Prescott sits along the northeastern edge of the Bradshaw Mountains. This isn't a hugely impressive range, but it's tall enough to support millions of Ponderosa pines, snow in the winters, and large wildfires in the summers. The mining-town-turned-summer-getaway town of Crown King stands high on the southern end of the range, but there really are no other proper communities in the mountains. All that's there is a maze of jeep routes, quad trails, steep moto trails, and miles and miles of forgotten, overgrown singletrack.
I've explored the Bradshaws around Prescott a fair bit now, but the time has begun to expand the radius of my "territory" farther south into the more remote parts of the mountains. On Sunday, I was due for a long, hard ride, so I set out for Crown King on Senator "Highway." It's a fantastic 2-track that connects the hills above Prescott with the southern end of the range, suitable for high-clearance vehicles only. Don't head up there for a weekend drive like so many Phoenix residents do, expecting nice, scenic gravel road. But for a mountain bike, it's fantastic - 30 miles from the end of the pavement near my house to Crown King.
I blasted south through the most familiar part of the route, below Mt Union, past the old outpost of Palace Station, and toward the lowest spot in the range. The forecasted wind began to pick up, swirling up the gulches and through the scraggly scrub oak thickets. Before long, the road tilted up toward the granite-capped peaks of the southern end of the range.
Freshly blackened skeletons of manzanita bushes appeared as I rounded one of the many bends. I had reached the northwestern most edge of the area burned by the massive Gladiator fire earlier this year. The damage was patchy and not terribly severe along my route, but burned hillsides showed the signs of recent monsoon flash floods through deep rills. The road had been washed out at every minor wash crossing, and the larger, lower gradient washes were filled with several feet of new sand. Towers Mountain, capped by millions of dollars worth of communications towers, was stained red by fire retardant dropped by slurry bombers. Branches and rocks along the road also were covered by this reddish paint in places.
I quickly stopped at the Crown King store, bought a tasty sandwich, heated it up in the microwave, and gulped it down before climbing back up to the top of the road. Instead of taking the direct way back home, I turned left onto FR362 and descended into new territory. The rough road when down, down, down, and before long, I was out of the pines and into a dry juniper woodland. I hoped I was on the correct road, and for some reason, I lacked a map or a GPS.
As the temperature rose, my water disappeared far faster than anticipated, so I stopped at a windmill that was squeaking loudly in the now-steady wind. After scrambling up the side of the tank to get some of the fresh water pouring out of the pipe, I noticed a spigot right beneath the center of the windmill. I guess I should always look there first!
The road wound through the rugged foothills for another 15 miles before slowly improving as I reached the outlying ranches of the Maughn empire. From there, the road climbed gradually for 25 miles, directly into the ever-strengthening wind. My mind wandered to and fro as I road, wondering what the Hassayampa River Canyon just out of view to the southwest was like. I stopped and examined some outcrops of tilted basin-fill sediment that recorded the early stages of formation of the valley. I passed the site of the former town of Wagoner, now host to only a water tank and an eerily playground slide. 120 years ago, this road had been an important stage route connecting Phoenix to Prescott. Farther north, I passed the site of another vanished town, Walnut Grove. I didn't even see any evidence of the place remaining.
Occasionally, trails and 2-tracks dropping down from the mountains intersected my route. They're routes for future exploration - trails of highly variable quality that climb all the way up to the crest of the range and offer options for a whole host of different loops.
My mind returned to an idea that's been slowly developing for a 300-400 mile loop through the region. Recon on some of the potential sections of that loop revealed horrendously rocky tracks that stretched to the horizon and beyond. Private property in several key areas also presents a real challenge for access. But as the wind howled in my ears, a new idea for the loop was hatched: Prescott-Crown King-Wickenburg-Stanton-Congress-Bagdad-Walnut Creek-Skull Valley-Prescott. Time for some more recon.
Sunday's loop on an 1874 map of the region