The Reno Road



Tim Ehrhardt Photo

I took this photo from up near the top of Mount Ord back in the spring of 2006.

The wet winter has led to a flowery spring, particularly between Payson and its bigger neighbor to the south, Phoenix. Many a city dweller will explore the terrain, often going on day trips to enjoy nature’s beauty. But it is easy to forget that such a day trip wasn’t so easy long ago. It’s time for a look at the Reno Road.

What is now known as Mount Ord was originally known as Mount Reno. It was named for Camp Reno, a military outpost built in the late 1860s. Reno was connected with another outpost, Fort McDowell. Eventually Reno was closed as native people were suppressed and the area gradually opened up for development. But the original trail that the Army used would form the basis of future roads including ones still used today.

While drivers today enjoy a paved four-lane highway, a closer look reveals incredible ruggedness surrounding it all and before the automobile it was covered on horseback or with horses attached to a wagon. This made for quite a tough combination as this clip from the October 13, 1895 Arizona Republican shows.

A Noted Thoroughfare

How Tonto Basin is Reached

Mountain Travel Under Especial Difficulties

The Very Novel Brook Used by Teamsters on the Steep Descents

There are two roads from Phoenix to Globe. One is by way of Riverside and Cane Springs canyon. The other is by way of McDowell and Reno Pass. Whichever road the wayfarer takes he always wishes he had taken the other. However rough the Riverside route may be, the fact is incontestable[sic] that the Reno road is far the steeper in spots.

Reno Pass, down the eastern slope of the Mazatzal range, and just to the south of Reno mountain, is a gorge just about three miles long, and in that distance has a fall of several thousand feet. The road was first constructed by the government to furnish easier communication between Fort McDowell and Tonto Basin, wherein at the time was located the sub-post of Fort Reno. The original cost was said to have been above $100,000. Since that time by private enterprise and by legislative appropriation, fully as much again has been spent upon the thoroughfare and most of the cost has been upon the road down the gap.

At the bottom is a deep gorge, and, peculiar it is to the uninitiated to note that it is almost filled with cedar and juniper trees, cut off at the butt and tumbled to without method. No junipers or cedars grow at the low elevation. The mystery finds explanation in the fact that few teamsters ever trust to the strength of their brakes in descending the hill, and even the old familiar “lock” on the wheels is not to be used on account of the pounding received by the vehicle in dropping from stone to stone on the downward way. So a tree is cut in the cedar forest at the top of the ridge, and lashed to the hind axle of the wagon, and with this as a drag, the journey to the regions below is accomplished with a far greater degree of safety than could otherwise be done.

Wrecks of wagons strew the roadside and bits of boxes and of household effects, show where the many have come to grief. Sudden turns are necessary, where the raging torrent of the creek has cut off the road so carefully and expensively made, and occasional stretches there are where the roadway has been thrice constructed at different levels. Yet it is the only “wagon road” into Tonto Basin from the west and must be traveled.

Billy Moore is to be found at the Reno ranch, at the foot of the gap, on the site of the long-since deserted Fort Reno. Many is the entertaining circumstance he can tell regarding travel “on Reno,” and he may be led to narrate how he came down the grade one day with a four-horse wagon, and with his brake broken. It was a case of gallop for the horses and of desperate “bang-on” for Billy, but he made the bottom comparatively uninjured. He it was who captured Kid Thompson and his pal as they were entering Tonto, though not till after a rifle duel that lasted all night, and good watch at Tonto’s gateway he ever keeps.

Moore’s house is distant from Phoenix about seventy-two miles and from McDowell about thirty-five. The last twenty miles comprise the rough portion. The climb from Sunflower valley to the top of the gap is not an easy one. Then there are sections where the wagon axle drags on the soft granite of the road, while the wheels are far down in the ruts that have been made by a quarter of a century of travel and by the rushing water. “Screwtail hill,” coming out of Round Valley, is another two-mile stretch that tests even the endurance of a mountain pony to climb, and here and there along the way are bits of road that remind one of the path trod by Dante in his famous visit to the regions beyond the Styx.

Still, in all, it is a journey that well repays the sightseer, and the view of the wondrous basin of the Tonto, secured from the slopes of Mount Reno has few equals on earth.

In the truest sense this road became the stuff of legends. When Roosevelt Dam was being built, the road was occasionally used as a scenic journey, but scenery comes with a price as this August 9, 1904 Arizona Republican clip shows.

“… then journeyed Phoenixward through the Tonto basin in order to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of passing over the Reno mountain road, an experience every person ought to have once in his life — and only once. It took them nine hours to cover four miles of the most delightfully distressing portion of that highway and at the end of that time they were sure they had secured the worth of their money.”

So the next time that you are traveling between Payson and Phoenix and thinking that the journey feels a bit long just remember — it could be much, much worse.

Putting Out a Call For …

… information about Pat Walsh. I have been told that this gentleman had a spot at the top of Oxbow Hill back in the day and was a place where people would top off water levels after climbing the hill. He was also said to be a miner and there is a Pat Walsh group of mines in mining records. You can reach me at


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