Head to the Bloody Basin area for a peaceful getaway. Sounds like strange advice, but the Apache wars that, by one account, gave this valley its forbidding name have faded into history. What remains are miles and miles of striking scenery and endless skies away from the urban frenzy of Phoenix.
The 60 miles of dirt road on this drive can be rough and slow, but you'll find Native American ruins, shaded picnic sites, and plenty of solitude.
The route begins about 50 miles north of Phoenix in 71,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument, which was established in 2000 to protect more than 300 archaeological sites. From Interstate 17, take exit 259 and head east on Bloody Basin Road (Forest Road 269). On the level grasslands of Perry Mesa, the view expands breathtakingly, and several four-wheel-drive-only side roads, such as Forest Road 14, lead to unmapped ruins you can explore on your own.
On the eastern edge of Perry Mesa, the road plunges dramatically into Bloody Basin, and the views become expansive. It's a treacherous stretch, but once on the valley floor the road meanders through juniper and oak woodlands cut by sycamore-lined creeks.
Continue south on Forest Road 24 to the picnic areas and two campgrounds at Seven Springs, a shaded creekside stop with tables, toilets, and access to hiking trails. Seven miles south―where Forest Road 24 (Seven Springs Rd.) is paved―is the Cave Creek Mistress Mine; here, you can tour a funky museum or pan for gold. A mile south of the mine is the signed turnoff to Sears-Kay Ruin, where a half-mile hike leads to a well-preserved 900-year-old, 40-room Hohokam ruin.
The drive takes about five to six hours, so you'll be starving. Finish with one of the 10-ounce hamburgers or huge barbecued-beef sandwiches at sprawling Harold's Corral in Cave Creek, and you might need to add some air to your tires for the drive home.
A high-clearance vehicle is recommended. You'll cross several watercourses; if the first, at the Agua Fria River, is passable, the rest should be clear as well. Contact the Tonto National Forest for current road conditions. For maps and more information, visit the Arizona Public Lands Information Center: 222 N. Central Ave., Ste. 101, Phoenix; (800) 986-1151. For more on Agua Fria National Monument, contact the BLM: www.az.blm.gov/pfo/index.html or (623)580-5500.
33708 Harold's Corral. $$-$$$; breakfast, lunch, dinner daily. 6895 E. Cave Creek Rd.; (480) 488-1906.
Sears-Kay Ruin. Open daylight hours; free. Off Cave Creek Rd.; (480) 595-3300.
Cave Creek Mistress Mine. 8-6 daily; $1. 45402 N. Seven Springs Rd., Cave Creek; (480) 488-0842.
Tonto National Forest. Camping or picnicking at Seven Springs is $4 per vehicle per day. (480) 595-3300.