story and photography by K.D. Margosian
[Arizona Motorcycle Rides: Bloody Basin and the American Southwest was originally published in the October 2007 issue of Rider magazine]
Big Bug Creek, Table Mesa, Bloody Basin, Montezuma Well, Dead Horse Ranch—graphic names that conjure up images associated with the American Southwest, but found only in Arizona. The cities and towns may not be as dated as say, New England, but the Native American and Spanish settlers predate most other cultures within the contiguous United States. History, folklore and legends await us on an easy round-trip trek of approximately 300 miles. We’ll head north from the brown desert floor to the forested greens of elevated pines and gold cottonwoods, through mining towns within minutes of ancient Native American ruins.
It’s Veterans Day weekend, and what better reason to ride. We display our patriotism by securing American flags on sissy bars, colors flying in the breeze. Bruce, Ed and Gary are vets. The author, of age during the Vietnam conflict, was never drafted. The plan: A peruse-and-cruise loop along back roads north, up and through Yavapai County to Prescott, then into Coconino County through the old mining town of Jerome, dropping into the retirement village of Cottonwood, and finally heading back down the only major highway of the trip with enough time to catch the last rays of sunset at Sunset Point overlook.
It’s time to ride. Tanked-up on coffee and Egg McMuffins, we embark from the town of Surprise, Arizona, just northwest of Phoenix proper on Highway 60. The highway becomes the straightest part of the ride, a straight shot northwest into the town of Wickenburg. We follow the Hassayampa River from Circle City and Morristown into the sleepy town of Wickenburg until the river veers off into the Sonoran Desert through Box Canyon. It’s still early in the morning, but Wickenburg will awake as truckers and gamblers head toward Laughlin and Las Vegas on Route 93. The gamblers will return sour faced with much slimmer wallets or pocketbooks.
We take a breather in “Arizona’s Most Western Community,” walking the boardwalks and train station near the Wickenburg museum. In the 1860s, Henry Wickenburg parlayed his Vulture Mine into nearly $30 million in gold dug from the ground. Today, Wickenburg is noted for its clean air, hospitality and high quality of life. Sidestepping the town’s “Jail Tree” for lack of a “hoosegow,” we peruse Ben’s Saddlery, world-renowned for custom leather and equestrian work.
The stretch is done and we’re not the sedentary sort. We grab the mechanical bull by the horns and head out on Route 89, slowly climbing in elevation into higher desert through Congress, Arizona, where the Weaver Mountains loom in the distance. Shallow dips and turns lead us onward as bike shadows crisscross the road behind. Climbing Yarnell Hill we pause near a lookout to unravel a stashed American flag and snap digital images for grandkids to share.
The Yarnell pinnacle, at 4,782 feet, is marked by the Ranch House Restaurant. The café, serving man-sized breakfasts, is a magnet during Arizona Bike Week. Rows of scooters thunder in while riders linger outside waiting for an open table. One only hopes for a space to sit before another year goes by.
In close proximity is the Shrine of St. Joseph of the Mountains, with its replicas of the Garden of Gethsemane and the Last Supper, beckoning the wayward traveler. Yet we pass both, riding out from between the summit boulders on this November day, descending into a pastoral setting named Peeples Valley. The mild weather has extended the fall palette of golden cottonwoods and junipers that contrast white fences running along meadow pastures and ranches beneath a cobalt blue sky—a scene destined for the cover of the State Tourism Guide.
We stay the course on Route 89 through the Prescott National Forest, the scent of pines pungent in the midday sun. There’s still a nip in the air. We hug the engine manifolds for warmth, passing National Forest Service prescribed-burn areas along the roadway. The charred remains of blackened logs and standing timbers lend a futuristic sight, as if one were witness to a conflagration of mass destruction. The Rodeo-Chediski Fires in nearby Sitgreaves Forest is a real example, claiming 450,000 acres since 2002.
Prescott, once the state capital, boasts a history of its own. As we ride into town we pause for steaming hot coffee by the County Courthouse Plaza, soaking in the sun along Whiskey Row, named for the more than 40 saloons that once lined South Montezuma Street. Though the watering holes are numerous, shops pervade the area. Bruce buys a pair of glove liners in a local bike shop to stem further numbness.
Horses rested and fueled, we hitch the reins and gallop out of town only to switch back and forth on the ribbonlike 89A roadway, until 33 miles later we reach the highlight of the trip, the mining ghost town of Jerome. Houses and out-buildings teeter on stilts anchored deep into Cleopatra Hill. Two lanes become one-way streets in the mile-high town. Once a thriving mining camp in the 1880s, Jerome morphed in the ’60s into a tourist and artistic mecca offering good food at fair prices and crafts to lure the most tightfisted tourist. Today, the Spirit Room cranks with live music spilling along the bike-lined street.
But we’re burning daylight. We wolf burgers, fries and tea, and head past Mingus Mountain overlooking Cottonwood and Clarkdale, Arizona, long ago christened the ideal retirement spots for those who shun the Phoenix heat but still crave snow-free winters. If time permits, history abounds. Inhabited as early as 1076, Tuzigoot National Monument with its three large Sinagua Indian pueblos, lies within minutes of the area.
The sun is setting and we begin our descent out of the valley on 260 toward Phoenix, stopping at roadside Sunset Point with just enough time to glimpse the last rays of sunlight streaming over the mountains. Farther into the desert the reds, whites and blues wave good-bye as saguaro silhouettes shoot past. Farther on Interstate 17 we branch out to our respective locales. The entire trip was a good ride without incident. Well, except when the author’s bike fell over. But we won’t talk about that.