Long, long ago, before white, Spanish or Mexican explorers came this way, Native people were impressed by the jagged 2,000-foot-high escarpment that runs for 200 miles across central Arizona to New Mexico. A thick forest of juniper and pine caused this rim to look like a black line rising out of the foothills. A high mesa fades back from the drop-off for miles, abounding in steams that flowed through undulating meadows. Below the rim countless springs burst forth from limestone and sandstone layers to form rivers that cut deep canyons. Along these streams, both on and under the rim, Native Americans planted the corn they obtained from trade with tribes to the south. These hunter-gatherers were called Mogollon, a name bestowed by modern anthropologists for the people who occupied the mountains of New Mexico and eastern Arizona. They took the name from a short term Spanish governor of New Mexico, Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon (1712-1725).
The Natives, however, called it The Black Mesa, and picking up on the native place-name, Army detachments, pursuing Apaches and early settlers also called this feature The Black Mesa. By the late 19th century there was a growing awareness that the nation’s public lands were rapidly being taken over by private interests, and resources like lumber and grazing rights were being taken out of public control. This resulted in the General Land Law Revision Act, passed by Congress in 1891. It gave the president authority to set aside public lands in reservations with limits for usage.
In 1892-1893 the first two forest reserves were established by President Benjamin Harrison (Pecos River Forest Reserve and Grand Canyon Forest Reserve). In 1898, President William McKinley established the Prescott, Gila River and Black Mesa Forest Reserves. When Teddy Roosevelt took office, he was convinced by foresters that the national forests should be transferred from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Forest Service was established. Gradually the old forest reserves became national forests, and in July 1908, the huge Black Mesa Reserve (4,147,200 acres) was divided among the newly established Sitgreaves, Tonto, Apache and Coconino national forests.
The term “Black Mesa” was replaced by the name given the Rim’s earliest occupants, Mogollon. Thus began the interesting attempts of newcomers to pronounce the name, though local residents soon settled on “Muggy-own.”
Fire has always been a threat to the Mogollon Rim because of its forests and the accumulation of dry pine needles and thick undergrowth. Native legends recount fires from the earliest times. In modern times the most outstanding occurred in the summer of 1990, dubbed the Dude Fire, after the creek along which it originated with a lightning strike. This fire covered 30,000 acres before it was extinguished, killed six firefighters and destroyed 63 homes at Bonita Creek. Today as one stands on the Houston Mesa and looks up at the Rim, a significant canyon is seen, formed by the East Verde River, biblical scholars might recall the Mounts of Blessing and Cursing at Shecham in the Holy Land. To the left of that village a tree-covered hill is called the Mount of Blessing, and to the right a barren hill is called the Mount of Cursing. To the right of the East Verde River canyon is the barren escarpment that burned from there eastward, a mount of cursing. To the right is a rich forest, the mount of blessing.
The Dude Fire was surpassed by the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which was 470,000 acres and destroyed many homes.
Fortunately happier matters identify the Mogollon Rim, such as 11 Zane Grey novels set in the Rim Country. The years Grey spent living near Tonto Creek and camping on top of the Rim have brought fame and fortune to the area.
Perhaps the best introductory way to enjoy the Mogollon Rim is to drive the well graded Forest Service Road 300 between State Highway 87 on the west, eastward to State Highway 260. This road quite faithfully follows the historic General Crook Military Road, blazed by the Army in 1873-4. It was designed to block Apache renegades from escaping to the north, and created the most direct route between Fort Whipple in Prescott, and Fort Apache in the White Mountains. Today the keen-eyed traveler can find General Crook’s blaze marks, “V” plus the number of miles from Camp Verde. These are chiseled into rocks and blazed onto trees. One remaining tree blaze can be found displayed in the Rim Country Museum in Payson. It was recovered by Eldon Bowman, who was first to successfully trace the Crook Trail in its entirety. He also placed “V” symbols on the trees to guide today’s history buffs.
The Crook Trail, and its junctions with other forest roads, provides access to innumerable hiking trails, and of course, three delightful lakes: Knoll, Woods Canyon, and Willow Springs. Many springs dot the entire mesa forming marshes or small natural lakes. Several miles back from the edge of the Rim is Potato Lake, a natural lake that has been there for thousands of years. A study from Northern Arizona University drilled core samples from the lake bottom, recording climate changes over the past 35,000 years, Apparently wetter and cooler years made for a spruce forest, then the lake almost dried up 5,000 years ago. It returned and 3,000 years ago the surrounding forest came to look like it does today, dominated by the familiar ponderosa pines.
An investigation of the Mogollon Rim would not be complete without reference to the Mogollon Monster. Sightings of the ape-like “Bigfoot” have been reported for over 100 years. Several Apaches from the White Mountain Reservation have told about encounters, but prefer not to talk about them. A man named Don Davis told of his encounter with the Monster while on the Boy Scout trip near Payson in the 1940s.
“The creature was huge,” he reported. “Its eyes were deep set and hard to see ... His face seemed pretty much devoid of hair but there seemed to be hair along the sides of his face. His chest, shoulders and arms were massive, especially the upper arms; easily upwards of 6 inches in diameter, perhaps much, much more. I could see he was pretty hairy ... The face was very square, like a box ...”
Skeptics attribute the sightings to grizzly bears that roamed the Rim as recently as the early 1930s. However, folklore will not be dampened by reason. One summer evening while we were camped on the Rim, a forest ranger provided us with stories around the camp fire. One, designed to make a point with all of us, was that the Mogollon Monster would get people who left litter in the forest. State Balladeer Dolan Ellis took off on this theme in a song, not only chastising litterbugs, but making the Mogollon Monster a metaphor for the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
Even though a search of the World Wide Web indicates Mogollon Monster seekers are still very active, we need not fear to explore this wonderful work of God’s nature, the Mogollon Rim.
NEXT: The Blue Ridge Reservoir