Senator Highway and The Prescott National Forest

Not all adventures go as planned, but sometimes a sunrise can change everything.  In late April of 2016 I was working in San Diego and ended up having a long weekend off.  After reading about another adventurer’s travels in the Prescott National Forest I decided to make the drive to Arizona and check it out.

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I really hadn’t planned a route to Prescott and was relying solely on Apple Maps to navigate me there as fast as possible. After stopping in El Centro to fill up and grab some food Siri, in her infinite wisdom, decided I should head north up highway 78. This turned out to be awesome because I got up and close and personal with the largest amount of sand I’ve seen in one place.

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I went through the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area and skirted around the Yuma Proving Grounds. Fighter jets and helicopters raced overhead several times as I passed through the area. Much cooler than staying on I-8! The dunes were quite impressive and I imagine this is what much of the Middle East looks like.

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As I pressed on norht toward I-10 the landscape began to change.

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I exited I-10 onto Hwy 60 heading toward Hwy 89 into Prescott and began to gain elevation.

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I’m going to stop here and clarify something for everyone reading this who has not heard a Prescott Native pronounce the name of their city. It is not pronounced Pres-KOT, it is pronounced Pres-KIT…like biscuit. I was on the phone with an Arizona native friend on the way to Prescott and was corrected several times during the conversation. Wikipedia reveals that this is a much debated topic…

Anyway, as you begin to get close to Prescott the scenery changes dramatically from the lower elevations.

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As I entered Prescott itself I was greeted by…people, tons of people. The place was jumping and quite busy on this Friday evening. I can only imagine it was prom night as there were teenagers everywhere in prom attire. I filled up with gas and relied on my downloaded data in Backcountry Navigator to get me to Senator Hwy. It wasn’t long before I entered the forest.

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The first few miles of the road are paved and the forest land and trail heads intermingle with private land, homes and rental cabins. Parked at several of the trail heads were teenagers in prom attire taking pictures and hanging out before the big event. I’m going to be honest here. This, combined with a 14 hour overnight work shift and an 8 hour drive, put me in a somewhat sour mood. The road soon changed to a well maintained dirt road with dispersed camping sites strewn down its length. Every campsite I came across was occupied by either campers or more teenagers in prom dresses and tuxes. Growing more discouraged by the minute the road finally stopped being maintained and the cabins and houses fell by the wayside to reveal what I was looking for.

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The road climbed a ridge and I saw mining sites begin to pop up on the map in Backcountry Navigator. In several places I saw the remnants of mining operations and at one point across a ravine an open shaft stood in the side of a hill. I remained on Senator Hwy until I reached Palace Station.

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Senator Highway was originally built as part of a toll road system that connected mines in the area together and to the surrounding communities. In 1866 Palace Station was built as a log cabin home by Alfred Barnum and Matilda Spence. In it’s long history it has been a ranch, farm, post office, saloon, bunkhouse and stage stop. By 1908 mining operations in the area had declined and other roads were being built into Prescott making travel on the Senator Highway less frequent. It is currently owned and operated by the US Forest Service with a Forest Ranger living on site year round.

I was quite tired at this point and turned left at Palace Station climbing up the ridge and looking for a spot to camp.

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I found a spot to pull off and backed the truck in. I whipped up a quick dinner and opted just to sleep in the truck for the night rather than messing with setting up the tent in the growing darkness. The view wasn’t bad though.

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I fell asleep only to be awoken around midnight by a side by side UTV roaring up the road in front of the truck. I watched as they proceeded about 30 yards up the road and then stopped. The vehicle sat there for about a minute and then continued up the hill. As I listened they reached what I guessed was the top of the ridge and then started back down. Before they could reach a point where I could see them they killed their LED light bar and coasted down the hill, coming into view with the light of the full moon. The vehicle sat about 10 yards in front of the truck briefly and just as I was about to turn on my headlights and find out their intentions they turned on their lights, hit the gas and took off down the hill. I listened until I couldn’t hear their engine any longer. A strange encounter to say the least. I fell back asleep and was up and going in the morning around 6 am.

I pointed the truck toward the top of the ridge with the intention of picking up one of the roads ahead that exited the forest.  The lack of campsites the night before and the long drive had left me a little disheartened and discouraged.  Add to that the strange UTV encounter in the wee hours of the morning and I was ready to just cut things short and head back to San Diego.  As I reached the top of the ridge the sunrise convinced me that maybe I should stick around after all.  I found a spot to pull off the road and have some breakfast while taking in the sunrise.

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The sun began to set the hillsides on fire with color. The breeze was cool and there were birds everywhere. I saw some of the largest hummingbirds I’ve ever seen in my life.

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The road begins to head back down the ridge and follows along several creek beds. Water was sparse but you could tell that with snow melt or a good rain this would be a very wet area.

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The road and scenery were fantastic and I proceeded along taking in the cool temperatures and bird songs through the open truck windows.

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The area is used by grazing cattle and there are numerous cattle guards and warning signs. I got to see quite a few standing cheeseburgers and I continued down the road.

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Soon you head back up another ridge and are greeted by long distance views looking out over the Prescott NF and the Bradshaw Mountains.

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It’s good to see that shooting holes in signs is a universal act and not something just Southeastern youth participate in.

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I proceeded down Senator Hwy another 12 miles or so just taking in the sites. After snapping this photo I consulted the map and decided that to do this area justice I really needed to visit again when I was equipped with more camping gear and fuel. When the time comes to point my Tacoma west from Georgia I will certainly be returning here.

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I turned the truck around and headed for Mayer. Passing back through the bottoms I captured some more of the surrounding beauty in the new light.

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There were plenty of walking cheeseburgers out and about on the way to Mayer.

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The road soon becomes well groomed and I passed quite a few vehicles containing hikers, campers and (if their bumper stickers hold any truth) prospectors.

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I stopped briefly to hike out to the end of this small ridge and take in the panoramic views.

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If you’re in the area and have some accurate maps of the roads in and around the Prescott National Forest I strongly suggest making a visit.  I know I’ll return.

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