Three distinct distillery tours

We can’t hike all the time. All three of these, though, involved some walking. And drinking. We do that too.

Recently I had the opportunity to tour and partake at three different spirit distilleries in and around Las Vegas. We’ll start simple, and let things escalate out-of-hand as they will.

Desert Diamond Distillery

Just outside of Kingman, AZ, towards the airport, you can find Desert Diamond Distilleries, [https://www.desertdiamonddistillery.com] which has a tasting room, distillery tours, and monthly dinners after which you taste whatever spirit the owners are most proud of that month.

The $7 tour is simple and straightforward: You learn how the bar came from a restaurant in Las Vegas, and the rat Pack leaned upon it, you see the giant copper still from Germany,  you see the warehouse.

Desert Diamond mostly makes rum and that rum is worth the journey. They want $20-50 a bottle, and you are getting that quality.

They have been dabbling in whiskey, and that is quite good, but still quite pricey. I felt I paid $75 for a $50 dollar whiskey. But it is, by a good margin, the best whiskey I’ve found distilled in state.

They make a cheaper corn whiskey, and a vodka, neither of which I have tried.

The owner pouring you one…

Across the river in Las Vegas, the distillery experience gets bigger and crazier and more expensive.

The Mob Museum Speakeasy

In the basement of the Mob Museum, [https://themobmuseum.org] they have a “speakeasy”. This is a real bar, but you can only get into it with ($30) admission to the Museum. OK – there is some side door that you can get in with a password from the website, but we had tickets, so you are on your own with that.  For an extra $15 you can sit in on the tasting and prohibition lecture. In that setting, we learned a little about the distilling process (they make some beer, moonshine and rum on site) and a good deal more about the birth of bootlegging in the US, and how this financed the first national crime syndicates. Or so I suppose. I couldn’t hear half of it over the music from the speakeasy next door.

The samples were microscopic, and unimpressive. Moonshine is just moonshine. The rum did not stand above any of its big-batch $20/bottle competitors. I’d tell you about how they tasted in the cocktails from the speakeasy, but we stood for 15 minutes without getting any staff attention and moved on.

Las Vegas has no shortage of places you can pay too much for cocktails. (We ended up at Circa where we were served within 5 minutes on a Saturday night.)

The museum (properly called the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement) itself is all kinds of clever, (it has won awards) but it is three stories (plus basement) of wall-wall crime and mayhem, and I burned out on which middle-aged white guy went to jail for shooting which middle-aged white guy.

Like most museums, the information comes in isolated paragraphs next to displays, but you can put together the narrative that Prohibition allowed street level gangs to become or become co-opted by national gangs, and how the feds ignored them until the 1950’s when congressional hearings (that’s the whole 2nd floor) forced them to do something. Portions of the Kefauver hearings actually took place in the very courthouse the central presentation is in. There’s a section on the mob in Vegas, and an equally large section of the string of cowboy sheriffs patrolling those same streets.  By the time Whitey Bulger was leaving a trail of bodies around Boston I had lost interest.

You can buy the moonshine for just over $20/mason jar in the gift shop. I did not.

Lost Spirits Distillery

On a brighter note, across the freeway inside Area 15, (which is an experience all of its own) you can tour the Lost Spirits Distillery [https://www.lostspirits.net ] which tries to make the distillery tour into a Disneyland experience. The problem is that they are still in a converted warehouse, and while they are clearly trying their best the compromises, like having to ride the trolley across the parking lot to the second building, are unavoidable.

They still want $55 a head.

Lost Spirits claimed to have found a method to age spirits without actually aging them through the use of light.  You can see on the tour the contraption bathed in the lights of what I happen to know are commercially made theatrical lights. However, I can’t say what sort of lamps they put in them, nor would they tell me. That’s the secret, I was told. You can also see more regular stills and get a sniff of the big barrel full of must that they keep in the open for visitors.

In addition to seeing some of the distillery equipment, there are themed rooms with tasting stations, where you can taste the various products, mostly high-proof rum. There’s a candle-lit forest, a Victorian “Dorian Grey” room, the Havana Hologram Lounge (which has some cool projections) and the submarine, which is legitimately a triumph of scenic design over budget.

Curiously, Lost Spirits does not directly sell the booze they just demonstrated on site.  They will ship bottles, when available, starting at $30/ bottle plus, plus.

Even though I am a fan of museums, scenic design and giant copper pots in all shapes, I wouldn’t repeat any of these tours again. I will assert that the distillery tour of the Mob Museum is over-priced for what it is. Lost Spirits is worth it once, as a strange date night activity.

Now, I’ve been back to Desert Diamond many times. But that is because they will actually sell me booze.

Desert Diamond Distillery

4875 Olympic Way, Kingman, AZ

The Mob Museum

300 Stewart Avenue, Las Vegas, NV

(A block away from Fremont Street).

Lost Spirits Distillery – Area 15

3215 S Rancho Drive,  Las Vegas, NV.

Check websites for times and prices.

All photos are from the websites of locations covered unless noted.

“We” for this article means Cheryl and myself. More on that on my personal blog: What Have We Learned? [https://padegimas.wordpress.com]

So, yeah, this might be becoming a more general travel site.

The Grim Beauty of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial

Bongo at the trailhead.

A few weeks ago, taking the back way down from Prescott, I stopped at the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial off of AZ89. The State Memorial Park is located on the second serpentine wind down the mountain that separates Yarnell from Congress. It is most easily approached going south. AZ89 is split here, and you would have to U-turn past the site going north to come back and reach it.

There you will find parking for about a dozen cars and “restrooms”, meaning plastic outhouses.

Or you could take a map

The main trail is just shy of three miles one way winding up and around the desert ridges. You can expect all the low desert hazards and all the low desert heat. The grade is gentle but constant as the packed dirt path switches back and forth across the ridge, perhaps more times than is really needed. On occasion, stone stairs will help you up or down.

Along the way are shiny, stainless steel plaques commemorating each firefighter who died in this catastrophe, as well as plastic plaques explaining the history of desert fires in general, and the Yarnell Hill Fire in particular. There are also benches.

If you took a free map from the container at the trailhead, you can easily follow your progress up the 2.85 main trail by plaque. I’m not going to recount the well-known tale here. The park website repeats all the verbiage on the plaques.

If you need to know more right now, this article is a good over-view without being gushy local news or terse and technical fire-speak.  You could also read the actual report it references. Meanwhile, we are hiking.

View from the trail

Were it not for its grim purpose, the Hotshot Trail, as it is designated, would actually be a pleasant climb through a fine collection of rocks and cacti. Climbing up the ridge reveals consecutively grander vistas of the valley below. On my trip lizards scampered away from my feet as hawks circled overhead. But then I came to a glaring plaque (the afternoon sun makes them signal mirrors) and joy yielded to grim purpose.

The Yarnell Hill Fire ended for a generation the debate as to whether Prescott (where the GM Hotshots were based) and surrounding communities should publicly fund wilderness firefighting. There had been loud talk of leaving all of it to the feds. After the fire, state and municipal money carved this fine, if sad trail up the ridgeline.

The Hotshot Trail ends at an Observation Deck overlooking the site where the 19 men actually burned to death. A large plastic plaque explains how that happened. There is a bench and shade and a tribute wall decorated with a multitude of firefighter patches along with other mementos.

The much steeper Journey Trail continues from this point, tracing the route the Hotshots took down the ridge to their doom. It drops about 500 feet in one mile to reach the actual memorial. I was out of water at that point, so I turned around at the observation deck.

A week later, hand to God, I stumbled upon the movie based upon this group and their sad end, Only the Brave. It is actually well done.

If you visit this site, go in the morning and don’t go in summer. The desert wants to kill you even when its not on fire – don’t make it easy.

Sometimes it kills even the best of us.

West Pinto Creek – a journey without a particular destination.

Bongo near Oak Flat

West Pinto Trail #212 in the Superstition Wilderness is an easy (by Supes standards) hike into transition/riparian habitat without requiring expeditionary resources. It takes a bit to get to the trailhead, but that trip is actually (and literally) half the fun.

I included this trail in my book Day and Overnight Hikes in the Tonto National Forest, but that was over 10 years ago.

The eastern portion of the Superstition is the higher and more remote half. What it lacks in developed trailheads, crowds, cholla and mythology it makes up for with peace and occasional shade. I hiked this on an April Saturday, and passed some folks on the road, but met no-one on the trail.

To start with, US 60 east of Superior is one of the best drives you can take on pavement. Past Top-o-The-World (this is a town) a bridge crosses the deep canyon formed by our destination.  On the far side of that bridge to left turn lane leads to FR287. The pavement here soon turns to graded dirt as it wanders through active mining country en-route to the wilderness.

The mines move big piles of rock around all the time, and then re-direct FR287 around those. This leaves maps and directions useless. Google regularly suggested I turn left, which would have been over an embankment and into a steep ravine. The mines have marked any road you are no supposed to take. Go slow, follow the signs, you’ll make it with or without maps or directions or a patient voce in your dashboard suggesting trying to get you killed.

A Y intersection at about 7 miles in marks the transition from mine country to actual Tonto National Forest. Go right, across the narrow bridge to FR287A. A sign will warn about single lane with pull-outs. Yep. Go that way.

Transition to scrub

The road benefits from a higher clearance vehicle, but you will never use 4WD even as it winds around the canyon walls. Most of the way the road will be the same color as the cliff on one side, and the ravine to the other: red, grey, greenish grey, white. You will pass the transition zone between high desert and low scrub, with saguaros growing right next to juniper trees. The switchbacks mean you are close. That flat spot at the bottom of the canyon ahead is the remains of Miles Ranch. This is where 287A effectively dead-ends.

There are two effective trailheads at Miles Tarilhead, located among the remains of the old Kennedy Ranch. The official one is poorly marked. Look for the Superstition Wilderness wood-cut sign across the road from the Miles Trailhead sign.  The actual trail is just beyond, climbing the hills westward into the scrub oak. This wanders up and down the side of the hill until the junction with Bull Basin Trail.

Or you can pass by the shed (empty save for vermin dropping and a scattering of hay). Nothing will stop you from seeing that for yourself. Eventually some jack-ass will burn this to the ground because their special-ass needed a fire under the roof, but right now, there it still sits. A remnant road continues  westward on the far side of the gate, providing a shadeless march through the desiccated remains of the pasture. It joins the main trail within sight of the Bull Basin junction.

Bongo inthe shed that hasn’t burned down yet

The main trail is longer and has more up and down, but it also has shade.

West Pinto continues as a single-track up the canyon of its namesake. It is moderate. There were only a few places where I had to pay attention to the trail, rather than write articles in my head, and none of these lasted more than 15 yards.

Here my Tonto description remains accurate, except in 2021 there is less water. Other than isolated pools, I did not encounter water above my ankles. I was a mile in before I encountered any water at all. All the rain run-off from this spring has already sunk into the thirsty sands.

While my old warning about water level may have expired., these days you would actually worry more about fire than flooding, the poison ivy persists, so it is wise to watch your step.

In a couple of places the trail climbs abruptly up the ridge, presumably to avoid obstructions in the stream bank. I took these going in, but ignored them coming out, content to splash in and out of the stream with no undue hardships. This might not be the case if the creek ever has high water flow.

Oak Flat

At about two miles, a series of trail junctions (Cuff Button going north, then Spencer Spring going south) announce the proximity of Oak Flat, a sandy clearing filled with manzanita and surrounded by oaks. Mike book presented this as a destination, but it is really just a landmark. You can see how users of the campsite area would have to share with the large colony of red ants right near the fire pit. Across the clearing, West Pinto crosses the (dry) creek near its confluence with the (dry) Spencer Springs Creek and continues up that canyon.

I followed for a few miles up the steep canyon side, crossing a couple of saddles until I became hungry, and realized I did not want to fight the wind to eat lunch on the shade less slopes.  West Pinto continues to climb as it approaches Iron Mountain and points beyond, hitting the Reavis Trail about 9 miles from the Miles TH, but those were far beyond the distance I was prepared to hike that day. So I retreated back to Oak Flat, ate my lunch , and returned to my car.

West Pinto between Oak Flat and Iron Mountain

My total hike was 6.3 miles, which I did at a leisurely pace in just under 4 hours. My highest elevation gain was 3900 feet (the high saddle past Oak Flat) about 1100’ above the trailhead.

MAP

Up, Down and Around Picacho Peak.

Bongo on Hunter Trail.

The saddle-shaped Picacho Peak marks a long used pass now underneath Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. It has been a state park since 1965, and you can climb it.

But you have to really, really want to.

The peak is a mere 1500 feet above highway grade, but the way is steep and only gets steeper. My route went up the north side, down the south, and then around the whole mountain to the west all on established trails.  This can be done in a half-day, but it will use all of that half day. I started at 2pm on a March afternoon and reached my car just past sunset.

The easist part of HUnter Trail.

From the Barret Loop parking area, Hunter Trail charges straight up the north slope of the peaks at stairstep grade through the creosote and saguaro and ocotillo. After about a half mile, it evens out for a hundred yards or so, and then it gets even steeper, and stays that way all the way up.

The trail proved surprisingly crowded for a hike so notoriously difficult. The difficulty is balanced perhaps by the shortness of the hike, 2.2 miles one way, and that it is located right off the interstate.

On this slope, you’ll encounter your first bit of wire rope. The signs recommend gloves (and I wore them because I had them). The wire, however, is tightly spun and in good shape. You have more to worry about from heat than splinters. Up the north slope they are a convenience. Further up they become a necessity.

Despite its shape, the peak is not a dormant volcano. It is a remnant lava flow which has eroded unevenly over the past 22 million years or so.

At just shy of a mile, and just shy of a 100’ elevation gain from the parking lot, Hunter reaches the saddle between the two main peaks. There is a sign and a bench. I made the saddle at 3:50. This is the turn-around for the moderate hike. Past here it is as much a climb as a hike.

You’ll hug the bottom of the cliff as you wind east towards the summit approach. Past the intersection with Sunset (which we’ll get to) you will find two “ladders”: straight-up vertical climbs with wire rope on either side, and footholds slickened by thousands of boots before yours.

You are not actually near the summit until you cross the plank. You’ll see what I mean.

We can thank the Civilian Conservation Corp for the summit approach route. They used it to build and service a 40-foot light beacon that was installed at the top of the peak for air traffic control in 1932.

At the top saddle, I did not climb the taller east peak because of other hikers. This was the tail end of Covid times, and there is only the one path. But I crossed the ridge to towards the west peak. I did not climb that all the way either because the turkey vultures, who, judging from the slicks of white slime decorating the cliff, spend a lot of time there. The top saddle would have to do.

Turkey Vulture

Vista to the south.
Vista to the north.

As I admired the vista in both directions, I also noted how low the sun had sank. So down we go.

Going up, the wire ropes were really more of a convenience. Coming down, which I often had to do facing the cliff, they were a necessity. I cannot say I would have attempted this without those ropes in place.

Imagine for a moment the guys who built these.

A rare easy part of Sunset Trail.

The hardest ladder of the journey was heading down Sunset Trail, which basically slows your tumble down the cliff. (Again, courtesy of the CCC). Once off the rocks, Sunset continues as a series of tight, rubble-filled, joyless switchbacks for another half mile.

Sunset levels out as it bends west to wander across the ridges and washes draining the southwest slopes of the peak.  It goes through private property through much of this passage, so stay on the trail.

Learn from my mistake: a liter of frozen water will not melt fast enough in March to keep you hydrated. I coaxed enough liquid out of it to stay out of real trouble, but not enough to be comfortable.

Cholla displaces ocotillo and crowds the trail in places with their spiky pods of ouch. The sun was low enough by now that small palo-verde trees were shading my passage on the trail.

The west end of Sunset Trail.

I reached Sunset trailhead at 6:20pm.  I found a welcome restroom at nearby day-use. I then marched through the twilight along the road, past the campground and eventually the (now closed) visitor center and back to my car.

The park gates are open from 5am to 10pm. Trails are open sunrise to sunset. It cost me $7 to drive into the park in my car. The visitor center promises exhibits but is really just a gift shop.

https://azstateparks.com/picacho

Ford Canyon is a good test without becoming a major expedition.

Climbing into Ford Canyon

If you wonder where you are in hike conditioning, the Ford Canyon loop we are about to describe will answer that question. Also, it will take you away from the city without forcing you to take an actual road trip.

I learned that I have, comfortably, an eight mile hiking range through mountainous terrain. The route I took covered ten miles. So, even though I limped to the car, I have no regrets.

To reach White Tank Mountain Regional Park, take Olive Road (Dunlap in Phoenix) west until it basically dead-ends at the park’s guard shack.  How you get to Olive Road is on you. One note: you would think that there would be an exit for Olive on Loop 303, but there is not.

Most of my information on this trail loop comes from my hike on 5 March 2021

White Tank Mountain Regional park is a Maricopa County park covering nearly 30,000 acres centered on the northern portion of the White Tank Mountains. This range rises from the 1100’ valley floor to 4000 foot peaks and separates the Salt River basin where Phoenix is centered from the Hassayampa plain to the north and west.

The park is open from 6am to 8pm, and entry at the gate is $7 per car.

Ford Canyon trail start to finish is 7.4 miles one way, but I skipped the first mile from the terminus (which is a dirt sidewalk through low desert scrub) to jump on at the sub-trailhead at Spot #9 on Ford Canyon Road. I then left the trail at its junction with Willow Canyon to head back down. That route, along with the lower portions of Mesquite Canyon Trail and towards the end Waddell Trail form the loop that led me back to my car.

I parked my car at spot #9. Like nost of the numbered spots in the park, this features a restroom and a scattering of concrete picnic tables. From the signed trailhead, the wide, packed-dirt trail quickly goes in and out of deep wash.

The lower portion of Ford Canyon Trail is a sidewalk of packed dirt across the arroyo. Besides the dirt track, signage looms plentiful and obvious. If you get lost through here, you should reconsider your form of recreation.

The desert welcomes you

Ford canyon early.

Memorial benches adorn every trail intersection. On my hike day, a proliferation of signage for some trail running event to be held the next day decorated the sides of the path. Teddy-bear cholla stands out as one of many spiny assailants awaiting anyone who would stray off the path as it winds over a low saddle and northwest towards Ford Canyon proper.

Just shy of 2 miles in (all distances are mine – from Spot 9) the warning sign announces that the trail from here – which narrows to a footpath immediately beyond the sign –  becomes hazardous.  

The sign does not lie. This section is on of the hardest trails in the metro area. Only Camelback Mountain and Goat Camp trail (in this very park)  rival it – at least for these next three miles. You will end up using your hands more than once.

The sign

The White Tanks are known habitats for javelina and deer as well as the usual low-desert critters, but the largest vertebrate I encountered on the hike were fat and brazen squirrels.

Much of the exposed granite through here has been whitewashed by the occasional tumult of rain run-off. In early March, some pools of standing water remained. These are, in fact, some of the white tanks that give the region its name.

Towards the top, even the goat trail disappears, and you will end up hunting ribbons along the wash. The route does indeed generally follow the wash. You are a ways from any path across the shoulders.

This is the way. Really.

Lower, you might have seen signs explaining how leaving the trail will increase the erosion. It is true that much of the Sonoran Desert is held together by a layer of microbes imbedded in the soil, and our boot-stomps harm it. Do not worry about that here. This is a wash. There is nothing but granite and sand. Whatever trail ran through here before was washed away by the last rain. Whatever path your footsteps help create will be washed away by the next rain. Choose your steps according to safe, forward progress, and finding the next ribbon. Worry about nothing else.

Somewhere in here, I got my foot stuck in crevace between rocks. I got it out, but not with much grace. It buggered my boots a bit, but I thought little else of it at the time.

That left boot sock had absorbed a good bit of blood by the time I got back to the car.

The old dam is about midway through the wash passage at 3.3 miles and an elevation of 2250’.

Bongo at the abandoned Ford Canyon dam.

At my 4.15 mile mark, a foot path finally appeared, climbing out of the wash. You are through the worst of it, but not yet halfway. The single-track continues through the shadeless slopes as wide switchbacks up the canyon wall, across a saddle and into the next canyon.

You cannot hear the city this far up in the White Tanks. You can, if you are still for a moment, hear the buzzing of insects, the scurry of lizards and the chirping of birds.

You can also hear on occasion the roar of F-18’s flying in and out of their nest at Luke AFB.

Bongo at MM6

The saddle with the 6 mile trail sign marked about 5 miles into my hike, and the half-way point of the route. This saddle stands at 2813’ and was the highest point I recorded on the route. A half mile beyond, the Ford Trail meets the Willow Canyon trail.

Ford Canyon trail goes on another three-quarters of a mile until it Y’s out into the Goat Camp or Mesquite Canyon Trails. I took Willow Canyon instead for it was shorter, easier and more scenic.

A quarter mile past the intersection, Willow Canyon crosses the wash near an old cattle-tank sight. Past this it climbs slightly but steadily even as the canyon floor sinks steadily below you. The footpath winds across the steep slope, revealing intermittent vistas of the west valley.

Willow Canyon Trail

At 7.2 miles, Willow Canyon T’s into Mesquite Canyon, near the bottom of Mesquite Canyon.

Here the path widens a bit as it switches back down the canyon. Go left (east) to climb out of this canyon, across a ridge, to switch back down a different, unnamed canyon to the south. As you approach the bottom of the switch-backs benches appear – signaling your approach to relative civilization.

Here is also where my feet, particularly my left foot transitioned from fatigue to pain. Constant downhill always brings out the worst in foot problems. So forgive my dearth of superlative language through here. I was just trying to keep going.

By the intersection with the Waddell train, the path has become a packed-dirt sidewalk once more. Take the left (north) up the Waddell Trail.

Waddell Trail which will eventually merge back with Ford Canyon. However, a mile before you get to that point, a short spur will take you to pavement a few hundred yards from Spot #9.

Full Hike = 9.88 miles. It took me 5.5 hours, but I took notes and photos, and covered the last two miles at a -er- measured pace.

I’d still do it again.   

Some Stupid Luck in the middle of nowhere.

I’m posting this here because the tale is too long for social media. 

On behalf of my dayjob, I journeyed deep into the Navajo Reservation (in NE Arizona) because I was “in the neighborhood”). A bit of remedial geography – no one is ever conveniently close to Dilkon Arizona, a crossroads deep in the Rez featuring a Basha’s grocery store, a gas station, and someday soonish a medical center.

There was a need for someone in our company to meet with someone working on that medical center. I was, that morning, in Flagstaff for a similar meeting that did not happen, and Those Above figured they’d never have anyone closer. So off I went in the 20 year old Dodge Dakota.

Bongo and Verity in Dilkon, AZ.

I had the Dakota (called Verity) because my Subaru Forester had a damaged suspension (likely from stunts like Packsaddle Mountain), and was in the shop that very day. 

I started and ended my day in Kingman AZ (where it was 28 F when I left my hotel room) on account of a third day-job assignment. 

On my way back, I stopped to manage some cabin logistics, and take some Bongo pictures for Instagram, because we are trying to build a little platform here. 

This photo appeared on Instagram. It’s still there.

The road is Tribal 15, which looks just like that most of the way.

This is the one I meant to post, but tapped the wrong one.

Friends, that was a $40 Instagram picture, and only that cheap because I got stupid lucky.

Took the photos, got back in the truck, tried to pull away, wheels spun. 

By spun, I mean the passenger rear tire buried itself in loose sand up to the axle. 

I did not take pictures.

Verity carries a shovel, and I had it half excavated when some locals stopped by to help. As sand filled back into the hole, they explained, and probably correctly, that I wasn’t going to dig myself out.  I would need a tow.

Happily, they had the means. Once we excavated the axe from the dry quicksand (this stuff was hour-glass quality,  flowing freely in a way that was both amazing and horrifying), they produced a rope, wrapped it around my front end, and we were able to free Verity from peril on the first try. 

A had a $20 bill in my wallet, and I gave it to the lead guy. Then I dug out another $20 bill when we had to cut his rope to free it from my truck. (I hide one in my wallet for just these occasions.)

When nerves allowed, I drove on to Kingman. That’s 470 miles round trip, part of the nearly 750 miles I drove over 3 days for my job. (I get compensated for that). That took the rest of the afternoon, during which I negotiated paying the mechanic for the Subaru. (Which is why you always want to get paid for mileage, not just reimbursed for gas.)

https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/embed?mid=1xSa0_UJ8H2FCwT7-CJNk1rQRKIjTsiIZ

Stay on the damn road on the Rez. Now we know. 

CODA:

Mohave County’s original county jail is one of the oldest still standing. It’s protected, so the county can’t tear it down.  I have no idea what they use it for now, but they are building the new courthouse addition basically around this structure. 

I was also in that neighborhood and have a couple of photos. 

Camping in Sycamore Rim Country

The end of the road…

My go-to spot for undesignated camping in the high country (in AZ that means higher than 5000’) is the north rim of Sycamore Canyon. The Sycamore rim marks the southern boundary of the Williams district of the Kaibab National Forest. It lies essentially 30-50 miles south by southeast of Williams AZ, which is about 30 miles due east of Flagstaff along I-40. 

The rim itself does not offer spectacular scenery. It offers a consistent expanse of rock-studded plateau topped with pine and oak stands separated by occasional prairies. It is plenty pretty to be sure. The  tall green grasses and flowers, towering fragrant pinon and ponderosa pines and gnarled oaks offer habitat for everything from turkey to elk. But this is what most of the Coconino plateau looks like when it hasn’t been paved over or grazed down to high desert. 

The only noteworthy vistas are views into and across Sycamore Canyon itself. 

This is a ten year old photo doctored with ten year old free-ware. Don't judge.
One of many vistas of Sycamore Canyon

Sycamore Canyon proper is a wilderness area (mostly within the Coconino NF) where Sycamore Creek and its immediate tributaries have cut steep slots into the plateau. The canyon often rivals Oak creek Canyon (to the southeast) for scenery, but is not nearly as accessible. Getting into the canyon is best approached as  a backpacking expedition, and well beyond the scope of this article. 

Ruby and company

(Although I wrote about those trails, and others I will reference shortly in 5 Star Trails: Flagstaff and Sedona, which I plug here to avoid a lot of repetition.)

What I like about it is the relative privacy. You will consistently pass the tribal compound of RV boondockers on the main roads just south of Williams. But go further south, on the thinner forest roads, and you can spend days at a time on your own part of the prairie, seeing no other people until you have to go back into town for more ice. I have accomplished this feat more than once. 

And when it’s just me…

To get real privacy, I had to bounce down some roads with long number designations until I was out of sight of the road that is actually on the map. This is undesignated camping, meaning you make your own campsite and provide your own services. If you need a toilet and a trashcan, you are better going to Whitehorse Lake Campground, which we will also get to. 

I have camped on the northwest rim (off of FR 110) on the north center rim (off of FR56) and the northeast rim in the Coconino NF somewhere off of FR 231. The experience was all the same. Though, in full disclosure, I haven’t been on the northeast portion since I wrote the hiking guide. 

All were about 6500’, hard-dirt prairie where I only had to wear pants if I wanted to. And bees – I had plenty of bees at all three sites. 

Whitehorse Lake Campground

Credit – Kaibab NF

White Horse Lake campground is the big campground on the actual rim. It features a mix of tent and RV sites (94 total) about half of which are reservable. Most are at least within sight of the 35 acre lake. You can’t swim in the lake, but you can putter about in non-motorized boats (some rentable on site – in non Covid years) and do a bit of fishing. The lake is also popular with frogs. 

The campground is a hosted fee area. (Fees vary – check the website). I visited the place on a Wednesday in August of 2020, and it was about ⅓ occupied. You would still want a reservation or an early arrival for a weekend spot. 

Also nearby, of course, are the Sycamore Rim and Overland Trail hikes (also in my book). I had assumed I blogged about these on the old site, but it seems I did not. So that comes next time. 

Next time…

Packsaddle Mountain – up the easy way and down the hard way

On a whim, I made a right turn off of US 93 and up Big Wash Road. Signs indicated camping and hiking areas, about which I knew nothing. With some daylight left, I went north down the wide, graded dirt road to fill in that gap in knowledge. After about five miles of flat desert, the road starts to climb Packsaddle Mountain.

Packsaddle Mountain looms over Chloride, Arizona, a not-quite-ghost mining settlement northwest of Kingman AZ. The mountain is on the southern edge of the Cerbat Mountains, just southeast of the Mount Trimble Wilderness Area. 

The little post marks the wilderness boundary

The road abuts the wilderness areas for about four miles. There are no signs or formal pull-outs – you’d have to locate yourself on the map and find a place to park. But poking around wilderness areas  requires that level of self-sufficiency at a minimum. Mt Trimbul Wilderness has little water and zero services, but it does have a lot of elevation change. I had a couple of hours, not a couple of days, so I stayed on the road.

Big Wash Road, from this direction, remains wide and well-graded. You will appreciate high clearance, but you could get a passenger vehicle up as far as the trailhead (see below) with caution and nerves. You’d be hard pressed to get a trailer of any size up here. 

A campsite at Packsaddle CG.

At the top of the first good climb, about 8.7 miles in, I found Packsaddle Campground, which is marked by a vault toilet and an unlisted number of dispersed campsites. At 6000’ – the median elevation of the ridge that separated the “peaks” of Packsaddle – the site is a good 20F cooler than the desert floor below.  There is trash service here, but no water. 

There are no facilities with water until you get to Chloride – and even then, something would have to be open.

Windy Point campsite

I kept going along the ridgetop until just past the 10 mile mark, where I found the turn-off for Windy Point Campground.

Windy Point is a BLM fee area ($8/night, on the envelope and trust system). The fee, I suppose, is justified by the addition of picnic benches and fire rings, and even more spectacular views of the surrounding countryside than the campground just yonder.

Cherum Peak trail

Big Wash plows farther, past this turn-off, towards the marked trailhead for Cherum Peak trailhead, some two miles past Windy Point. The Cherum Peak Trail is three miles one way, climbing a thousand feet to the top of the peak it is named for – the highest point in the southern Cerbat Mountains. The views are reportedly rewarding. I had an hour of sunlight left, and passed on hiking it that day. 

Important: This is the turn-around if you do not have a high clearance vehicle and/or wish to have a pleasant, relaxing drive back down to pavement. 

The way down…
This was the nice part

I went forward – down the mountain on the eastern half of Big Wash “Road”. And while my Subaru Forester was up for it, she was just barely up for it, and this was downhill in the clear, dry afternoon. I would want no part of this in the dark or the rain. You will want a 4WD to go up from this direction.

Past the trailhead, the road beyond is rough, alternating from deeply rutted to a lightly graded landslide. To weave around the rocks and the ruts Ruby (the Subaru) was often obliged to make close friends with the brush crowding the side of the now narrow jeep trail. 

Friends, I took this route slow enough that bugs buzzed around my car. I spent the better part of an hour traversing a mere six miles.  The gate, and the mining ruins just beyond are just past the halfway point of the ugly part. I made it through with only a couple of sickening crunches, and only one part where I seriously feared I would tip the vehicle. 

Around the 16 mile mark, the road dumps into the wider, more civilized Mural Road, so named for the murals that cover some large rocks on the side of the road.

These are the Roy Purcel Murals – and not graffitti – but Art, and the sort of roadside attraction that Route 66 was once famous for. Roy Purcell took a break from pursuing his master’s degree in fine arts to work some nearby mines. While there, circa 1966, he painted The Journey,  this 2000 square foot wonder of color and imagery. 

My photo suffers from the setting sun putting the rocks into shade. The website above has better ones.

While you check that out, I’ll pull Ruby over and make sure she isn’t hemorrhaging vital fluids.

She neither limped nor bled, so on I went. 

Chloride was once a sprawling silver camp, and may be the oldest continuously inhabited mining settlement in the state. While it is a shell of its past, at about 350 residents, it is not a ghost town. It is not, in any way, bustling.

Mural Road dumps onto Tennessee Road – the main drag of Chloride, where I had to stop for local dogs, local people finishing their conversation in the roadway, and deer. In town limits I stopped to watch four deer cross the road. 

Tennessee Road morphs into County 125, which takes you back to US 93. 

The route I took.

Camping over Kingman: Hualapai Mountain Campgrounds

Like Kingman only completely different.

For most people, Kingman, Arizona is not somewhere you go so much as a place you end up – or more likely just pass through as fast as possible. Parked in the northeast corner of the state at 3000’ elevation, Kingman is known mostly as a Route 66 stop, and the last reliable source of gas before the Nevada line on the way to Las Vegas.

(I know for a fact that I can fill my tank in Kingman, go to and drive around in Vegas for a few days, and make in back to Kingman on that same tank, thus avoiding the much higher prices in Nevada.)

As it happens, it has been a destination for me from time to time. There are a few wineries and a fine distillery, for one thing. I have also been involved in the various incarnations of the local book fair in one way or another for several years.

When in Kingman, in good weather, I prefer camping. Of course, Route 66 through Kingman is lined with a variety of mostly reasonable motels, but in the spring or fall, I’d just as soon sleep outdoors. The place to do that is 14 miles southeast and 3000 feet up from downtown Kingman.

This means that temperatures can be as much as 20 degrees cooler than Kingman or other points below.

Hualapai Mountain, with settled areas between 6000-6500’ elevation towers over the high desert that surrounds it. Most of its multiple peaks are within the Mojave County Park of the same name. Surrounding this are the cabin community of Pine Lake, and a scattering of BLM land. Both the county park ands the BLM portions host campgrounds.

Hualapai Mountain Park Campground

The county park campground winds across several ridges and valleys inside the park. The main campground is a maze of narrow but paved roads winding past tent sites, cabins, and even a small RV lot.  The top end of the maze is a trail-head for the extensive trail system that meanders up and around the peaks. We’ve written about those trails elsewhere.

If you make the sharp left turn at the ranger station, past auxiliary parking and the lower group site, you reach Pine Basin, whose unpaved and marginally graded maze of dirt roads reach some primitive tent sites. A few are flat, gravel pads on top of the ridge, but most sites are tucked inside the jumble of granite boulders that fill the basin beyond.

Pine Basin is where I am most likely to hang my hammock.

Seriously, I hang my hammock.

Most campsites have a stone table, a fire pit of some sort, and are within sight of a plastic outhouse. Not all of the stone tables are in good repair. Not all the fire pits are official.  There is no water and trash service is limited to containers near the entrance.   You can reserve cabins and even RV pads, but all tent sites are first come first serve. You pay your $20/night (cash!) and take your chances. Even so, they are not likely to fill up.

Typical site in the Pine Basin.

I chose this campground first because 1) I did not know about the BLM campground at first but 2) I had business in Kingman and the BLM campground adds 15-20 minutes to the trip – one way. But if I didn’t need to be in Kingman in the morning, I’d just as soon keep driving.

Wild Cow Springs Campground

Patience and nerve…

Let’s dispense with a myth: you can totally get to Wild Cow Springs Campground with any high clearance vehicle, in good weather. The road beyond Pine Lake is signed “Chains and 4WD only” but that is for snow-time. In the summer, the road is thin, and occasionally bumpy, but is mostly well-graded dirt. Higher clearance is helpful, but mostly you just need patience and nerve.

The road beyond Pine Lake is sharp and steep and it will take you the better part of 15 minutes to cover the four miles of up and down and around until you reach Wild Cow Springs. The road is well signed, however, so there is not much fear of getting lost. The sharp altitude difference guarantees some wide views of the desert below.

(The road continues well beyond, becoming a tangle of backroads, and you are on your own with that.)

I have seen people get small trailers into Wild Cow Springs, but it is mostly tent sites. There is a string of sites, in fact, that are a good walk from the road, following a stone-lined hiking trail across the little ravine there.

All the sites have wood and metal benches and metal fire-rings with grills. The front of the site features vault toilets. The site has some trash service, but no water supply. The fee though is $8/night.

There are, in addition, a larger RV park, and a resort (with a restaurant and a store) close to or within Pine Lake, but those are a little too civilized for this blog.

The Road through Bloody Basin

My son bought himself a 2008 Jeep Liberty, the newest vehicle he has ever owned, and was desperate to get it on some dirt. So he took my advice, and we went down the Bloody Basin Road through the Agua Fria National Monument, and then kept going on Cave Creek Road, aka Seven Springs road, aka Forest Road 24 all the way back to civilization.

This is not a serious 4×4 route, though you will benefit from high clearance. People do this in passenger cars, but that is a slow and bumpy journey. Some clearance makes it more recreational. Any SUV will suffice.

Bloody Basin Road, for our purposes, starts at Exit 259 from the I-17, north of the Sunset Point rest stop, but south of Cordes junction. The sign says Bloody Basin Road. Once you are off the highway, you will not see consistent pavement again until nearly Carefree. For us, that was a feature of the journey.

Bloody Basin used to be called Turret Wash until the 1873 Battle of Turret Wash where 27-60 Apaches were killed by US Cavalry forces. The Apache warband, renegade from the reservation, had tortured and killed some nearby ranchers, and then hung out at the creekside, thinking they were in the clear. Cavalry scouts tracked them easily, and troops surrounded them in the night, assaulted at daybreak, routing them with no US casualties.

Historian Zeke Crandall’s account of the incident summarizes the aftermath:

“The bodies of these renegades that rotted on that lonely ridge in Bloody Basin were the same ones that so cruelly killed Swaim, Taylor and McDonald and when the word spread through the territory it sent a major message to the rest of the Apache’s that they were now in a battle with an equally nasty bunch of Army soldiers that would treat them the same way they treated the whites. “


http://arizonatales.com/bloodybasin.pdf

So: Bloody Basin. And now you can casually drive your SUV through the same territory so many many died painful deaths over.

Bloody Basin Road will wind through some low, rocky hills, until it crosses the Agua Fria River near some grandfathered private ranch land. Just past that point you will hit a pull-out with a informational sign and, more importantly, a vault toilet.

On any weekend with good weather, such as the one we chose, many ATV’s will buzz around you. Bloody Basin is the main highway connecting the maze of dirt trails these things were built for.

It then winds up to the top of the mesa to cross a flat of desert grassland.

We pulled off on a side road here as an excuse to test the jeep’s 4WD. We didn’t really need it, but my son had yet to put the jeep in that mode, and it did make some patches easier. Our “primitive”  road was a straight shot across the plain, terminating just shy of a canyon dropping back towards the Agua Fria. The sign read Route 9022, but the map has it as 9202.

The high desert here has all the high desert critters, including scorpions and rattlesnakes. If you get far enough away from the ATV traffic, you might encounter deer or javelina or even desert bald eagles.

Also common across the monument are native American artifacts, ruins and petroglyphs. According to BLM:


Archaeologists call the late prehistoric people who lived on the mesas between A.D. 1250 and 1450, the Perry Mesa Tradition.  It is estimated that at least 3,000 people inhabited settlements in areas that are now visited only occasionally by ranchers, hunters and hikers. Remnants of stone pueblos, some containing more than 100 rooms, represent a system of communities with economic and social ties. Pueblo la Plata, a large settlement of 80 to 100 rooms, attracts many visitors.

One of the reasons behind the establishment of the monument was preserving these remains.

We visited none of them. We kept going south into the Tonto National Forest.

Bloody Basin Road continues into the Tonto and down to Sheep’s bridge, a narrow bridge across the Verde River built for exactly what you suppose. That last part is bumpier than most of the trail before,  and worth it even so, but we didn’t go there either.

The road Y’s near the boundary, the spot marked by a kiosk at about 22 miles from the I-17 exit. . We went right at the Y onto Forest Road 24, AKA Seven Springs Road, AKA Cave Creek Road. We had some time constraints. I wanted to be in a bar in Cave Creek before halftime of the AFC Championship game. That was part of the deal.

The other part was my filling his gas tank, and covering his bill at the bar.

FR24 bounces over and around the ridges, circumnavigating Pine Mountain wilderness, and down towards Cave Creek the creek.  Mid-way through the journey, you encounter the Seven Springs Recreation Area which features a day-use picnic area, a trailhead, and a campground all with a mile of each other, all built or at least started by the CCC back in the 1930’s.  The trailhead has a vault toilet. The campgrounds are a fee use area. The picnic grounds are not accessible by car because the road kept washing out, so they stopped building one.

I spent a lot of time here writing my hiking guide for the Tonto National Forest.

From here you follow well graded by paper-clip turns through the hills and into the lower desert,  finally reaching pavement, passing the ranger station, and hitting city limits of Carefree Arizona. Cave Creek road continues through the bars of cave Creek AZ, and across the low desert into Scottsdale and then Phoenix. It terminates at 7th Street and Dunlap, marking the center of Sunnyslope, for the geographic completists.

We didn’t go that far either. We stopped at a bar in Cave Creek, where the game went into overtime, and I had a few too many drinks as a consequence. But I wasn’t worried. My son was driving.