey along the way.
Like many high-desert trails in this area, there is a huge contrast in vegetation in the span of a small elevation change. Down in the washes where rainwater is most abundant, huge cottonwoods and other trees thrive. But leave this fertile domain and the drier canyon slopes may only support scrub trees, small shrubs, and cacti.
Within a few hours, we came upon the Sunflower Mine site. We set out exploring what remained of the old tunnel entrances and the mechanical remains at the processing plant. After climbing in and around the site and the hillside it sits on, we continued onward, completing the trail loop. Some of us found more boulders and ledge challenges in the narrow canyons. We took in the scenery. Fall colors were just starting to arrive. Climbing upward, we followed a shelf trail along the mountaintops, where we could plainly see the results of the careless fire four years ago. Many of the trees had been destroyed, and most all living vegetation was young and small.
It was a great day out wheeling, plus exploring the mine site and trails. Life back then, working here, must have been rough, not to mention the inherent safety hazards dealing with mining and processing mercury. It’s hard to imagine how miners transported so much heavy equipment back into some of the more remote areas. We were glad we had the luxury to explore the area simply for our leisure.
Jay and Cathy Smith joined us on this trail run in their mildly modified 2006 Wrangler Unlimited. The trail into Sunflower Mine has changed over the years. There are now some larger rocks and ledge climbs to be negotiated.
The wash also offers some optional lines amongst the boulders. Chuck Butitta’s well-built 2002 TJ Wrangler Sport claws over the rocks on 40-inch Goodyear MTRs. They are attached to a set of 1-ton axles driven by a set of TeraLow 4:1 gears in the transfer case and linked to a Rubicon Express long-arm kit.
Dan Felix had recently reworked the suspension on his 2006 Rubicon Unlimited and was playing on off-camber obstacles to try out the changes. He is running full hydro steering to the Ruff Stuff 609 front axle and runs a 14-bolt rear axle on the tubed tail end. His tire of choice is the 39-inch BFG Krawler in competition compound.
A few mine tunnels were dug into the hills at Sunflower Mine. We ventured down the dead-end trail toward some of them. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to walk into them; they were closed off after the 2012 fire. The mine lies at an elevation of about 4,500 feet and sits above the West Fork Sycamore Creek.
All of the combustible material at the processing plant seems to have succumbed to the fire. The rest of the debris was removed by the forest service. What remains is the huge slab structure and the mechanical remains of the large rotary kiln. It is still an impressive sight perched on the side of the hill.
Under the kiln remains the massive gear drive used to turn the beast. We are not sure what actually powered the drive, but there are several gear reduction units that were used.
A portion of the concrete slab is hollow, and this big chain conveyor exits from underneath and extends out over the edge of the canyon. This was most likely used to dispose of processed tailings or other waste from the ore processing.
Down in the wash shaded by cottonwood trees are substantial boulders to play on. Symon Devries was our trip leader in his V-8–powered 1985 Toyota. The linked truck sits on coil springs, upgraded axles, and 37-inch Pit Bull Rockers.
Cliff Nerenburg was giving his recently installed Dana 60 and 14-bolt axles some quality trail time. His linked 2003 TJ Rubicon rolls on 37-inch Goodyear MTRs on 17-inch Allied beadlocks.
We found tight boulder spots along the wash after visiting the mine. Eric Cattey lines up, trying to snake his way between big rocks in his 1997 Tacoma.
Climbing out of the canyon after running through the wash put us in an eerie landscape. All the older scrub trees had been devastated by the fire in 2012 and stood as barren reminders of that blaze. Yet the underbrush was thriving so freakishly well that you couldn’t walk through it.
Here is the view that greets you on the easy dirt road out. Sunflower is not the only mining location in this area. Others include Mercuria, Rattlesnake, Ord, Cornucopia, and Pine Mountain.
Here is what the largest processing plant structure looked like in 2007, before the fire. To the left of it was a long timber and tin structure housing the kiln, and on the hill above the plant was an ore chute.