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Exploring Arizona's Black Hills & Verde Valley

Posted in Features on October 4, 2017
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It was summer in Phoenix and a good time to head to higher elevation for some adventure and cooler temperatures. Our trip started a few hours north of the city, where we jumped off the highway near Camp Verde. As a community, it draws its roots from the 1860s and has a rich frontier history, having been established as a military outpost to protect farming settlers. Some years later it was renamed more permanently to Fort Verde until it was abandoned in 1891.

Our first dirt excursion took us to the southwestern edge of the Verde Valley, where it starts to meet the Black Hills. We followed F.S 361, winding our way up the Blue Monster trail. It was a short, but scenic trail that gets its name from the like-named spring that trickles from the mountainside. We paused at a huge stone wall along the trail where an old mine operation once stood. We spotted other concrete structures and signs of past industrial work, but much of the area has returned to nature. The trail was a fairly quick trip and we kept moving until we rejoined pavement near Cottonwood.

The small town of Cottonwood grew partially from the soldiers stationed nearby. A large ring of cottonwood trees not far from the Verde River inspired the name of the town that was founded in 1879. We quickly passed through the area headed higher in elevation, winding our way up a few twisty switchbacks into the historic town of Jerome. Once deemed "Wickedest Town in the West," Jerome has a storied history going from mining boom to bust to ghost town. Since 1876, when men started searching for precious metals, the town has enjoyed a colorful history, once swelling to a population as high as 15,000 during the 1920s. Today it's again a small thriving community with a rich copper mining past.

Outside Jerome, we made a visit to the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town, which sits on the site of what was once Haynes, Arizona. In the late 1800s, the Haynes Copper Company was prospecting for copper ore, but found gold instead in a 1,200-foot-deep shaft. We spent time here wandering amongst old automotive and mechanical treasures from the past. Leaving the mine museum we followed high-desert shelf roads back into Prescott National Forest, encircling the Woodchute Wilderness area.

Skies had been gray all day, but we'd avoided rain. With a wary eye to the sky we dropped into Martin Canyon, which gets progressively tighter and rockier along the way. We crawled our way under a green canopy of trees shading the narrow canyon, bouncing our way over basketball-sized rocks. Emerging from the bottom and feeling comfort in exiting a possible flash flood zone, we continued our way through tall pines on the way to our camp for the night as low clouds rolled in around us.

We stopped at a great spot on a mountain bluff overlooking a huge forest valley. As the sun dipped lower, we could see thunderstorms in the far distance, and they were headed our way. We hurried to gather a pile of the damp firewood as best as we could and got a good campfire going. The rain came with wind, and then it came hard. We struggled to keep a canopy over the campfire while it dumped on us, all the while struggling with the incessant smoke it created. We knew if the fire went out we'd never get another one started. It felt as if we were in a sweat lodge until the rain finally passed and we could again uncover and refuel our struggling campfire. All in all, it was still a great night, and we did see some stars as it grew later.

We wound our way into Prescott National Forest along Cherry Road, skirting the Black Hills.

The sun greeted us the next morning, which came along with cool temperatures. We packed our gear and travelled southeast, joining up with the Mingus Mountain trail, which would give us another 19 miles of dirt under our tires before returning to pavement. Up at over 7,500 feet we found ourselves nearly level with monsoon clouds and enjoyed commanding views from our lofty trail on the mountain. In a few hours we'd descended near Cottonwood and pointed our rigs back toward Phoenix.

We had a great weekend exploring some remote mountain trails and soaking up some interesting history. There’s not only a lot of trails to be seen but a lot of history to learn too, so get that rig of yours pointed toward the hills and have fun!

Forest Service 361 took us into high desert. All of this area is U.S. Forest Service public land with dirt access in several directions.
Jack Adam's aged ’65 FJ45LV Land Cruiser still bumps along remote trails after more than half a century. He managed to get a couple tires airborne climbing this loose hill up to the stone wall ruins.
Jerome is a town literally built on, and around, a hill. As with many a boom that starts with a hot ore claim, this town came together quickly and sometimes haphazardly. A walk about the town reveals some surprising architecture hanging onto hillsides and rock faces.
With a mining history that spanned some 50 years and dates back more than twice that number of years, physical signs and relics from the past are scattered all throughout this area. One can spot many old iron structures and tailings piles.
Here's a look down upon the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town. It's a large collection of historic artifacts that’s well worth the visit. There's everything from a 1902 Westinghouse electric car to all manner of old commercial trucks.
Nearby are the hill terraces from the old mining operations.
There's lots of old farm and mining antiquities in the Gold King Mine site as well, along with a few made-up satirical relics.
If you're an automotive or mechanical junkie, then this is an awesome place to wander and you're free to do so. The wide array and historic variety of machinery here is pretty impressive, and some stuff you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
Mark and Joyce Mason made the trip in their ’99 Ford Expedition. Part of F.S. 97601V road crosses a wide, open meadow then climbs a long hill before heading into Martin Canyon.
Martin Canyon is a scenic place to explore. It's tall rocky walls within the pines frame portions of the canyon then give way to large overhanging trees.
Looking like a comedic sock puppet, the Smiley Rock sits idly by the side of the trail to meet you as you wheel by.
We followed the rocky wash while we kept an eye on the gray sky around us. The old Cruiser walked through Martin Canyon fine on 33x10.50 Mud-Terrains.
At the end of the canyon, we made an exit up a short hill and worked our way through the wooded trail, past a small mountain lake and into elevated pine forest where we made camp.
This was our afternoon view from camp at 7,200 feet in elevation. The setting sun highlighted the rainstorms that were headed our way and would soon pour on us.
On the Mingus Mountain trail, there's also the Copper Chief Mine nearby that produced copper, gold, silver, lead, and zinc from 1901 to 1948. We saw claim signage and pilings sites along the way. Unfortunately, there is no public access to the mine, which was worked to a depth of 350 feet underground.
This was a view from the Mingus trail. The mountain itself is a popular launching spot for hang gliders and paragliders. It's the highest point in the Black Hills at 7,818 feet in elevation.
The trail turns narrow with dense vegetation in places. We found lots of water from the recent rains, and with fresh weather brewing we found ourselves practically driving in the clouds at this elevation.
Recent moisture had spurred much of the prickly pear here into bearing cactus fruit.
With monsoon season still in full force, the clouds kept building above the mountains. We were out of the lower washes so were unconcerned with flash flood dangers.
At the end of the day we'd dropped from about 7,600 feet to about 1,200 feet as we descended back toward Verde Valley, Cottonwood, and ultimately Phoenix.

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