Arizona's big loop

Motor through three great deserts ― and lose some myths along the way
Jonathan Hanson

Any tourist with deep enough pockets can take a camel trek in the Sahara or a balloon ride over the Kalahari. But why bother?

We have several of the greatest deserts in the world right here in the West ― what they lack in continental vastness, they make up for in scenery. And, with temperatures down and the flowers up, the season to visit has officially begun.

My wife, Roseann, and I took a whirlwind driving tour of three Arizona deserts, hitting all the route's highlights and debunking some persistent myths. As locals, we'd seen these places before, but never all together. The trip was a great reminder of why once you're a desert rat, you're always a desert rat.

The Great Basin
Myth #1: Deserts are always hot

The air's crisp as we head northeast out of Phoenix on the Beeline Highway (State 87), and it soon gets positively chilly as the road twists up into the oak woodland surrounding Payson. We stop for an early lunch at Macky's Grill, then turn east on State 260, gaining another 2,000 feet as the road climbs the Mogollon Rim, a 200-mile-long escarpment dividing Arizona into highland and lowland. Ponderosa pines shade patches of snow, and an experimental poke at the truck's power-window switch results in a blast of frigid air.

 

 

Just past Heber, State 377 darts northeast into Navajo country, and an odd thing happens: Even though we're still climbing, tall trees thin out and shorter junipers and sage begin to take over.

At Holbrook we turn southeast on U.S. 180 into an even more open landscape carved into buttes and mesas. It's a Southwest scene straight out of a John Ford movie, without a forest-worthy tree in sight. Well, none from later than the Triassic era, anyway. At Petrified Forest National Park (technically a semiarid grassland), we hike among the mineralized remnants of a forest that shaded the earliest dinosaurs 220 million years ago.

The park road leads north over Interstate 40 to Chinde Point, and here, as the shadows lengthen, we look out over a brilliant, rainbow-hued landscape that stretches north to the horizon. This is the Painted Desert, another semiarid grassland considered by some a southeastern extension of the Great Basin Desert. The Great Basin defies the perception of deserts as hot, with temperatures that plunge far below zero in winter. In truth, a desert is simply a place where the annual precipitation is significantly exceeded by the potential for evaporation. The Great Basin Desert is dry because the Sierra Nevada steals most of the Pacific moisture it would otherwise receive.

As the sun sets, we drive 60 miles west on Interstate 40 to Winslow and La Posada Hotel, a gracefully restored masterpiece by the great Southwest architect Mary Colter, who also designed Hermits Rest and several other landmark buildings at the Grand Canyon. The next morning in the hotel's restaurant, we demolish the best breakfast we have ever experienced ― a smoky dish of cornmeal, eggs, spinach, and chipotle chile. Then, with the cruise control set, we blast west across 180 miles of northern Arizona to the junction of U.S. 93, just shy of the California border, and turn south.

 

 

The Mohave
Myth #2: Deserts are lifeless

The two-lane road quickly drops in elevation as it heads toward Nothing, Arizona. Here the "deserts are lifeless" myth suffers a quick demise ― botanists say this region supports 2,000 species of plants, and ornithologists have recorded more than 350 bird species. We see brittlebush, spindly ocotillo, palo verde, and, yes, the first stately individuals of the iconic saguaro. Luchia's Restaurant (terrific, burrito-like green chile burros and homemade pie) in Wikieup has one out front, along with an even odder plant: a shaggy, multiarmed, Wookie-like thing. The Wookies get denser and more outlandish as we continue south, until a veritable forest of gesticulating Chewbaccas line the road.

 These are Joshua trees, so named by Mormons because they seem to mimic Old Testament prophet Joshua directing immigrants to the Promised Land. Near milepost 172 we park the truck at a rest area and wander into … the Mojave Desert? Well, sort of.

Most maps place the Mojave Desert in eastern California and far southern Nevada, with an eastern limit at the Colorado River. However, botanists agree that the signature plant of the Mojave Desert is the Joshua tree, and it's certainly the signature plant here. A photo taken along Arizona's Joshua Forest Parkway (U.S. 93) is indistinguishable from one taken in California's Joshua Tree National Park. Good enough for us.

 

 

The Sonoran
Myth #3: Deserts don't have seasons

U.S. 93 descends back into an astonishingly dense profusion typical of America's most famous desert, the Sonoran. Here the blessings from earlier December rains become apparent. One survival strategy for desert annuals is to show up only when there's water, and flower seeds are perfect at this, lying happily dormant in the dust until properly hydrated. Now we drive openmouthed through a landscape that's blanketed in color: lupine, owl's clover, poppies, and ― according to another stop and a brief survey of a field guide ― at least 25 other species of annuals, which is a very conservative estimate. Desert rats know that you can see this twice a year here: Summer rains bring out an entirely different crop of flowers. We don't just have seasons, we have extra seasons.

Outside Wickenburg, we drive past another common Arizona habitat ― noted for having 18 holes and lots of grass ― and into a quintessential desert experience. Rancho de los Caballeros has been a working guest ranch for more than 50 years, and elegance has settled onto it like a well-worn saddle blanket. After a campfire cookout and a sound sleep, we take horses into the ranch's 20,000 acres of desert wilderness, swishing through wildflowers, watching a herd of mule deer, and counting three dozen kinds of birds.

The Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg wows us with its permanent display of Western art and artifacts. Then, after a meal like Mom would make at the March Hare, we return to Phoenix, stopping, before plunging into suburbia, for a hike off the Carefree Highway (State 74). It's here we confront one final myth about deserts: Everything is sharp in them. We decide this one's true. Watch where you're walking …