Well, I took the jeep out yesterday and revisited my favorite AZ trail, the Crown King to Lake Pleasant road. It’s 35 miles long and goes from Sonoran desert and scrubland on the south end to Ponderosa pine forest on the upper end. I took it downhill, mostly because the upper end of the trail is easier to find and it’s been 5 years since I’ve been on it.
It was a beautiful day, 80’s in the desert, maybe the 50s or 60s in the mountains, so I put the top down and enjoyed the sun all day. I took I-17 up to the Bumble Bee / Crown King exit and proceeded up the 26 miles of dirt road to Crown King, where the trail terminates. This road is interesting in itself as it follows the path of a narrow gauge railway that was abandoned in the 1920s. It passes through a couple of small ‘towns’ that aren’t quite dead enough to be ghost towns, but aren’t really alive either. Bumble Bee, the first town, is largely a set of false fronts and rebuilt buildings. The second town on the road, Cleator is a ramshackle collection of tin roofed shacks and buildings, but has a bar. Once past Bumble Bee and Cleator, you start climbing up into the Bradshaw Mountains. There’s been a lot of gold and silver mining activity in the Bradshaws over the years, but a lack of year round water has always complicated operations. The road from Cleator to Crown King narrows considerably and it starts to become apparent that you’re following the old railway cut through the mountains. At one point, you pass what appears to be a collapsed cut or tunnel that has been bypassed. This is an old railway tunnel that was filled with contents of the Crown King landfill and then the ends plugged. The current road goes around the hill at that point instead of through it.
As I approached Crown King the temperatures dropped a bit and snow started appearing along the road, but the sun was out and warm, so I kept the top down. In Crown King proper, there was about 6 inches of snow on the ground, making the roads (all dirt), fairly sloppy and treacherous. I stopped at the general store to stretch my legs and verify where the trail head was, then continued on.
The road out of Crown King continues to the west a bit, the forks off in two directions, one fork to Horse Thief Basin, where there is a lake and pleasant camping. The other fork is the old Senator Highway which runs from Crown King to Prescott. This road’s a nice day trip in itself, but I was more interested in the turn off to Phoenix. The road was fairly snow covered, and the warm temperatures were melting the snow and making it pretty sloppy. The turn off to Phoenix is a bit before the marker indicating the location of Bradshaw City, it’s a left turn and the road looks fairly disreputable (my favorite kind of road). Indeed, there’s a sign at the start of the trail indicating that it is closed to passenger sedans and low clearance vehicles. The trail isn’t terribly difficult for the most part (I ran it in my ’97 TJ stock), but it is quite long and there are challenging sections. Low range is advisable if only for speed control, but there is a bit of rock crawling involved.
In any case, I started up the trail and discovered that in the five years since I ran it last, it’s gotten a bit more difficult, the obstacles are a bit bigger and the road in general is in worse shape. It’s still runnable by a stock 4×4 with a low range, but it would be quite a challenge and I wouldn’t recommend it to an inexperienced driver. In any case, I continued down the trail past the Bradshaw City cemetary and Tiger mines to Oro Belle where I stopped and took a short break. As recently as the early ’70s there were buildings with glass windows at Oro Belle, but it’s pretty much all gone now, with not much left but the foundations.
I proceeded down the hill from Oro Belle, the trail follows a creek, which had quite a lot of water in it, mostly snow melt. There were a number of water crossings and you pass a couple of private residences and mines along the way. This segment of the trail was fairly uneventful, but very scenic and all was well until I noticed that my driver side rear tire didn’t sound quite right. I found a pleasant little meadow that had a decent flat spot in it and pulled out to take a look. Sure enough, another hole in the sidewall of the tire. I pulled out the HiLift, CO2 cylinder and impact wrench and had the tire changed in short order. After airing down the replacement tire to match the others, I continued on. Of course, I did have to tell several passing ATVs and 4x4s that I was ok, just changing a tire. I think the sound of the impact wrench threw them for a loop out in the middle of nowhere.
After the tire change, I decided to play things a little more conservatively and eventually wound my way down to Fort Despair (not a real fort, but what the homesteader called it), where I chatted for a few minutes with a guy in an XJ on his way up the trail. As he was planning to camp, I recommended he stop short of Oro Belle, as it would get treacherous at the higher altitudes due to ice on the trail.
From Fort Despair, I continued southward past ‘Ole Kentuck’s’ grave and crossed the stream to examine the ruins of his cabin, built into the side of the hill. From Kentuck’s cabin down to Lake Pleasant, the trail gets fairly easy, at least the difficult sections have go arounds, so you can choose to take the easy way. As it was getting late and starting toward sunset, I chose to take the easy way down. Just about sunset I finally hit the trail head at the Lake Pleasant end of the road.