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1st Annual Expedition Trophy - Overlanding in Arizona

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on January 12, 2008
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Contributors: Scott Brady

Arizona. The Wild West. Ghost towns, saloons, old mines, and open spaces. During our three-day adventure, we found all of the above as well some great 4WD action along the way. Our group of 10 vehicles had just participated in the 1st Annual Expedition Trophy ( and had made time to explore the New River area and the Bradshaw Mountains, covering over 100 off-highway miles in the process.

Our adventure began at the Bloody Basin turnoff from Interstate 17 with a short climb to the east onto Perry Mesa. The road is wide and graded, allowing our group to make good time to the Tonto National Forest. From Bloody Basin Road we took a quick detour to an old Hohokam Indian pueblo site situated on the edge of Silver Creek Canyon. While the ruins were a nice find, it was the view that was most impressive. The strategic positioning of their dwelling provided the Hohokam people commanding views to the north and of Copper Mountain.

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While the Bloody Basin Road provides excellent views and instills one with a sense of exploration, it is its access to remote and challenging terrain that creates the greatest appeal. Several challenging trails head to the north, including FR44 and FR18, which require Low range and good clearance. Our group was ready for a challenge, so we left the improved surface and headed into the heavily eroded washes and decomposed granite hills of Mesa Butte. FR44 is a 2.5-rated trail, favoring a flexible suspension and lower center of gravity. The area had been ravaged by fire and flooding, which created deep cross axle holes, washouts, and severely cambered traverses.

As the trail left Copper Creek Wash and turned northeast, we came across our first major obstacle -- a 25-degree cambered traverse. The drivers of the taller trucks used additional caution, progressing slowly across the shelf to minimize any shift in stability. Even the tall FJ40 with an AutoHome Roof Tent did well, and each truck passed without any problems. The trail climbs to a saddle, with little challenge except for the close brush. The hilltop seemed otherworldly, with the blackened and leafless trees standing among the hollowed shells of cactus. But new life was blooming. The recent rains had driven tall grass up the watersheds and it covered the southern slopes. Small groups of wildflowers provided contrasts of purple and yellow against the blond rye.

The trail turns east at the base of Goat Peak and drops quickly into Bishop Creek with a series of challenging descents. An optional spur is heavily eroded and tilts the passenger toward a 6-foot drop. Despite the short wheelbase, one of our group's members, Brian, did a great job moving his modified Wrangler through the rut, allowing the Jeep's excellent articulation to keep the tires firmly planted. Several others tried the challenge without any issues, and we made quick time to the stock tanks and windmills at the canyon bottom.

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The trail became easier on its route back to Bloody Basin Road, but a few washouts tested the breakover of the longer Tacomas. A series of narrow, rutted climbs provided a few wheel lifts and spinning tires as the open-differential trucks searched for traction. Fortunately, the trail took us back into an unburned area near Wright Cabin, with huge oak and sycamore trees lining the track. After 6 miles, our detour on FR44 ended, only whetting my companions' appetites for more adventure.

That evening, we made camp on a huge rock outcropping overlooking Lime Creek. Surrounded by stone spires and a deep erosion trench, the location was perfect. The campfire and talk of adventure burned on into the night.

Morning promised new adventure and different terrain. The day's trail would be FR41, which leaves FR24 into the curiously named Magazine Springs. The area is a beautiful, healthy section of the Sonoran Desert containing thick, tall saguaro and dense stands of mesquite. We engaged 4-Lo and were soon enjoying OFF-ROAD Magazine Springs (sic). The trail begins with little challenge, but the sweeping views occupy the driver and provide a reward for all of the miles traveled. We encountered several water crossings as our group dropped into New River Canyon. The water crossings were taken with caution due to the submerged boulders and poor traction. Several optional climbs kept the more adventurous drivers entertained and allowed the less inclined members of the group to document their efforts. Soon the trail was over, terminating at a ranch and a short drive to I-17.

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The last section of our journey was a 60-mile trek into the Bradshaw Mountains. While not particularly challenging, the history and scenery is incredible. Anyone with a stock 4WD and a little sense of exploration could wander these mountains for years. The route begins at the Bumblebee turnoff of I-17 and winds northwest into the old mining town of Cleater. From Cleater, the dirt road begins climbing in earnest, gaining 2,000 feet in a few miles, with a series of switchbacks terminating at nearly 6,000 feet and Poland Vista. From there, it is a short drive to the dusty little town of Crown King. What Crown King lacks in size and amenities, it makes up for in style and character. A one-pump gas station also serves as the market and post office, and the original bar and brothel is still in operation... well, at least the bar is still in operation. You can't leave town without pulling up to the century-old wooden bar and ordering a Crown King Ale. A surly glare from one of the hardy locals makes it all worth it. We made camp just outside of town and settled into more talk of lockers, suspensions, and the merits of a fridge to keep a layer of ice on your favorite brew.

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The morning air was crisp at 6,500 feet as we packed up camp and made the short trip back into town for a few supplies. Our little expedition would take the group farther north, along the old Senator Highway. Fortunately, the route is hardly a highway, and within a few miles of Crown King, turns into an unimproved trail. The track stays high along the hillsides and mesas, allowing for excellent views in all directions. Deep, rugged valleys drop off from the trail's edge, with large stands of pine and old-growth forest carpeting the horizon. The Senator Highway is also the location of Palace Station, the midway point of the route, which provided shelter and supplies to stagecoaches passing through here. The station is still in great shape and is used as living quarters for the Forest Service.

Due to the remoteness of the trail, the area was rich with wildlife, boasting deer, black bear, and several species of birds of prey. The trail surface starts to degrade slightly after entering Spence Creek, where granite and limestone make up the track's surface. Mines with names like Alligator, Mount Union, and Starlight dot the side of Yankee Doodle Peak and speak to this route's importance in the area's development.

After crossing the headwaters of the Hassayampa River, the trail improves, becoming graded, with cabins and homes indicating the arrival of civilization.

We hit pavement just south of the historic district in Prescott, which seemed a fitting end to this great adventure. Arizona rewards the remote traveler with some of the greatest terrain diversity in the country -- we traveled through Sonoran desert, high plains, and mountain forests. With a tank of fuel and some camping gear, a basic 4WD can transport you and your family to the most amazing places. So get out and explore!

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