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Florida Wheelers in Arizona: Exploring Desert, Mountains, and Plateaus

Posted in Events on May 16, 2018
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Florida Adventure Rigs consists of a group of good friends that spend nearly a week each year exploring in the dirt. Drivers are instructed to meet at a starting point by the trip leader, and then they follow along on the adventure over some number of days.

The group spends a good deal of the week off-road wheeling new and interesting trails, but also stopping to take in the history of the area and other unique sights along the way. The 2018 spring trip was in Arizona. Eight vehicles made the 2,000-mile trek from Florida for the expedition. Nights were spent in tents, and the total of ten rigs ran fully loaded, carrying all their gear for the duration of the trip.

Over five days, the group explored the diverse terrain Arizona has to offer. The week started in the arid, low desert but moved on from there. More than half of the state is covered with mountains and plateaus, plus Arizona is home to the largest stand of Ponderosa pine trees in the world. It was a grand trip and left us with great wheeling memories with good friends.

Day One: Florence Junction & Apache Trail

It was a slightly cloudy morning in the second week of spring when we began exploring the Sonoran Desert east of Phoenix. We’d camped out the night before under a canopy of stars, hearing only a wandering herd of cattle plodding past our camp and a lone coyote calling out in the wee hours of the morning.

We meandered between the rising rock walls in Box Canyon on our first day on the trail. In the spring, there’s often a shallow flow of water down the wash, but the 2018 winter/spring season was quite dry.

We locked hubs and followed the sandy wash upstream into Box Canyon. Here the walls on each side rise several hundred feet, and in places the canyon narrows to the point only a single vehicle can fit. From there, we followed connector trails through the Florence Junction area northward, playing on a few rock piles along the way. A short spur took us to Pete’s Cabin, a mining shack built into an earthen hill perched above a creek bed where miners worked claims as late as the 1980s. A short distance away, remains of Reymert Mine brick structures still stand from well over a century ago.

We traversed through the Florence Junction area where saguaro and ocotillo cacti grow in abundance. There is a multitude of old mining roads and wash trails in this area.
The vein at Reymert Mine was discovered by John Reymert in 1885. Silver was mined here starting in 1887 and later silver-manganese was extracted until as recently as 1960. We walked among some of the old stone structures that sit above mineshafts that were dug to a depth of approximately 400 feet.

The highway took us up the start of the Apache Trail where we made a short stop at Tortilla Flat, an old stagecoach stop that was created in 1904. This route was used well before this time by Apache tribes to travel through the rugged Superstition Mountains. The roadway eventually turns to dirt. We made camp along the shore of Apache Lake, one of four in a chain of mountain lakes.

Apache Trail leaves east of Phoenix, skirts the majestic Superstition Mountains, and passes a chain of four mountain lakes. At the end of the trail is Roosevelt Dam, creating the highest lake of the same name. Constructed over a century ago, the dam was once the largest masonry dam in the world.
Tortilla Flat started as a stagecoach stop along the Apache Trail in 1904. Today it’s a great place to stop for refreshments, and a short walk down the street you can take in more sights and interesting history.

Day Two: Log Corral Canyon to Bartlett Lake

For decades now, the local Mesa 4 Wheelers club has maintained a fun trail just northeast of Phoenix metro. Day Two took us to the Log Corral trail after a short highway commute. Wheeling into a narrowing canyon, we came upon the short gatekeeper obstacle going up F.S. 393 and crawled our rigs along the winding wash bottom upstream.

Mike Marrero tries his hand climbing his ’99 Nissan Frontier over one of the rock obstacles on the Log Corral Trail. We followed the rocky trail into the tree-lined canyon within Tonto National Forest.
At the end of Log Corral is Bartlett Lake, which has been at half-full level for a few years now. The exposed shoreline left us ample space to explore. Following the sand through the hills felt a bit like driving in dunes. Tim and Michelle Lowry led the group back off the sand in their ’98 Jeep Wrangler.

We ascended the rutted trail and soon arrived at the corral at the top of a mountain saddle. Peering over the crest, one can quickly spot Bartlett Lake in the far distance. It was our goal to make it there, so we dropped over the saddle and followed the off-camber two-track downward until the route gradually transitioned to an ever-flattening sandy wash to the edge of the water.

Heading back out the way we had come, we topped out again between Granite Mountains. Here, John and Patti Conrader crest the saddle in their ’13 Jeep Wrangler with Bartlett Lake visible in the far distance.
Log Corral Wash was still recovering foliage from the winter season so it did not have a full canopy in place yet. In summer, the canyon is lush and green due to an ever-flowing spring in the bottom. But, lift your gaze upward to the rising rock walls and the plant life quickly transitions to cacti and similar plants that are able to grow out of crevices with very little water.
Mark Wells crawls his ’09 H3 Hummer Alpha through the rocks exiting Log Corral Canyon. Our week offered a good mix of terrain—interesting backcountry with occasional challenges along the way.

With the lake sitting at about 51 percent of capacity, there was a lot of exposed shoreline sand. We explored the dunes, had a short lunch on the shore, and then returned the way we had come, running the fun obstacles in reverse. After hitting the highway, we traveled northward into mountain pines country, then westward dropping in elevation to camp in Coconino National Forest. It was a clear, cold night at an elevation of about 5,800 feet.

Day Three: Red Rock Country & Ancient Native American Sites

For morning wheeling, we tackled Broken Arrow. It’s a short red rock trail just south of Sedona. We zigzagged over ancient slickrock amongst encounters with some of the local tour Jeeps. We stopped along the trail and hiked to the top of Submarine Rock to enjoy a panoramic view of the red landscape. Completing the trail took us to Chicken Point for another scenic stop and down rocky Devil's Staircase.

Midweek we climbed in elevation toward the center of the state to red rock country. Near Sedona, we explored geologic formations that scientists say were formed over millions of years, carved with wind and water. Robert Keller drove across the country in his ’89 GMC V3500 with a freshly swapped 8.1L engine. The engine had less than 100 miles on it when he left Florida.
Broken Arrow Trail winds up and around picturesque red rock. There are a few slickrock domes to play on, and then you walk down the Devil's Staircase completing the loop trail.

We followed dirt roads northwest of town to explore other sites. Off the Outlaw Trail is the Honanki Heritage Site. Sinagua people lived here some 800 years ago. They learned to thrive and survive the harshness of weather by building cliff dwellings along the base of the rising canyon walls.

Honanki Heritage Site is one of two locations near Sedona where Sinagua communities thrived from about A.D. 1150 to 1350. They built multi-story cliff dwellings along the side of canyon walls protected by large overhanging faces.
Van Deren Cabin lies at the end of one of the short Sedona trails. The cabin structures are nearly a century old and constructed from Arizona cypress wood. The tin roof is for preservation. We also hiked to nearby Devil's Bridge, an arch nature has carved from the red rock.

Other trails dot this area and we chose to take the one leading back to Van Deren Cabin, an interesting homestead purchased in 1924. We also made the uphill hike to Devil’s Bridge, the largest natural sandstone arch in the area. At the end of the day, we made camp at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood.

Day Four: Gold Mine Territory & Smiley Rock

After a quick power steering hose replacement on one of the rigs, we left Cottonwood and headed up the switchbacks into the small town of Jerome. Precious metal prospecting began here in 1876 and mining boomed here as a result. Sometimes called “Wickedest Town in the West,” it hit a population of nearly 15,000 people in the 1920s. Today, much of the mining has slipped into the past, but the legends and history remain.

On Day Four, we visited the Gold King Mine & Ghost Town. It’s dripping in mining history and filled with associated relics from that past era. It’s also home to an impressive collection of old trucks and vehicles. Gearheads can easily spend many hours here wandering the property.

We wandered through the Gold King Mine & Ghost Town, enjoying the relics and hearing interesting stories about local mining lore. Copper mining claims started here about 1876, but over the next 70-plus years, gold, silver, lead, and zinc would also be extracted.

Smiley Rock Trail dropped us into Martin Canyon where we crawled over small boulders under a canopy of trees. Melvin and Molly Petiet drove their ’12 JK Wrangler from Florida and back on freshly installed Ford Super Duty axles and 40-inch tires. It was a successful 4,000-mile test run.

Outside Jerome, we continued on to a portion of the Great Western Trail, a multi-use route that runs from the border with Mexico up to the border with Canada. Forest Service roads in the Prescott National Forest lead to the Smiley Rock Trail, which leads into scenic Martin Canyon. Here, the rock walls narrow and we crawled along in and out of the wash. We climbed again through pine forest to an elevation of about 7,100 feet. Hitting the pavement, we made a commute to our final camp spot outside the tiny town of Crown King.

Day Five: Descending from Crown King

It was our final day of wheeling and dawn brought another crystal clear sky. Knowing it would be a more leisurely day of wheeling, we took our time eating breakfast and breaking camp. We drove into Crown King to check out the general store and the old saloon.

Our final night of camping was in the pines in the Bradshaw Mountains near the small town of Crown King. A clear sky made for a cool night, but a good campfire spurred conversation and trail memories.
Crown King has become a bustling spot on the weekends. Fortunately, we had the chance to stop in on Friday morning. Gold claims here began in about 1875. Over the following years, some $2,000,000 in gold would be pulled from the Crown King mine.

We started at an elevation of about 5,800 feet and by the time we made it down near Phoenix, we had dropped down about 4,000 feet. We wheeled south of the Bradshaw Mountains following hilly two-track trail and playing on obstacles along the way.

During the trip we’d suffered a few small incidents that required repairs. However, we had an enthusiastic and helpful group that rolled with the punches to see that everyone made it through the trip. At the end of the afternoon, we shared our traditional dinner at a restaurant, enjoying each other's company before bidding goodbyes until the next adventure.

Normally the backway to Crown King is run south to north. However, this time, we ran it in reverse. Jary McNeil descends one of the steeper hills in his solid-axle-swapped ’87 Toyota pickup.
Andy Schauer's ’77 Ford F-150 provides him a vintage rig set up for backcountry camping and wheeling. He’s a local from Arizona and joined the group for much of the week.
We were descending on our final day on the trail, but Aaron and Pat Arnold found a few hills to challenge their ’07 JK Wrangler. By the time the week was done we’d covered 491 miles, including a lot of dirt miles.
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