Sunset along the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway
Sunset along the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway / © Russell-Gossett
Published September/October 2015

High Mountain Adventure

This far east Arizona drive scores as a perfect fall road trip

BYMonica Surfaro Spigelman
Sometimes we look for a route where we can soak up surprises, poking through territorial towns or motoring along historic roads with extra pizzazz. And other times, we want something more serene. U.S. Route 191 offers both in a wild and picturesque palette, with much to love and explore.
 
Setting out from either Tucson or Phoenix, the drive is less than two hours to Safford — a first stop into an eastern Arizona pocket generously sprinkled with prize hiking, astronomy, and pioneer history. 
 
Discover Safford and the Gila Valley
Begin your trip in Safford at Discovery Park (west off U.S. 191 onto Discovery Park Boulevard), an educational complex and natural habitat with vistas of towering Mount Graham. It’s also where to make reservations for a shuttle ride up to Mount Graham International Observatory.  
 
Next, trace an Old West highway route along the fertile Gila Valley. From U.S. 191, take U.S. Highway 70 West to be amply rewarded in sweet cotton towns settled by Mormons in the 1870s. In Thatcher, Eastern Arizona College, Arizona’s first community college, houses the Mills Collection, a showcase of ancient cultural artifacts. In Pima, you can refresh at Taylor Freeze, an old-fashioned drive-in with tasty soft-serves, burgers, and shakes. Nearby, the Eastern Arizona Museum and Historical Society has filled three historic Pima buildings with a large collection of Mormon family histories and paper artifacts. Spend the night in Safford to sample scratch-made recipes at family-style restaurants along the region’s Salsa Trail. 
 
Hunt for Copper in Clifton and Morenci
Get back on U.S. 191 where, about 35 miles north, you’ll stop at Clifton, Geronimo’s birthplace. The discovery of rich copper ore in the 1860s brought a boom of claims and the railroad to Clifton, set in a rugged canyon formed by the fast-running San Francisco River. The town’s main street still has interesting territorial architecture with several local craft and food stops, as well as a gallery, museum, and union town hall mural. You’ll also find landmark marvels including a railway depot constructed in 1913 and an 1878 stone, bastille-like jailhouse. 
 
Back on U.S. 191 North, pass a tiny hillside cemetery, and then pull out at Morenci, where — as far as the eye can see — you will gaze out onto what is one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world. Morenci stirs mixed feelings, but there’s no denying the spectacle of these multicolored terraces and their role in shaping Arizona’s history.
 
Next, continue past the mine on U.S. 191. Called the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, this part of the roadway is a 123-mile scenic highway (from Clifton to Springerville) that skirts the eastern edge of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and approximates one path taken by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in search of the Seven Cities of Gold. This road is a driving enthusiast’s dream with hundreds of challenging curves that ascend about 5,000 feet, wiggling through multiple topographic zones and forest views, and where drivers are sure to see abundant wildlife. Be careful, but enjoy an exhilarating ride along this untamed scenic road.
 
Hide Away in Hannagan Meadow 
About 65 miles from Morenci, your dramatic (less than two-hour) highway climb along U.S. 191 levels off into a mountain grassland area called Hannagan Meadow. This land of lumberjacks and conquistadors offers restful, inspiring solitude. Hannagan Meadow Lodge has been operating in some form since this highway that connects Clifton to Springerville was dedicated at the site of the lodge in 1926. Here, browse lodge scrapbooks, play horseshoes, and dally through your cowboy-style breakfast, lunch, and dinner, served in a rustic dining room. 
 
Tech junkies, beware: There is no cell service here and only limited Wi-Fi in the lodge lobby. But there’s plenty to fill your days. Four-season recreation abounds, including off-trail hunting, fishing, and hiking. There are turnouts to gaze at panoramic marvels, or rides along forest roads that persuade even the most impatient to slow down and appreciate that bighorn sheep around the bend. 
 
This time of year, a golden canopy crowns an already astounding view. As you walk in the footsteps of pioneers, you’ll find diverse traditions worth pondering. And you’ll be in no hurry to leave. 
MONICA SURFARO SPIGELMAN is a writer who enjoys discovering the nooks and crannies of the Southwest.
If You go
More to Explore: For additional options, before heading to Clifton, check out Duncan, where there’s more Greenlee County remote goodness in old west dining, local shopping, and history. Go rock hounding for fire agates nearby the Lazy B ranch, the childhood home of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (high clearance vehicles suggested for this rough ride). Or after visiting the Hannagan Meadow Lodge, go north on U.S. 191 to Springerville. Here you can tour a great Kiva and see rock art at Casa Malpais, the National Historic Landmark and archaeological site.
 
Mt. Graham International Observatory Tour
Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park Campus
1651 W. Discovery Park Blvd., Safford
Limited reservations; $40 ticket includes transportation, lunch & full-day tour
Extremely high altitude (10,400 feet). Shuttle rides are offered mid-May through October.
928-428-6260
 
Greenlee County Chamber of Commerce
100 N. Coronado, Clifton, AZ
928-865-4762
(Greenlee County Fair, Rodeo, and Mud Drag finals: Sept. 17-20)
 
Graham County Chamber of Commerce
1111 Thatcher Blvd., Safford, AZ
(Salsa Fest: Sept. 26-27)
 
Hannagan Meadow Lodge
23150 U.S. 191, Alpine, AZ
928-339-4370
 
Coronado Trail Scenic Byway
 
Fall Festivities:
Southwest Kiln Conference
Oct. 16-18

Discovery Park
1651 W. Discovery Park Blvd., Safford, AZ
 
89th Annual Graham County Fair
Oct. 8-11
Graham County Fairgrounds, Safford, AZ
 
 
Learn More
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