Arizona's Senator Highway
38-Mile-Long Dirt Road
By Gordon Burhop
A lot of folks who live in the Phoenix corner of the Sonoran Desert search out relief from our summer heat by heading up to Crown King, which is located in northwestern Arizona’s Prescott National Forest, nestled in the Bradshaw Mountains at an elevation of about 6000 feet. Usually, they drive north on Interstate 17 for about 45 to 50 miles to the Bumble Bee exit and turn west on a looping dirt road for about 20 miles over to Crown King. It is a trip marked by ghost towns and mining history. But that’s not what this story is about.
Last summer, my friend Klaus and I decided that we would take a casual, easy drive up to Crown King and then head north up the Senator Highway, which is actually not a highway but is a 38-mile-long dirt road that follows the spine of the Bradshaw Mountains up to Prescott. According to our plan, we would then turn back south on State Highway 69 and I-17 and return to Phoenix. Having made the trip up the Senator Highway before, we knew the drive would take us through a Ponderosa Pine forest, with spectacular views of the desert floor below. We knew that we would see a lot of historic ruins from the days of mining, ranching and logging in the area. We figured that we would even discover some new stuff. Perhaps most importantly, we knew that we would find the temperature to be 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in Phoenix. That alone would be worth the trip. But that’s not what this story is about, either.
The trip started off well enough. Along the way, Klaus and I talked about how the Bradshaws are one of the world’s most heavily mineralized ranges, a place people used to come to get rich. A one point, we even stopped at a lookout tower, and a ranger gave us a tour. As we drove, we talked how the road was named after the Senator Mine, but we have never known why the mine was called “Senator.” After all, it was in operation before Arizona became a state and even had a senator. We also talked about how, back during the Civil War, the South’s sympathizers picked out a high peak in the mountains and called it Mount Davis in honor of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Not to be outdone, the North’s supporters picked out a higher peak, in fact, at 8000 feet, the highest peak in the range, and they called it Mount Union. But that’s still not what this story is all about.
In retrospect, we should have sensed early on that this trip would not turn into the casual, easy drive that we planned. When we reached Crown King, we found that one of the local watering holes had burned to the ground. We should have taken that as an omen since the local volunteer fire department was located just right across the street.
Along the drive, we saw a gopher snake cross the road. We stopped and scrambled out of the vehicle and through the brush to make his picture, and we very nearly stepped on a coiled up diamondback rattler. Omen number two.
When we got back to my truck, after missing the gopher snake but capturing the rattler on film, we discovered that the latch opening the auxiliary cab door had broken, making it impossible to open. Omen number three.
On Senator Road, we discovered that the National Forest Service had recently conducted a controlled burn to reduce the possibility of wildfire in the area around Battle Flat, which had been the scene of a fight between Indians and settler/miners back during the 19th century. The blackened skeletons of burned brush mixed with quartz tailings from long-abandoned mines felt eerie and foreboding. Omen number four.
Still, oblivious to what lay ahead, we pushed on through the forest, passing flowing creeks, which are unusual in most of the arid Southwest. We talked about how this was truly an idyllic setting. Omen number five?
It was on the Senator Highway, an isolated mountain dirt road, miles from Prescott, that we smelled smoke. We looked around. No campfires. No controlled burns. No forest fires. No, it was us! Now, that’s what this story is about.
I felt my truck’s transmission begin to slip. I did the smart thing. I stopped. We checked the transmission fluid. The dipstick showed nothing. I realized that I had violated my own basic rules of common sense. I had failed to check my fluid levels before we left. I had, after all, never had a significant problem before. Why now? Moreover, I had neglected to bring any extra transmission or even oil. At this point I’m wondering what or who is the real dipstick.
Scrounging through my emergency box, Klaus and I found a few machine oil vials and some other near-oil products. We put that into the transmission. We crept on for a few more miles before smoke and slipping stopped us again. A Good Samaritan appeared from heaven. He gave us a quart of engine oil. Another few miles, we stalled again. Just as we were considering putting most any kind of liquid in the tranny, a second Good Samaritan appeared. He gave us another quart of oil. These were the only two vehicles we saw on this entire leg of the trip.
While we still had another eight to ten miles to go before we would reach Prescott, we had, fortunately, passed the highest point on the Senator Highway, not far from Mount Union. From there, we were able to coast most of the remaining distance into the old Victorian district of Prescott. There, much relieved, we bought a case of oil at a convenience store. We were able to drive back to Phoenix by stopping to add a quart of oil to the transmission every few miles. Of course, the transmission was toast by the time we got home.
Since all good stories have a moral, you can see from our experience why you should drive a dependable, preferably high-clearance, vehicle into the remote roads like the Senator Highway. You should check fluid levels and tire pressures. You should take spare fluids and spare parts. You should take extra food and water in case that Good Samaritan from heaven fails to appear.
In spite of our problems, Klaus and I will drive the Senator Highway again, probably even taking a canoe so we can try out Hassayampa Lake, just upstream from the old Senator Mine, but next time, we’ll go prepared. We’ll be on the lookout for omens. If the bar King Crown has burned down, we’ll turn around right then and head for home.
You can get additional information about the Senator Highway and the Prescott National Forest from:
Prescott National Forest
344 South Cortez Street
Prescott, Arizona 86303
You will an Arizona state highway map and a Prescott National Forest Service map to be useful.
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