Road trip on US191
What's Thanksgiving without a road trip? BUT, my family lives where I do, so I had to manufacture a reason to get out of town! I heard (on this forum) that Arizona has one of the curviest, if not THE curviest, stretches of pavement in the lower forty-eight -- so I set out Friday evening to find out if this was true.
The highway in question is US191 (between Morenci and Alpine, Arizona). The road was built in 1926 and because of its remoteness and geometry, I was told it is not plowed regularly in winter even today, so if you want to see it, check to see if it is open before you go. The road begins in the south at about 3500 feet MSL, and climbs to well over 8,000 feet before you get "there!"
I picked up the route east of Safford, AZ. The road climbs up the "backbone" of Arizona, from low desert to the high country of the Blue River Wilderness (to the east) and the White Mountains (to the north and west). It is the route Coronado probably followed when he entered what is now Arizona in 1540 -- and it is therefore called the "Coronado Trail" by locals. The Blue River area is the location where the Mexican Gray Wolf has been reintroduced to Arizona after about a 70 year absence, and several packs are now roaming there, much to the chagrin of the local ranchers. Understand this is one of the most remote areas in the USA, and the sole remaining "primitive area" in the national forest system.
The town of Clifton marks the southern end of the "twisties," Hannagan Meadow the north. Clifton and Morenci (next door neighbors to each other) owe their existence to the open pit copper mine located there. In Clifton, I stopped at the old railroad depot, took some photos of the business district from the frontier days, and the "cliff jail." The jail is a hole blasted in the rock of the cliff in the south end of town (the town-site occupies the narrow floor of a steep canyon, through which the San Francisco River flows). The plaque at the jail says it was "built" (dynamited) in 1881 or 82, and the first person confined in it was the guy that blasted it out. Don't know what he did to get tossed in there, but I looked in the hole and it did NOT look accommodating. There are still bars across the entrance.
Leaving Clifton and Morenci behind, you pass the open pit of the copper mine. This has got to be one of the largest open pit mining operations in the world. While copper mining in the USA is depressed, this Phelps-Dodge mine was being worked busily -- on Saturday morning after Thanksgiving! I can't say an open pit mine is magnificent, but it is certainly impressive.
US191 climbs out of town into the mountains, and several signs inform you there are no services for the next 100 miles and no trucks over 40 feet in length are permitted. A harbinger of things to come. I counted 435 serious curves between the north end of Morenci and the town of Alpine, 92 miles up the road. Most of these are between Morenci and Hannagan Meadow (376 of them). Many of these result in a total reversal of direction. There were about twice those numbers of lesser curves on this highway, what I'd call "directional adjustments," if not curves. Speed limits are limited accordingly -- many of the curves are suggested to be driven no more than 10 mph. It took me about 6 hours to drive this stretch of road, averaging about 22 mph (yes, this IS a PAVED road)! I did stop to take lots of photos, though. Once past Hannagan Meadow, the curves are lazier, and the road meanders through the forest the last few miles into Alpine.
I had lunch at Hannagan Meadow Lodge, also built in 1926 (see www.hannaganmeadow.com for more information about the lodge and the area). I then drove into New Mexico from Alpine on US180, through Reserve and across State Route 12 to the Very Large Array, a radio-telescope site near Magdalena (featured in the movie "Contact"). I arrived just in time to get some awesome shots of the radio-dishes in the sunset and in the twilight. Heading back, I stopped at Datil, NM for a steak dinner but later was disappointed to find the folks at Pietown, NM had closed up early, depriving me of a piece of much anticipated chocolate cream pie. I continued on to Springerville, Arizona, where I spent the night before returning to Phoenix this afternoon. Total miles round trip from Phoenix: 803.
Is US191 the twistiest road in the USA? Don't have a clue. However, it has got to be right up there. The scenery is magnificent and the roadway screams for a motorcycle or sports car to drive it! I drove a Dodge truck and still had fun. I had it almost all to myself and cell phone coverage was non-existent, too. Spring for the wildflowers, summer for cool mountain air and camping, autumn for the colors, you'd find this a worthwhile drive!
Very cool roadtrip! Thanks for sharing. Judy
Expanded Article is now live
Bob Schaller's <a href = "http://www.roadtripamerica.com/drives/Coronado-Trail.htm">field report</a> of this roadtrip is now on-line complete with some cool photos.