A 200-mile-long geologic uplift on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau rises majestically. The Mogollon Rim is sometimes called the backbone of Arizona. Flooding and erosion here during the Mesozoic Era left a scenic range that divides high-country plateau from more arid desert. It’s possible the rim was named after Juan Ignacio Mogollón, a Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico in the early 1700s.
The region consists of mountains and forested plateau up to nearly 8,000 feet in elevation with deep, carved canyons, and meets transitions to desert valleys below. In some places, cliffs tower some 2,000 feet above a lower plateau at the base. The rim is capped with Tertiary volcanic rock and consists of about 10 layers of rock formation, including sandstone, limestone, quartzite, and granite. At altitudes above about 5,000 feet, ponderosa pines are abundant. Down lower, there are more scrub trees of piñon pine, juniper, oak, and manzanita.
It was here we spent a week exploring dirt trails and camping out under the stars. Andy Schauer, as he has done for the past 16 years on these trips, led the way into the backcountry in his ’77 Ford F-150. The early fall weather was perfect for this run as we traveled through three different national forests: Tonto, Coconino, and Sitgreaves, over the weeklong run.
By the end of the trip, we had covered nearly 400 dirt miles and very few pavement miles. The off-road terrain was not difficult, and we had a very diverse range of vehicles along. We suffered a few maladies, including a failed fuel pump, burst power steering hose, broken coolant tee, some snapped exhaust hangers, and a single flat tire. Repairs were generally quick and helped along with people pitching in a spare part or tool here and there. Fuel and services can be hard to come by in these remote areas, but the town of Payson boasts several auto parts stores and plenty of other places for supplies. Land-use maps are generally available from the Forest Service showing which roads are open for 4WD travel.
For Night Zero, we headed outside Phoenix to El Oso Road and up toward Four Peaks Mountain as the sun was dropping from the sky.
We left our Four Peaks area campsite at 6,000 feet on Day One and descended from the pine forest to scrub desert terrain. Jesse Wilson’s vintage ’81 Toyota pickup runs 35-inch tires and is no stranger to long-distance wheeling trips.
We headed up Forest Service 609 and quickly found ourselves back in the pines in the Sierra Ancha Mountains. Travis Curry was using his ’04 Toyota 4Runner to haul firewood. The cool nights made for perfect campfire gatherings.
Near the Night One camp, we did a little hiking and found this interesting rock overhang. Judging from the charred walls, it has served as shelter to some people over the past, unknown number of years.
We covered a lot of dirt miles on the second day. Flipper Geiger drives this ’97 GMC 3500 Crew Cab dualie. It was fun watching him maneuver the big-block–powered pickup through some of the tighter trees in the woods.
Chevelon Canyon Lake sits almost 6,400 feet in elevation and was formed with an earthen dam in 1965. The remote lake has no direct vehicular access, and even getting close to it requires a long drive on dirt roads. However, the views are well worth it, and the fishing can be too.
As we went up and down in elevation we would travel through tall, thick pines and then emerge again onto more high-desert landscape. Georgina Marin has been wheeling her camo'd Nissan Xterra on runs like this for a decade or more.
Temperatures here were still a bit above freezing at night, but fall colors were starting to take hold as we passed Chevelon Crossing and stopped at the campground for a short lunch break.
Andy Schauer has been planning and leading these trips for 17 years now, but in 2017 he drove his newly acquired ’77 Ford F-150. He thought it strange to be followed by Allan Foster, who now owns Andy’s ’98 Nissan Frontier that was the lead vehicle for the previous 16 runs.
We worked our way up higher in altitude onto the Mogollon Plateau and into Sitgreaves National Forest. Skies were blue and stayed that way the entire week, so we enjoyed pleasant, clear weather. Mike and Kathy Beckwith drove a mildly modified ’08 Toyota Tacoma.
Our campsite on Night Two was perched high near Promontory Butte, at over 7,700 feet above sea level. We enjoyed tremendous views off this cliff down into the valleys below.
Day Three led us along the popular Forest Service 300 ”Rim Road.” It's nearly 45 miles of scenic lookout from the Mogollon Rim. We wound our way over the easy, but dusty road with occasional stops to take in the long-distance views.
West Clear Creek lies 550 feet below this steep canyon chute. We hiked our way down the 1/2-mile “trail” to check out the lush canyon bottom. Along the path are numerous fallen trees and a jumble of collapsed rocks from the canyon walls.
Mike Pooyouma has a clean ’05 Chevy Silverado with a soft top camper. He simply runs cranked torsion bars and a rear add-a-leaf to clear 33-inch tires, and it works well for a trip like this. Here we’re entering Meadow Canyon on Day Four.
We found a handful of remote stock tanks while exploring over the week, and often saw deer and elk in the forest. Dennis and Sylvia Pina have set up their ’99 Jeep Cherokee for extensive exploring and camping duty, and pull a reworked military-style trailer for added gear storage.
We found ourselves up on a high elevation mesa in Coconino National Forest with flat, grassy meadows. Down below us was the very scenic West Clear Creek Wilderness area in a deep, wide canyon.
With the sun going down fast at the end of Day Four, we built camp for the night. Keith Maddox was always the quickest at setup, as he was camping out of a pop-up tent over the bed of his ’17 Toyota TRD pickup.
Brent and Amber Rederick also pulled a homebuilt camp trailer behind their modified ’04 Chevy 2500 Duramax pickup. They knew these trails well, as they had helped Andy pre-run all these routes months earlier. Their truck, like a few others on the run, has had a front solid axle mounted under it. A Dana 60 with WFO suspension hardware makes way to run 35-inch rubber.
We found a handful of small, rocky climbs on Day Five. Steve Blass is also one with a front solid-axle swap on his ’02 Nissan Xterra. With a transplanted Dana 44 under the front end, he now runs a lift with 35-inch tires.
On Day Six, we made a picnic stop at remote Kinnikinick Lake, a mountain reservoir that sits at about 7,000 feet of elevation. It looks like a typical high-desert lake here, but just over a berm on the east end is Morton Lake with a contrasting mountain character.
Bob “Gummy” Simmons drove his ’94 Toyota FZJ80 for the week of adventure. The Land Cruiser decided to split a power steering hose on the trail. With a bit of ingenuity and a few spare parts it was patched together fairly quickly.
We followed Matt Uhl in his ’02 Jeep Grand Cherokee on our last trail day on the Mogollon Plateau, and spent our coldest night yet in the backcountry. Early-morning temperatures touched the freezing point. It was a great ending to the week, and a reminder that winter was coming—future trips up to this area might be for snow-running.