Text and photos by Gordon Burhop
With sincere apologies to Billy Shakespeare (or was it Charles Dickens? I never can remember.): "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." Well, this latest trip wasn't all that bad but it did have some emotional ups and downs for everyone involved.
My grandson, Matthew and I decided to check out some Arizona mining history. We selected the vast mining area northeast of Florence. We had been there before, when visiting the coke ovens. Martinez Mine resides in the remote, steep Martinez Canyon. It is considered one of the best-preserved, original-condition mine sites in the state of Arizona. It was owned for about 40 years by a long time family of the town of Florence. Then it was sold, not too long ago, to the Bureau of Land Management.
We invited along some friends, Shep and Miriam, who had expressed an interest in doing a day trip with us. They had heard that sometimes we get into some interesting situations. They didn't know the half of it. They were driving an SUV that had 4x4 with a low gear and a good reputation for off-road capabilities. Various shortcomings would show up later.
We rendezvoused early in the morning and headed southeast out of Phoenix towards Florence. The plan was to approach the mine from the south, through the Gila box, and emerge at the north near Florence Junction on Highway 60 at about mid- to late afternoon, a distance of about 20 miles. The Gila box canyon is reached by traveling east off Highway 79 on Price Road just north of the Gila River. The entrance to the box is easy to find because after about 15 miles, the well maintained gravel road deteriorates to the point where there are no more choices.
It had rained heavily the afternoon before and I could see some major differences in driving conditions from my previous visits. Most of the loose soil in the creek bottom had washed away, leaving bare boulders everywhere and no easy transitions for wheeled vehicles. It is worth noting here that we had checked the weather forecast to make sure no thunderstorms were in the offing. There were none. We didn't want to get trapped in the narrow box canyon with no escape in case of a flash flood. The box canyon is where the trouble started, and it proved the benefit of having more than one vehicle.
As it turned out, Shep's SUV had one serious limitation: not enough ground clearance. We got hung up at least half a dozen times. I was in the lead and each time I had to pull the SUV over the obstacle. At times using my big jack helped. There were other vehicles following us and the other drivers were very patient with us. The scenery luckily was spectacular. Matthew occupied himself by catching and releasing tadpoles left in the pools created by the earlier rain.
Emerging from the Gila box we crossed a low pass into the Martinez Canyon area. A fork to the right leads to the coke ovens, but that's a whole different trip. We took the left fork, to the mine. At this point, we were about two miles from our destination. A mile farther we encountered a severe washout of the trail. The high side was steeply slanted, and the danger of a rollover was very possible. The low side had eroded into a deep bowl which had all the earmarks of getting stuck. We pulled into a wide spot of the trail and decided to walk the remaining mile. Our followers caught up to us and made it through the bowl ok, but their success didn't last long. A large cottonwood tree had fallen across the trail completely blocking vehicular access. A sign had been placed by the BLM instructing visitors not to molest the tree in any way since it was still alive.
As we hiked up the canyon, we could see remnants of the old mining community. What appears to be a small cave actually shields a bit of history. (I always do research ahead of time.) Located in front of a saloon, the cave extends in a crescent shape and emerges back out of the canyon wall. This rear portion was once an open-air brothel. The people of the time apparently didn't worry much about privacy.
Another short distance and we came upon the site of the original owner's cabin and the headquarters. In the 1950's, a flash flood heavily damaged the buildings, but a lot of machinery still remains. Here the canyon widens a bit, revealing mine shafts in the walls and a natural cave where some Tarahumara Indian laborers once lived. The mine buildings a short ways up the canyon from there are replete with adit (or, entrance) shafts, various ore samples, ore car tracks, generators, conveyors, milling equipment and other related necessities. All are wonderfully preserved due to the remoteness. We had a late lunch, realizing our timetable was already shot.
We knew that retracing our route back to Florence was futile due to the waning hour and previously encountered difficulties. Little did we know at the time, however, that our adventure was only half over. I had exited the area to the north a number of times and was familiar with the routes and obstacles. One problem area was the waterfall. Normally the waterfall is easy to traverse for my truck, but it had been washed completely clean of any soil whatsoever and I could see that Shep's SUV would never make it up. We consulted our topographic maps, looking for other choices. We ended up finding a ridge trail that climbed steeply over into the next canyon. In the process my truck overheated. Eventually, after pulling the SUV over more rough spots, we found a trail leading to the west. It took us back to Highway 79 about mid-way between Florence and Florence Junction. The day was rapidly waning. I spotted what appeared to be a broken stick on the trail. It turned out to be a 3-1/2 foot diamondback, which gave all of us a much-needed thrill.
We had some highs and some lows but on reflection, we had a great trip. It definitely emphasized the importance of being prepared with proper equipment, extra food and water and in this case an extra vehicle. At the highway our cell phone finally worked again, and we could call everyone to let them know we'd be a little late.
If you make the trip, you should take an Arizona highway map and the Florence SE, Florence NE, Mineral Mountain and Florence Junction topographic maps with you.
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