It was a gorgeous morning when I started out on my trip to the Mogollon Rim.
The sky was deep blue, and the temperature had yet to climb over 100 degrees – pretty good for summer morning in Phoenix!
I took the Beeline Highway (State Route 87) up to Payson, and from there took State Route 260 headed up towards Show Low to the top of the Rim. The views looking down upon the White Mountains and the largest ponderosa pine forest in North America is just spectacular. The height of the Rim and the rolling forested mountains gives you a view that you would not expect in Arizona.
Yes, Arizona is famous for it’s deserts – the Sonoran desert and it’s famous Saguaro cacti — and of course the Grand Canyon. Both are what come to mind when thinking about Arizona.
Forested mountains going as far as the eye can see is not what you’d imagine – at least not in my mind!
I first encountered the Mogollon Rim when I was moving to Arizona. I was driving a truck down from Holbrook and as I drove through this part of the state I was shocked. Coming from Maine, I felt as if I had returned home instead of moving to Arizona. My experience of Arizona up to that point had been deserts and canyons, not forested mountains as far as the eye could see!
Usually at this point in my ‘tiny travel guide’ series I’d discuss several places to visit. But the Rim Road, which this tiny travel guide is about, is not a location as much as a complete destination.
In essence, the journey is the destination!
So I will discuss my experience of the Rim Road as I traveled it in a Toyota Prius!
Yea, that’s right, a Toyota Prius! It wasn’t my best move, but I made it all the way without incident, but there were a few close encounters with a nearly impassible roadway!
The Rim Road
To best experience the views from the Rim, one needs to travel the Rim Road, Forest Road 300, FR300. For the first several miles it is paved and has several places to pull over and view the mountains laid out before you going into the distance. But these views, at least on the days I visited, were not really material for a great photograph as the sky was cloudless and bright blue.
The rest of the Rim Road is a gravel road, and many cases I never reached speeds over 25 miles an hour as it portions were pretty rough. The road is approximately 45 miles long, so I will discuss the road in 10 mile segments as that seemed to be the easiest to discuss. The last segment of road will be the remaining 15 miles.
Mile 1 to 10
This segment of road was ‘fair to middlin.’ It was fairly well kept and graded with a few spots where one had to slow down and navigate around pot holes in the grade. This section of road is the most traveled section as it leads to a number of small lakes and ponds that dot the area.
As the forest ranger I spoke with at the Mogollon Visitor Center noted, the small ATVs tend to tear up the road and dig holes in the gravel road bed. And there were ATVs – everywhere, spinning up rocks and dust as they tore around the corners of the road. I can see how they contribute to the rough road conditions I found driving along FR300!
I did well in that I did manage to find a number of small holes – that if I was not careful, could have caused me to bottom out my car. I only have around 5 inches road clearance in my Toyota Prius. (I would have taken my Jeep, but I was waiting for a new ECM (electronic control module), so I was relegated to my Prius for this trip).
I have to admit, initially, I was somewhat disappointed in the views.
Now to be honest, I didn’t feel secure enough to drive the various side ‘roads’ that most likely led to the rim. They just didn’t appear to be that easy to traverse in my car, and I was fearful of getting stuck. So I relied upon what views I could see from FR300. If I had my Jeep, I would have much more adventurous.
Like I noted this first section of road is largely a beautiful drive in a wooded landscape with towering ponderosa pines on both sides. It was pretty in it’s own way, with the occasional small glens with ferns under the towering trees. If the light was different – more muted – there were lots of opportunities for some great forest photography. But as the sky was cloudless and bright, the light wasn’t all that cooperative.
Mile 11 to 20
It was after the first 1/4 of the drive that the road began to live up to it’s name. This was the section of road where I finally began to see some beautiful views from FR300.
By this time the road keeps pretty much to the edge of the rim. And as I was going to camp out (you can do the drive in one day, but it would be a really long day!), I was looking for a place to camp.
I passed by a number of beautiful spots, but decided to move on. With the sky so blue and with not a cloud to be found, I realized that sunset would not be as spectacular as I wanted. So I was looking for a location with ridges that would light up with light from the setting sun.
I could have stopped in any number of locations, but I was looking for particular vantage points which would light up with the last light of the day. I finally found what I was looking for about two hours before sunset.
I pitched my tent, setup my chair, got supper cooking on the stove and spent my time watching (and taking shots) of the light creeping up the face of the ridge before me. Then twilight came, and it is the blue hour which is just a magical time with the cerulean blues, pinks and purples as the colors climb across the sky.
It was a beautiful evening and I enjoyed the end of my first day along the Rim.
I woke before dawn (and without an alarm!). And I caught the morning light on the ridge I was camping on, and the light was really nice and soft. Not as colorful as a full sunrise with clouds in the sky, but beautiful in it’s own way.
Mile 21 to 30
After some breakfast and coffee, I packing up my camp site and began my travels down FR 300.
This section of FR300 was perhaps the roughest section, with a number of places with wash-boarding that required me to really take my time and not bottom out my car.
I got stuck several times and had to back out of the section of road and take a different path across the rocks. I managed not the get my car stuck to the point where I couldn’t get myself out of trouble, but I did wonder about getting desperately stuck in a few spots.
But the views were just drop dead gorgeous. In the early morning light the scenery was beautiful. My biggest issue was getting beyond the beautiful scene to find a good enough photograph. In another words, I was searching for a composition, but I couldn’t find a good one. But I did manage to take a few shots, but not what I really knew would be capable from this section of the Rim.
But not all was a waste, as I considered this to be location that I will return to once the monsoon’s come to Arizona. This would be a wonderful location to take some great shots of the clouds and the rain and the views all mixed together!
Mile 31 to 45 – The End of the Rim Road
The first part of this section of the road you begin a gradual climb in elevation as you follow the Rim.
The mountains, always in view, become more distant and become more like forested hills.
But the edges of the rim become more rugged and beautiful! There are a number of places where the road is right at the edge of the rim, and it is pretty neat while at the same time nerve racking!
But the road appears to be in better condition, and the instances of wash-boarding quickly pass and road becomes more graded. Eventually you take a turn from the rim and you begin to drive through forest once again.
The last 10 miles or so are very much like the first 10 miles, you find yourself driving in forest with the occasional glens and meadows that, if the light was right, would make for some nice woodland photography.
A place to return to!
All in all, the Rim Road, Forest Road 300 is passable by passenger car. Would I do it again with my Prius? The answer would be no.
I found that I was too concerned about the next section of nearly impassible road ahead to fully enjoy my time up along the rim.
The good news is that I was nearly always within cell phone signal, so even if I did get stuck, I could call for help. Not sure what that would have cost me, but it did provide for a measure of comfort.
My suggestion if you want to explore along the Rim Road is to have several days. Plan on camping out. And have a vehicle that has high enough clearance to not cause you any significant worry.
It can be done by a passenger car, but I wouldn’t do it again.
With those caveats, I know that you too would enjoy your time along the Rim and welcome a respite from desert and the canyons and explore the other side of Arizona.
The Rim Road is perhaps Arizona’s best kept secret!