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.

The bumpy back way into Sedona

az237 1

I have been zipping up and down I-17 from Phoenix to Flagstaff and back for various reasons. That is a fine drive if you need to make some time, but going back last week (in October 2018) I found I had more time than I needed. And from the gas station in Kachina Village, I looked at the map and took a chance.

 

Forest Road 237 connects I-17 to the scenic AZ 89A, but there’s a catch: it is not maintained for low clearance vehicles. I drive a 2013 Kia Soul, not known for it’s off-road prowess.. I took the road anyway.

az237 4 kia

This mostly dirt track has been called Pumphouse Wash Road, but it is not signed that way, nor will Google name it such. That is its’ paper-map name.

The road begins as an unmarked service road separating the gas station in Kachina Village (there is only one) from the southbound on-ramp to I-17. Yes, that battered line of asphalt is the road ,and the condition will not improve much. Within a quarter mile, it will make a sharp right, and here it will be signed at FR237, and “Not Maintained for…” in English and Spanish.

 

From there, it winds through the tall pine-covered, lava-rock strewn hills that dominate the Kaibab Plateau. The most unique feature you will encounter is the split-rail fencing designed to keep vehicles out of the meadows. But it has gentle quiet you will not find on either of the highways it connects.

az237 6 fence

When the Forest Service website claims the road is maintained for passenger vehicles, they mean the last few miles, on the west end. From the east approach, you go in and out of a canyon where the track has, in many places, eroded down to dusty boulders.

Bongo az237

Important note: I took this road in dry conditions with good light. I would not have taken it in the rain or the dark.

Another Important Note: I took this road generally downhill into the canyon. It would have been much harder to go uphill.

Yet Another Important Note: I did the first two miles or so in 1st or 2nd gear.

Most disasters on dirt roads come from inattentive drivers going too fast. Go slow and pay attention (get out and look if you need) and you can dramatically increase the kind of trouble you can get your vehicle in and out of.

Once you make the final rocky dips and climbs in and out of Fry Canyon, you are past the worst of it. You can shift all the way to second. Up on the bluff, about 3 miles from I-17, you reach the designated campsites, and here you might even get to third gear.

az237 7 campsite

These campsites are free, popular, and have zero services. You must bring i your own water and pack out your own trash. The closest restroom is the gas station by the highway. You must only camp in the clearly marked spots – all other site are forbidden.

 

They were almost all empty on a late October Tuesday afternoon, butt that is likely a poor stick to measure with.

Soon thereafter, you come to the junction with AZ 89A.

AZ89A through Oak Creek Canyon and all the wonders it winds past is well documented. Let me add to those volumes only that is is especially worth it in late October.

In Sedona, I braved the traffic circles full of tourists to stay south on AZ-179, past The Village of Oak Creek, Bell Rock and the ranger station to make the right onto Beaverhead Flat road. A few miles into this road I found a scenic pull-out, and from that pull-out I found a short trail (The gated remains of FR 9500G) marching into the juniper studded hillside. I only took it about a half mile. It’s not five star, but better than just loitering in the pull-out.

FR9500g trail

Back on the road, Beaverhead Flat leads to where a left (east) will lead you back to (sigh) I-17 , because, if you’re like me, you have to get back to Phoenix eventually.