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.
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!