Chasing the ghost of Old US 80

After finishing day-job business early in Yuma, I realized that I did not want or need to take the [yawn] I-8 to AZ85 to I-10 back towards Phoenix.

Interstate 8 replaced the old US 80 through this part of the state. US 80 replaced the Butterfield Stage Route. The actual Butterfield stage only ran a few years (1857 to 1861), but their route held onto the name. It was the wagon route from Phoenix to Yuma.

Bongo in Wellton, AZ, on old US 80.

The stage route benefitted from the work of the Mormon Battallion who beat the path from Santa Fe to San Diego, including what had long been known as the Gila Trail to Spaniards and other locals.

It’s flat desert. Follow the river as long as you can until you have to cut across to the mountain pass. Not a lot of cause for innovation.

This obvious route became part of the Dixie Overland/Lee/Bankhead/Ocean to Ocean/etc. Highway by the 1920’s, when the Feds, finally taking an interest in highway construction, decided they needed numbers. The number for this jumble of routes was initially US 80.

As Us 80 meandered across the state, if followed the old wagon route (as did the railroad line) until around what is now Gila Bend, where it bent north towards Phoenix. The original stage route bent southeast towards Tucson. Phoenix was barely a settlement in the 1850’s.

Butterfield wagon ruts are long gone, but parts of actual US 80 exist, much of it as an access road along Interstate 8. We start along there.

At Telegraph Pass, I-8 winds through the Fortuna Foothills to descend into metropolitan Yuma. These mountains are prime habitat for both Border Patrol and the Arizona Highway Patrol. Just saying. US 80, as an actual paved road you can drive, starts on the east side of this pass at the Ligurta exit.

I had lunch at some small place in Wellton where I ate my fast-food quality sandwich while trying not to listen about the Local Loud Trumpster expound on his theories to two poor women listening politely. I was happy not be included in that conversation. (I have different ideas). I was happier to leave.

Parallel to I-8, US 80 is a two lane highway with a speed limit of 65-ish. To the south, train tracks and beyond, the mighty interstate. To the north, you can see what farming in the southwest desert looked like right before the water ran out. North of that is the zombie bed of the Gila River.

At Telegraph Pass, I-8 winds through the Fortuna Foothills to descend into metropolitan Yuma. These mountains are prime habitat for both Border Patrol and the Arizona Highway Patrol. Just saying. US 80, as an actual paved road you can drive, starts on the east side of this pass at the Ligurta exit.

I had lunch at some small place in Wellton where I ate my fast-food quality sandwich while trying not to listen about the Local Loud Trumpster expound on his theories to two poor women listening politely. I was happy not be included in that conversation. (I have different ideas). I was happier to leave.

Parallel to I-8, US 80 is a two lane highway with a speed limit of 65-ish. To the south, train tracks and beyond, the mighty interstate. To the north, you can see what farming in the southwest desert looked like right before the water ran out. North of that is the zombie bed of the Gila River.

We didn’t write about this little landmark, but you can read about it here.

The quest for Wellton Pond

I came across a sign saying Wellton Pond 10 mi. Had a little fishing symbol. I was ahead on time, so I took the right off of Old US 80 on Avenue 45E and headed due north  for about 6 miles, crossing the Gila River bed. Following another sign, I took the right (east) on County 2nd Ave for another 5 miles until I found the pond at the junction of 2nd Street and Ave 50 East.

Wellton Pond is not on the map. Following signs as I did is about the only way to find it. It is a small hole full of water, choked by a wall of brush. I do not know who owns the property, but there were no barriers to access other than the brush. People clearly fish here. The farm field adjacent had an outhouse, for which they have my gratitude.

Once I had satisfied my curiosity with the pond (perhaps so you don’t have to) I continued east on 2nd Street until it bent south, becoming Avenue 52 E and, once back across the Gila, graded dirt until its eventual terminus with Historic US 80 just as that terminated back into Interstate 8 near the Mohawk rest area.

Bongo finds Wellton Pond so you don’t have to.

Sentinel

This is one restaurant that did not close due to COVID.

Sentinel proper is north of its exit from I-8, but the part I visited was to the south.

In truth, I wanted to see the Sentinel Plain Volcanic Field, but most of that is on the wrong side of the fence, inside the bombing range. You might be able to do this with a permit. I wasn’t that curious.

Back at the highway, though, you can see the remains of the Sentinel stage stop that once served bad food and brackish water to the brave passengers of the Butterfield Stage Line.

There is apparently more on this across the highway in Sentinel proper (which consists of like 6 buildings) but I had squandered too much time looking for a tiny pond.

US 80 north

Old US 80, as a separate highway, resumes on the east end of Gila Bend (past the Space Age Lodge), winding north along its original route west of the Gila River. Once again, you drive along the two-lane highway with the honor system as a speed limit, though pavement conditions will punish you if you try interstate speeds.

Not all the highway is original. At Rainbow Wash, I stopped to look at the bridge that once crossed the wash, back when this was a maintained coast-to-coast highway. That bridge is a hunk of concrete on one side of the wash. Beside it, the asphalt of “old” US 80 crosses the bottom of the wash, and if that’s flooded, you will have to go over to AZ 85 on the other side of the canals.

In the 1950’s, US 80 was re-routed to follow the route of what is now AZ 85, the connector highway between I-10 at Buckeye and I-8 at Gila Bend.

The road bends west until it crosses the Gila River (bed) at the historic Gillespie Dam Bridge.

The bridge

The Library of Congress notes:

Prior to completion of this bridge in 1927, traffic on the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway at this point was often halted by flooding on the Gila River. The Gillespie Dam Bridge was this strategically important to Arizona transportation in that is finally allowed all-weather travel over this vital transcontinental route. Technologically, the bridge is noteworthy as one of the longest vehicular structures in the state. … In almost unaltered condition today, the Gillespie Dam Bridge is one of the most important examples of early bridge construction in Arizona.

In glory days.

https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.az0577.photos/?sp=4

And the dam.

Together, where the Gila goes to die.

To the north, as you cross, the ruins of Gillespie dam marks the spot where the Gila river, as an actual flowing river, dies. To one side, stern fencing isolated the ports where the water flows into the machinery of irrigation. No fence stopped me from exploring the partially ruined dam on foot, among the frogs and waterfowl.

The old Highway carries on, of course, hooking around to the east through various farming hamlets until it finally intersects with its replacement, AZ85, which takes you to the coast-to-coast highhway’s ultimate replacement, the mighty I-10.

 

SOURCES:

https://southernarizonaguide.com/butterfield-overland-mail-stage-route-southern-arizona/

 

https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.az0577.photos/?sp=4

 

https://azdot.gov/adot-blog/us-80-mother-arizona-highways

 

https://www.americanroads.us/ushighways/ushighway80.html

 

https://www.aaroads.com/guides/us-080-az/

 

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. 

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.