The view off the meander of Forest Road 300 stretches for 100 miles and 100 years, following the wagon road General George Crook blazed in the wrenching war with the Apache Indians that defined American history and character.
The well-graded Forest Service road offers some of the most sweeping vistas in the state, lessons in ecology and a journey through time. Just outside of Payson where Highway 260 tops out on the Mogollon Rim, you can connect with the 250-mile long General Crook Trail, which links Fort Apache in the White Mountains with Camp Verde in the Verde Valley and Fort Whipple near Prescott. Forest Road 300, a well-graded dirt road that hugs the Mogollon Rim, covers a roughly 70-mile chunk of the wagon road General George Crook used to connect the chain of military posts in the 1870s and 1880s.
Forest Road 300 offers a wonderful summer drive. At the point the well-graded gravel road crosses Highway 60 you can either go east toward Show Low or west toward Pine where the dirt road reconnects to pavement that eventually can take you to Highway 260, which follows the old wagon route down into the Verde Valley. Either route takes you past trout-stocked high-country lakes and vista points offering a panoramic view from the edge of the Rim, the abrupt leading edge of the Colorado Plateau made famous by the expansive storytelling of writers like Zane Grey.
The well-maintained road, which even a passenger car can handle so long as the road isn't wet or frosted with snow, offers a fascinating glimpse of the ecology of a ponderosa pine forest, especially if you head toward Pine through the scar of the Dude Fire. When Crook arrived to make war on the Apaches in the 1870s, these ponderosa pine forests were dominated by gigantic, widely-spaced, 400-year-old trees and tall grass. Low intensity ground fires burned through every five to seven years, clearing out the dead wood and seedlings. These fires merely scarred the fire-resistant, thick-barked bases of the mature trees, whose lowest branches were 20 or 30 feet above the flames.
But once Crook and his military successors broke the resistance of the Apache, settlers moved in and transformed the ponderosa pine ecosystem.
Loggers went to work and soon cut down most of the fire-resistant, old-growth trees, and forest managers devoted themselves energetically to preventing fires. As a result, the forest of towering, widely spaced giants was replaced by thickets of smaller, stunted trees. When the inevitable fires finally got loose, they had a devastating effect -- as the Dude Fire demonstrated.
Decades of accumulated undergrowth and downed wood provided the fuel for a holocaust, climbing up into the mature trees and sterilizing the topsoil. The result is a haunted forest along one stretch of Forest Road 300, dominated by the towering, blackened skeletons of the trees scourged by the Dude Fire.
But Forest Road 300 also offers a route through history, threading through the heart of a terrain that the Apache defended against all odds for three centuries before falling to Crook's war of attrition in the 1870s.
The Apache fought the Spanish and the Mexicans to a standstill, partly because they could always retreat into the wilderness of present-day Arizona and New Mexico. But the arrival of the Americans in the 1840s and 1850s forced the Apache into a hopeless, two-front war.
Ironically, Crook respected and admired the Apache more than any other commander -- which made the bearded, unconventional, fearless Crook their most effective enemy. He relied heavily on Apache scouts, the only ones who could hold to the faint trail of a band of fleeing warriors. The Crook Trail played a crucial strategic role, as it supplied the network of forts from which Crook dispatched roving patrols of soldiers and Indian scouts that could remain on patrol for months at a time.
Although the Apache resisters remained expert at eluding the soldiers, the constant hunt kept them from accumulating the supplies they needed to survive. This war of attrition eventually broke their resistance, thanks largely to the logistics of the Crook trail.
Meandering along the Rim-hugging road with frequent stops to walk to the cliff edge, leads past spots where key events took place. One vivid encounter took place right in this stretch, as Crook and Captain John Bourke rode in the lead of a detachment of soldiers. Several arrows flashed suddenly past, launched by about 15 Apache warriors, who immediately took flight. The soldiers spurred their horses and cut off two of the warriors, forcing them to take shelter behind several boulders.
"There they stood; almost entirely concealed behind great boulders on the very edge of the precipice," wrote Bourke, "their bows drawn to a semi-circle, eyes gleaming with a snaky black fire, long unkempt hair flowing down over their shoulders, bodies almost completely naked, faces streaked with the juice of the baked mescal and the blood of the deer or antelope... with not the slightest suggestion of cowardice," Bourke wrote.
"They seemed to know their doom, but not to fear it in the slightest degree."
Seeing the soldiers closing on them, the warriors fired a final volley of arrows and then seemingly jumped from the cliff at their backs.
"We were all so horrified at the sight, that for a moment or more it did not occur to anyone to look over the crest, but when we did it was seen that the two savages were rapidly following down the merest thread of a trail outlined in the vertical face of the basalt, and jumping from rock to rock like mountain sheep. General Crook drew bead, aimed quickly and fired; the arm of one of the fugitives hung limp by his side, and the red stream gushing out showed that he had been badly hurt; but he did not relax his speed a particle."
Bourke and Crook rode for hundreds of miles through those ancient forests, with Bourke usually sitting atop his "faithful mule" Malaria, a beast he described with the blend of humor and animosity affected by anyone who has plumbed the mind of a mule.
"Malaria had been born a first-class mule, but a fairy godmother, or some other mysterious cause, had carried the good mule away, and left in its place a lop-eared, mangy specimen, which enjoyed the proud distinction of being considered, without dissent, the meanest mule in the whole Department of Arizona."
Of course, a journey that consumed days and led through danger in 1871 now takes a couple of hours -- more of a jaunt than a journey.
But it still offers some of the best views in Arizona, with numerous stretches that thread along the edge of the line of 1,000-foot-tall cliffs of the Mogollon Rim, the leading edge of the uplift of the Colorado Plateau -- and a perfect day-long adventure in an exploration of Rim Country.
Take the Beeline Highway from Phoenix to Payson. In Payson, you can take Highway 260 past Kohl's Ranch to where the road tops out on the Mogollon Rim. The well-graded gravel and dirt Forest Road 300 crosses Highway 260 here.
If you go east on Forest Road 300, you will pass the trout-stocked but smallish Willow Springs Lake after a few miles and then run along the edge of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation toward Show Low -- about 40 miles distant.
If you go west, you will pass Woods Canyon Lake, a popular boating and fishing spot. Forest Road 300 continues along the Rim past the turnoff to Bear Canyon Lake, Knoll Lake and several other small lakes for about 35 miles before rejoining the pavement at Highway 87 outside Pine and Strawberry. Going northward, you will reach the junction of Highway 87 and West Highway 260. Turning west onto this portion of 260 you will begin dropping down into the Verde Valley. The community of Camp Verde is the site of the Fort Verde State Historic Park, where Crook was headquartered during the Indian Wars in Arizona Territory. The park has several well-preserved structures built and occupied by the Army starting in the late 1860s.
The Rim area above Payson draws a lot of parched Phoenicians on summer weekends, but remains quiet during the week even in the summer. The Forest Service maintains campgrounds throughout the area, and the state regularly stocks the lakes with trout in the summer.
Payson has plenty of rooms, restaurants and stores to stock up on supplies. You can also rent cabins and rooms and get dinner in Payson, at Christopher Creek and Kohl's Ranch, nestled at the base of the Rim.
Forest Road 300 runs along the border between the Tonto National Forest and both the Coconino and Sitgreaves National Forests, so Forest Service maps of each of those forests are useful. Or, you can get one of the excellent map books to plan your journey through time.