Our adventures are always subject to last minute adjustment and change resultant of my schedule that seems to be in a near constant state of flux. As a result, over the years we have learned to be rather flexible and view last minute changes merely as opportunities for unexpected discoveries.
The “good road” as seen by Garmin.
Originally, as I had planned it, my dearest friends birthday expedition/photography safari was to commence with a leisurely early morning drive down Route 66 to Seligman. It would then continue with a 100 mile Arizona back country odyssey, first down the scenic Williamson Valley Road, a portion of which may have carried National Old Trails Highway traffic if Professor Nick Gerlich’s investigations are correct.This would take us into historic Prescott. Before entering the wilderness again we would then drive through a neighborhood of stately Victorian era homes, then along the territorial era Senator Highway to Crown King. However, the important Saturday morning interviews necessitated an adjustment since the trip to Crown King on the “good road” would consume at least three to four hours if we didn’t stop to take in the sites or engage in a bit of photography.
The Mill restaurant in Crown King.
So, the sunrise departure gave way to mid morning but by 10:00 we were rolling east on I-40 in a Jeep loaded with gear for almost any possible contingency since our plans still called for back country exploration. As it turns out, our timing was most ideal.
We arrived in Crown King around four o’clock, checked into the Cedar Roost Inn, and set out to photograph the town in the glow of a late afternoon, as well as to sign books at the general store. Then, with an adequately stimulated appetite we set our sights on the Mill Restaurant.
Okay, this place needs some serious attention. As an example, the porch floor is sagging and has a few poorly patched holes.
The delightful ambiance of the Mill restaurant in Crown King.
However, as the place was built twenty years ago to look vintage, or condemned, using parts from a wide array of condemned historic structures, the need for repair seems to fit the theme in an odd sort of way.
The food was excellent with a near perfect blend of seasoning and spices. The service was very good; friendly, fast, and attentive without being intrusive. I would also rate the restaurant as very good in regard to the cleanliness of the kitchen and dining areas. However, the ambiance was in a class of its own.
The center piece of the dining area is a huge iron boiler, used for heat, and a towering late 19th century stamp mill with wooden flywheel that supports the massive ceiling beams that clearly show the marks of the adze and ax. Scattered all about the restaurant, bar, and patio are fascinating antiques such as an ancient jukebox, a vintage wood burning kitchen stove, and a wooden rocking horse.
The porch festooned with an array of bird feeders attracts an amazing number of hummingbirds. As the mill dominates a hill above the road and town, only the forest prevents breathtaking vistas.
The dinner menu was handwritten on a board and posted near the stamp mill. During our visit seafood and steak were the offerings.Present company, the ambiance, and the over stimulated appetite all contributed to how good the meal tasted. Rounding out the excellent flavors of the grilled talapi on a bed of seasoned rice, the stir fried vegetables, the fresh herb bread toasted to perfection with a hint of olive oil, and the fresh garden salad was a delicious moscato wine that washed the dust from our throats.
Doozy’s in Crown King.
There was a definite chill in the clean mountain air as we drove through town and back to our room so we added the comforter from the closet to our bed rather than run the electric space heater all evening. The gentle sounds of the wind in the pines lulled us into a most restful nights sleep.
As we had examined the menus for the three cafes in town the night before, we awoke eager to try a sampling of the morning fare at Doozy’s, a rustic and quaint combination bakery and souvenir shop that also serves as a prospector and hunting supply store where morning coffee is offered free at the door.
A new and expanded kitchen is under construction, but with the exception of outdoor dining facilities, seating is limited to a handful of tables. So our breakfast table near the fireplace was shared with locals, itinerant prospectors, and weekend explorers.
The food was basic but good, and the prices reasonable. It was an excellent way to begin a day of high adventure.
The Crown King store, in business since 1904.
We returned to our room, loaded gear, cinched down the tail gate with a ratchet strap, and left our hosts with a copy of my book Ghost Towns of the Southwest. The proprietor of the Cedar Roost Inn called on Monday evening, thanked us for the book, and said that the bartender in the photograph illustrating the Crown King segment of the book was her husband. Now, I am quite sure they weren’t any more surprised than I was!
Historic Crown King, Arizona.
As I had topped off the gas tank near Dewey, we set out on the historic Senator Highway with plenty of fuel for the 38 mile, four hour adventure on this historic roadway. It should be noted that I used four wheel drive only twice and only as I was hedging my bet on a couple of stream crossings.
Still, after driving the road I can see where a 4×4 might provide a much needed edge, especially after inclement weather. However, ground clearance, good tires, and a vehicle in good mechanical condition is a must.
The historic Senator Highway.
Along the historic Senator Highway.
As the old road is a secondary escape route for Crown King, the forest service provides minimal upkeep that is really little more than occasionally removing dead falls, repairing extreme wash outs, and clearing rock slides. In essence the Senator Highway (forest road 52 for most of its length) is little changed from the time when it was built in the late 1860s as a toll road linking the territorial capital of Prescott with Phoenix as well as the mining boom towns in the Bradshaw mining district such as Bradshaw City, Hooper, and Crown King.
In many places it is a rutted, rocky, one lane wide road that mimics a goat trail as it snakes through the pine forest, through brush choked canyons, and along ridge lines with stunning vistas in every direction. There are stream crossings, abandoned mines, stone chimneys, historic sites, and surprising vestiges from the frontier era.
Initially, from Crown King to the first junction the old road sees a great deal of traffic. Still, it was steep and rutted in places, doable by car with caution but not recommended.
The view from on high along the Senator Highway.
At the first junction (Note: the road to Lake Pleasant is not recommend unless you have a vehicle that is modified for extreme off road use) the Senator Highway takes on a more adventuresome feel as there are larger rocks in the road, deeper ruts, and mud holes but still the shade dappled road has a soothing feel. With the exception of an occasional ATV, we had the road and the sounds of the forest to ourselves.
Only a forest service sign stands in mute testimony to the existence of Bradshaw City, a town that once purportedly had a population numbered in the thousands. It was near this point that we encountered the first grade that required us to carefully pick our way over and through rocks of varying sizes.
Signs of drought in the Bradshaw Mountains.
The only thing to cast a pall on our adventure was the evidence of just how severe the drought was becoming. The brush and grass was dry. The trees were often tinged brown or dormant. Streams trickled as though it were late July instead of early spring.
The Palace Station on the Senator Highway.
After running the ridge line for several miles, at the junction with the Wagoner Road (Wagoner was another important town in the area more than a century ago) we stopped in a shady grove to take in the sites and evaluate our options. The Wagoner road connected with the modern world and the highway at Kirkland. This would allow us to still make Prescott but as the road required a crossing of the Hassayampa River, and we didn’t have a current report on depth or width, we decided to stick with the Senator Highway. Besides I had something very special to share with my dearest friend.
When it comes to tangible links and historic artifacts from the frontier era in Arizona, few are on par with the unassuming Palace Station. Built in 1874 as a stage station and inn on the primary road linking Prescott with Phoenix, a road that remained in service until 1910, the old station today serves as a temporary residence for forest service employees.
There is no electricity. A stream flows at the bottom of the hill. The dust from travelers passing by still settles over the porch. For all intents and purposes, the Palace Station is truly a portal into a world that vanished more than a century ago.
By the time we made Palace Station, we had driven along several ridge lines, slipped from the road at a stream crossing when trying to make room for a passing Jeep, climbed a couple of rock grades and slid down the other side. Surprisingly the last few miles to the pavement that marked the beginning of suburbia proved to be the roughest.
Almost immediately after leaving the station we crossed a stream that was almost knee deep in places. This was followed by a steep, rocky climb through a canyon where the road clung precariously to the wall.
Still, the vestiges of the roads importance were seen at most every turn. Perhaps the most impressive was a massive masonry drainage tunnel that supported the road way near the historic Senator Mine.
Still, the rest of the journey was rather anti-climatic. After driving about five miles, the Senator Highway morphed into a modern roadway with historic nature and connection erased.
We enjoyed a traditional Irish dinner (shepherds pie) and a brief visit with Tony Mock at Murphy’s in Prescott, filled the tank in Chino Valley, made a pit stop in Ash Fork, and then, in almost the blink of an eye, we were home again. It seemed as though we were gone for a week instead of a day and a half.
Modern day prospectors encountered on the historic Senator Highway.
In that brief period of time we flitted between the past and present, sampled some of Arizona’s best back country, and in general had a most memorable adventure. Now, the challenge is to top this for a weekend getaway.
Author Jim Hinckley in his native habitat, the road less traveled.