SCENIC HIGHWAYS IN GILA COUNTY, ARIZONA

If there’s anything we can all agree on, it’s that Arizona has some spectacular scenery. Look in any general direction and you’re bound to find something that will catch your eye.

 

Adventure is around every corner and some of the states most valuable scenic treasures are in some cases only 45 minutes to 90 minutes away from Phoenix. 
 

So, let’s take a look at just a few of Gila County's contributions to scenic roads and byways that offer spectacular views to inspire your next road trip.

Don't forget to bring your camera.  Explore the Wild and Discover Gila County.

 

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SCENIC HIGHWAYS IN GILA COUNTY?

Got a free weekend to Explore the Wild?  This is a road your car wants to travel and of course you get to come along for the ride.  
Payson is about 90 miles from Phoenix and Pine is about 105 miles and Strawberry is about 113.

SR 87 is known as the Beeline Highway from Payson through Fountain Hills to McDowell Road, just north of Mesa. This portion of SR 87 is entirely a four-lane highway. There is a stretch of road where the highway splits, taking different canyons through the Mazatzal Mountains south of Payson, near the junction with SR 188. The old alignment is currently the southbound lanes, while a new alignment was built for the northbound lanes. There is a stretch where the roads cross-over each other because of the difference in elevations of the two canyons.

Along highway 87 you will experience a dramatic difference between the Saguaro cactus to the tall ponderosa pines that make up the Tonto National Forest.  Along your travels to the east you will see off in the distance the Four Peaks Wilderness, marked by the iconic 4 mountain peaks that stand tall against the blue Arizona skyline.  Further north you will drive up, over and down the Mount Ord Pass.  As you start your descent from Mount Ord you will see off to the Northwest the Mazatzal Mountain Range a favorite for ATVing, hunting and hiking.

From Scottsdale and East Phoenix Areas. Take Highway 87 (Beeline Highway) Northeast to Payson AZ. Upon reaching Payson, stay on Highway 87 for about 16 miles to experience two of Arizona's most quaint tourism destinations.  Enjoy antique shopping in Pine and spend the night at the Strawberry Inn.  Both of these communities are known for their views of the Mogollon Rim but what has people flocking to these towns is good food (gourmet pizza) and one of the only brew pubs in Gila County.   

Highway 87 to 260 Payson, Pine & Strawberry

Want to spend a little more time on one of Arizona's scenic roads? We have the perfect one for you...take the 188 if you want a road less traveled.  After you have shopped at all the antique shops and had lunch at one of the world famous Mexican Food Restaurants in Globe or Miami, Arizona  head west like you are going to Phoenix.  Take the Route 188 turnoff to Payson, which cuts northeast passing by the Tonto National Monument and Roosevelt Dam and Lake.


This is a road that you take your time and enjoy the amazing mountain views of the Sierra Acha, Salt River and Salome Wildernesses.  This is brutally wild yet beautiful country.  As you crest the top of the road and start your decent down in to the valley the largest lake in Arizona (Roosevelt Lake) comes in to view.

 

The expanse of sapphire water draws a wide range of wildlife , and there are several places around the lake to view the creatures that first brought primitive hunters to the verdant Tonto Basin in pursuit of food.
 

Roosevelt Wildlife Area on the northwestern shore of the lake houses habitat ranging from marshy wetlands to the lush Sonoran Desert. Observe one of the most massive flocks of Canadian Geese at the Bermuda Flat area where they nibble on grass and other small plants. Keep your eyes open for other migratory visitors such as snow geese and grebes. Find songbirds, Sonoran mud turtles, and an array of amphibians and reptiles in the Cottonwood habitat where Tonto Creek enters the lake. Near sunset and sunrise, you might see mammals that dwell in the area, including deer, bear, foxes, javelina, bobcats and mountain lions. If you see a catlike mammal with a ringed tail, look closely – it could be a ringtail cat or a rare coatimundi, a less-common species of raccoon.

This is a road less traveled but one that everyone should travel once in their lifetime.

The 188 from Globe to Payson, AZ

Just at the edge of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area,  Apache Junction is where this adventure starts.  This scenic by-way through  the Superstition Mountains offer a jaw-droppingly rugged landscape. It's this ruggedness that makes them so beautiful, but also what's made them so hard for travelers to navigate throughout history. During the 19th century, the main route through the mountains was a path carved by the Apaches-- later adopted by stagecoach travelers-- earning its name, Apache Trail. It's still one of the best ways through the Superstitions. Don't be fooled by its historic roots, this trail is a modern driver's dream, with hairpin turns, sweeping curves, and stunning new views around every corner. Along the way, you'll get to explore the history and natural beauty of the Superstition Mountains and the Tonto National Forest. Here's our guide to conquering Apache Trail.

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The Apache Trail is a 40-mile circular route right through the Superstition Mountains. In 1905, the trail was officially designated as an aid for the construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam, with Apache Junction at one end, and Theodore Roosevelt Lake at the other. This trail will wind you through some amazing sights and scenes. You'll find the first half paved and the second half made of dirt roads. This being said, the narrow and rugged route requires attention while driving, and offers endlessly unique views. If you're in the mood for an adventure on the road, buckle up and get started!

Apache Trail - Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake

The Gila-Pinal Scenic Road is a 26-mile route following US Highway 60 as it leaves the desert floor east of Florence Junction and rises between the Pinal and Superstition Mountains to Globe. This is old copper country and once you're in the mountains, the evidence of large copper mines is all around.

The road travels through four distinct life zones between the Sonoran Desert and the Ponderosa pine forest around Miami and Globe. The road also winds through several canyons among the red rock spires and other formations of the heavily eroded Pinal Mountains. There is flowing water in spots: you can tell by the presence of riparian corridors with cottonwoods, willows and sycamores rising above the thicker shrubs and native grasses.

The views are spectacular, the switchbacks many, the rise in elevation steady. Most of the towns along the way have seen better times. Open pit copper mines were plentiful forty and fifty years ago, not so plentiful now. A good place to stop and stretch your legs is the Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, just outside Superior. Boyce Thompson was a mine owner who invested some of his money in bringing all kinds of exotic vegetation to his ranch and trying to grow it in this climate. Some of his results are still doing very well. Superior itself is almost a ghost town, as is a large part of Miami.

Gila-Pinal Scenic Highway

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 did 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 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 a good meal at either of Young's two restaurants. 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.

Info courtesy:  Arizona Scenic Byways

From the Desert to the Tall Pines "Scenic Byway"

Highway 260 between the top of the Mogollon Rim near Woods Canyon Lake turnoff and Heber features an extensive stand of ponderosa pine and tremendous change in temperature compared to the Phoenix area. People flock to this area to get cool in the summer and play in snow in the winter.

Its amazing views are what draws most people.  These majestic mountain vistas are rarely rivaled in a State of amazing views.  As you crest the top of the "Rim" there is a forest service pull out where you can stop for a bit and take in the surrounding beauty.  Don't forget your camera and your smile.

Highway 260 Payson - Heber

 

The Mogollon Rim. That’s the biggest reason you’ll want to make this drive. Although there are different opinions on how to pronounce the name — Spanish scholars go with “mo-go-yawn,” locals use “muggy-on” — everyone agrees that “the Rim” is impressive.

Measured in thousands of feet and hundreds of miles, it’s a massive wall of rock that begins near Arizona’s border with New Mexico and stretches diagonally across most of the state. Through the lens of a camera, a set of binoculars or your own baby blues, the views from the top of the Rim are stunning, and on a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount Lemmon.

The vistas steal the show, but there’s a lot to see along Forest Road 300, which can be approached from the east, near Woods Canyon Lake, or from the west, just north of Strawberry. This listing is written from the west, and it begins with an uphill climb through a thick pine forest — the Mogollon Rim is home to the world’s largest stand of ponderosas. After 1.2 miles, FR 300 intersects what used to be the General Crook Trail, a historic wagon route that was used in the 1870s and 1880s to provide logistical support for General George Crook in the U.S. Army’s war against the Apaches.

From there, the gravel road winds downhill to an area of grassy meadows crowded with tall evergreens. It’s a beautiful place to pitch a tent. Hardwoods and spruce start mixing in after that. You’ll also start seeing the first of many worthwhile side trips: Potato Lake, Lee Johnson Spring, Kehl Springs Campground. Then, after 7.5 miles, you’ll get to the dead zone of the Dude Fire.

The fire was sparked by a bolt of lightning on June 25, 1990, and within a few hours, it had become one of the deadliest and most destructive fires in Arizona history. In addition to the obliteration of more than 24,000 acres, six firefighters lost their lives. Only the Yarnell Hill Fire (June 2013) was worse in that regard. Today, the effects of the Dude Fire are still obvious. There’s very little new growth, other than grass, but the long views to the south help mitigate the damage.

Also, the fire zone makes up only a small stretch of FR 300, and at the 10.2-mile mark you’ll leave it behind and re-enter the beautiful. The rest of the route epitomizes the purity of nature, and still measures up to Captain George M. Wheeler’s description of the Rim in the late 1800s: “Mountain, forest, valley and streams are blended in one harmonious whole,” he wrote. “Few worldwide travelers in a lifetime could be treated to a more perfect landscape, a true virgin solitude, undefiled by the presence of man.”

Heading east, that perfect landscape includes Crackerbox Canyon and the Arizona Trail, one of several great hikes on the Rim. Another keeper is the Houston Brothers Trail, which shows up after 16.2 miles. Barbershop Canyon is just beyond that, followed by the Myrtle Trail and turnoffs to Lost Lake and Knoll Lake. Add them to the list of great side trips.

Moving on, about 25 miles in, the Rim Road, as it’s known, crosses from the Coconino National Forest into the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The transition isn’t important except that it coincides with a large meadow dotted with young ponderosas. It’s nice to see the new growth. The upper trailhead for Horton Springs is ahead on your right, and a few miles later, you’ll arrive at the turnoff for Bear Canyon Lake, one of the Rim’s premier recreation areas — go for the camping, hiking and fishing. Of all the detours, this one deserves some real consideration.

Aspens, evergreens and panoramas mark the home stretch to Woods Canyon Lake, where the scenic drive comes to an end. You won’t want it to end, though. In fact, if you could pick one place to break down, get lost or drop out, Forest Road 300 would be it. Wildlife sightings (elk and mule deer in particular) are common, the cool pine forest is refreshing, the vistas are remarkable … no matter how you pronounce it, the Mogollon Rim is one of the most scenic drives anywhere.

Information courtesy: Robert Stieve - Arizona Highways

Forest Road 300 - Not A Highway But It Deserves to be on this list!