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From the Desert to Tall Pines - Explore this Gila County "Scenic Byway"

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

A traveler will find the passage through this country quicker than in decades past. But it would be entirely possible to make the passage from the mining country north of Globe to the Mogollon Rim -- a road distance of about 90 miles -- without seeing many more people than a horseback rider did in the last century. This is what cowboys of long ago and today alike call high-lonesome country, a place where a coyote has a chance to cry out a lullaby without being interrupted by passing trucks and overflying jets.

This is a place where, over millennia, few people have come to live. Even in antiquity, it appears, the local Salado Indian culture settled in the great rocky bowl between the Mogollon Rim and the Sierra Ancha only in small numbers. The Apaches who followed them made good use of the area's great herds of elk and deer, but they kept on the move, preferring not to stay in one place for more than a few weeks at a time. Today, in the hundreds of square miles of territory through which State 288 passes, only a few hundred people make their home year-round. One deterrent might well be the difficulty of road access into the rugged Sierra Ancha (the Spanish word means wide range) country, which the good ladies of the Globe Business and Professional Women's Club called, in a 1927 poem celebrating the winding lanes between their hometown and distant Jerome, "that land of feud and mystery/and of beautiful birds in song."

The southern approach to what locals call the Globe-Young Highway begins at the crossroads hamlet of Miami Gardens, where State Route 188 -- the eastern leg of the storied, roller-coaster Apache Trail -- meets U.S. Route 60 just west of Globe. About 15 miles northwest of Miami Gardens, State 188 meets 288. The paved road winds its way along the western flank of the Salt River Mountains, drops down to cross the Salt River by way of a one-lane bridge, and then begins its long climb into the Sierra Ancha. Bearing the proud name of Desert to the Big Pines Scenic Road, SR 288 commands spectacular views of Theodore Roosevelt Lake, one of the earliest major water reclamation works in the United States.

The lake owes its origins to an enterprising Arizona businessman named A.J. Chandler, who had long been lobbying for such a project to feed the agricultural fields of what is now the Valley of the Sun. Chandler found a willing ally in President Theodore Roosevelt, who pressed for passage of the National Reclamation Act of 1902. The act, which authorized federal funding of "reservoirs and mainline canals impracticable for private enterprise," was instantly put to work in Arizona, and in 1911 the great dam bearing the president's name was dedicated.

Stop while the road is still paved, and have a good look at Chandler and Roosevelt's monumental creation -- and, for good measure, at the majestic Four Peaks to the west. Then continue up the grade, now unpaved, into the Sierra Ancha range, home to uncommonly large numbers of mountain lions, black bears, and other big mammals, predatory and otherwise. Flanked by two wilderness areas -- the Sierra Ancha Wilderness to the right, or east, and the Salome Wilderness to the left -- the road tops out at the Honey Creek Divide, then meanders over a brushy and forested plateau to the little town of Young. Less than a mile below the Honey Creek Divide lies an attractive detour: Forest Road 487, which leads east to Workman Creek and its thundering waterfalls. The road -- best suited to four-wheel-drive vehicles -- continues on to the top of 7,694-foot Aztec Peak, the highest point in the Sierra Ancha. The mountain's spectacular ruggedness (part of the road skirts some breathtakingly sheer cliffs), along with the abundant supply of big game, surely must have made the area attractive to the Salado Indians, whose cliff dwellings dot the range. As the hairpin road rises through groves of manzanita, mahogany and ponderosa pine trees, it opens onto a view that embraces not only some forbidding local scenery, including the appropriately named Devils Canyon and Mystery Spring, but also the more distant peaks of the Mazatzal Mountains and, to the north, the Mogollon Rim -- the eventual destination of our scenic byway, now far behind us.

Now, back to the main road: some 65 miles from the southern starting point at Miami Gardens, you'll arrive in the picturesque village of Young. Smack in the middle of the nearly three-million-acre Tonto National Forest just short of a mile above sea level, Young easily answers to sobriquets like the town time has forgotten or portal into the past.

That's all to the good, but not entirely accurate, for even in remote Young telephones ring, televisions hum, and time marches on. In many a secluded town out this way, you'd be lucky to find a cool drink and a box of crackers to tide you over, but you can find some good wine at Bruzzi Vineyard. Still, unlike more touristy settlements below the Mogollon Rim, Young is a cow town first and foremost, dependent on the always unpredictable business of ranching for its survival.

Leaving Young, the road -- now Forest Road 512 -- will lead you along a twisty climb up the Naegelin Rim (so called for a local rancher who had managed to stay out of harm's way during the Pleasant Valley feud) to a view just as promising as those from Aztec Peak. At the Colcord Mountain lookout, you'll see a panoramic vista of the Tonto Basin through which you've just passed. The view will certainly make you appreciate why the U.S. Army officer Lt. John Gregory Bourke, who served here in the early 1870s, called the Tonto "a weird scene of grandeur and rugged beauty." He added, "The 'Basin' is a basin only in the sense that it is all lower than the ranges enclosing it -- the Mogollon, the Matitzal [Mazatzal] and the Sierra Ancha -- but its whole triangular area is so cut up by ravines, arroyos, small stream beds and hills of very good height, that it may safely be pronounced one of the roughest spots on the globe."

Continue a few miles, now along an easy dirt road that winds through the dense ponderosa pine forests of the Mogollon Rim, and you'll arrive at the junction of State Route 260. Before heading for points east or west, stop for a moment to congratulate yourself. You've braved a tough but accommodating trail and seen some truly remarkable sights. You've made a journey through high-lonesome country, rich in history and natural beauty, that few travelers have been fortunate enough to share. Chances are, you'll want to turn around and do it all over again.

For more scenic drives in Gila County visit Info courtesy: Arizona Scenic Byways

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