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

    Exploring desert, mountains, and plateaus

    Jay KopycinskiPhotographer, Writer

    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.

    More Videos

    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 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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    More Videos

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.