Now that summer is almost upon us, the thoughts of Rim country folk turn to cool, forest glades on top of that great escarpment that beckons us throughout the year.
One of the most delightful outings we can take is the "great circle," driving from Payson through Strawberry to the top of the Rim. Going north past the junction with Highway 260 to Camp Verde, a few more miles on Highway 87 brings us to Forest Road 300, known as "the Rim Road." This maintained gravel road plays tag with the original General Crook Trail, a military road built from 1872 to 1874 during the Apache War.
Although much of the entire trail from Camp Verde to Fort Apache is available only to hikers, this segment makes a delightful motor trip, returning you to Payson after about 100 miles.
Proceeding east from Highway 87, you will come out on Highway 260 after passing the Woods Canyon Lake road. The scenery, serendipity experiences, and lovely picnic spots along the way make for lasting happy memories.
The Crook military road was built to create a more direct supply line between Fort Verde on the west and Fort Apache on the east. These two forts, together with Fort McDowell on the south served to enclose the Tonto Apache territory during the fight for possession of the Rim country. However, the Indians could escape northward and building the Crook Road enabled cavalry units to rapidly head off such flight.
The trail was restricted to mule trains and horses during its first two years, but by 1874, it had been improved enough to carry wagons.
The first wagon train to go over the road carried Martha Summerhayes and her cavalry husband. Her account of that trip is recorded in her well-known book, "Vanishing Arizona." She tells how one wagon went over the side of the Rim destroying all her china and many personal possessions.
The Crook Trail came to be called "the old Verde Road" and by the summer of 1908, a Forest Service team surveying timber stands reported it to be so unused as to be nearly obliterated.
During the years from 1912 to 1927, the Forest Service improved parts of the road for emergency use of fire equipment, and a few civilians took advantage of the trail to move freight or drive cattle and sheep.
During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the present road and it became passable for automobile traffic.
The Crook Road never became a modern highway because it did not really go where people were traveling.
By 1879, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad had reached present-day Holbrook from California, and it was easier to supply Fort Apache from there in a few days than to take 10 to 15 days from Fort Verde. The major east-west highways were destined to follow the northern route. There was a long-term plan by the Arizona Highway Department to pave this scenic road from Camp Verde to Show Low and call it "The Zane Grey Highway" in honor of the famous author whose books brought attention to the Rim country. However, the town of Payson below the Rim was now too important a center to by-pass. In a revised plan, the new route dropped off the Rim at Fulton's Point and went through Kohl's Ranch, Star Valley, Payson, Pine and Strawberry before returning to the Rim and then heading down to Camp Verde.
In the 1970s, to commemorate the centennial of the Crook Road, a history buff and political science professor from Northern Arizona University, Eldon G. Bowman, retraced and marked the original trail.
He was assisted by the Forest Service, the Boy Scouts of America and his own students. Searching old maps, aerial photographs, old-timers' memories, and walking the miles to locate telltale signs, Bowman marked the original trail on his topographic maps. Then riding on horseback he marked the trees along the trail with white chevron-shaped "V" signs (high enough so they could be seen, yet not molested). The "V" was a mark used by Crook's workers, to mark the miles from Camp Verde. The miles were counted off by so many turns of a wagon wheel, and the V-marks blazed into trees or chiseled onto large boulders. Very few can be found today along the road, but one of the original blaze marks in a large piece of ponderosa pine can be seen at the Rim Country Museum. It was taken from a fallen tree.
Your drive across the top of the Rim will provide you with breathtaking views of the forest below, the mountains beyond, and the town of Payson nestled among the foothills. You will encounter many places of historic interest, such as Baker's Butte with its fire-watch tower inviting you to come up in season.
On the side of Baker's Butte is the grave of Andres Moreno, soldier in the Arizona Volunteers, pioneer settler in St. Johns and Globe, freighter, and father of seven children who made special marks during Arizona's early statehood. He was murdered on this spot, but that is another story.
You will pass Lee Johnson Springs and Kehl Spring (neither name have I been able to trace), which are great spots for picnics.
Forest Road 123 will take you several miles north to East Clear Creek where the last major battle of the Apache War was fought in 1882. Returning to the Rim Road, you will pass General Springs, where Crook and the cavalry units after him, camped as they made their way across the Rim. Here also are the headwaters of the East Verde River, and over the edge is the trail that leads to the famous old railroad tunnel. Here, the Apaches attacked General Crook when he first blazed this trail in 1871, and three years earlier when Col. Thomas Devin went over the Rim at this place, his chief packer, John Baker, was killed in a Tonto ambush.
The cavalry unit named Baker's Butte for him. Continuing on to Leonard Canyon, you will find the grave of G. D. Bantz right beside the road. He was coming off the Rim when he prodded his mules with the butt of his shotgun. It discharged killing him.
Who knows what other ghosts of days gone by you might encounter?
Your drive on Forest Road 300 will be on top of the historical Crook Trail much of the time. At other times you will see "V" markers indicating where the original trail crosses your path. These are excellent places to stop and walk along that short segment of the original military road. It will not be difficult to transport yourself in imagination to those days almost 130 years ago when Apaches lurked in the shadows, wild game was everywhere, and the quietude of the forest brought peace to any human heart.