How many people - besides the locals - have ever heard of the Mogollon Rim?
I hadn't until we visited Payson, Arizona back in 2007. We were told it was another magnificent place to visit; high green forest, fabulous overlooks and blue green clear lakes. We found a great place to hang out at near Tonto Basin, a magnificent desert valley with tall mountains surrounding it and a large impoundment called Roosevelt Lake.
On this return visit, we decided to drive up Route 260 towards the rim. It was a beautiful afternoon when we left the Basin. However, when we topped at 7,500 feet, snow covered the forest floor up to our waist. All access roads were closed, yet the beauty of the land stuck in my head for a return visit.
A few weeks later, I called ahead and Ranger Joe said all roads were open. We packed a little food and drink, stopped off at The Butcher Hook to top off the gas tank, and away we went. A short distance down the road we noticed something crossing, and as we got closer we encountered our first Gila monster, a rare sight in Arizona.
The Gila is a slow-moving venemous lizard, native to this dry land. He was slowly crossing the road in front of us. Diane swerved somewhat to miss it. The lizard is of little threat to humans, yet has earned a fearsome reputation in these parts. Many people do not recognize that the Gila is protected by Arizona law, besides he lives among this harsh land; this is its back yard. We don’t know why anyone would call him a monster. Actually, they are quite colorful.
When we got to Jakes Corners on 188, we began our climb from 2,200 feet to somewhere in excess of 7,500. One third up the incline to Payson on I-87 we were forced to slow our travel and follow a State Police vehicle following a huge oversized truck barely maintaining 10 mph. There was no way to get around this dude and the hill extends another 7 to 8 miles before it levels out into Payson. Payson is a quaint town that sits on a plateau of numerous black pine trees just over 5,000 feet. It was a long slow ride to Payson.
In Payson, we stopped at Subway for a chicken salad sandwich and started east on Arizona 260. A few miles from town, low and behold we were caught behind that fool oversized truck again. We followed him some distance and decided to pull into a picnic area for a break and let the crowd go on ahead. About 20 minutes later we started again, back on 260 and climbing and guess what? Yep. While we stopped, the convoy pulled off the road and let the vehicles behind pass and now we were once again first in line behind this dumb truck. It was a slow climb to the Mogollon Visitor Center which happened to be closed until May 23rd. Standing on the rim edge, the view from the center was incredible. However, we did not stay long as the sky was turning grey and storm clouds were developing; it felt like rain and there was a freezing wind hitting us.
In the truck, we took a look at our map and decided to drive along the rim and find a picnic spot at Woods Canyon Lake. Each time we stopped at a view point for a picture, we nearly froze our butts off. Next time, Steve will bring along a coat and wear long pants. Here and there among the forest, hardly any individuals were tent camping, the smell of pine burning in their camp fires.
Woods Canyon Lake was located in a small canyon back in the high country, a natural lake formed from heavy snow run offs. Surprisingly, there were quite a few fishermen out on the lake, mostly retired members of my species and age dressed for the weather. We took a leisurely walk down to the lake and spoke with some of the fishermen. No trout today but they didn’t seem to care. Just the idea of being out in these mountains on a crisp sunny day sitting beside a blue green lake was reward enough.
We found an empty picnic table to enjoy our lunch as we watched the antics of a pair of Chip and Dale chipmunks begging for food. A beautiful osprey made several passes over the water demonstrating his fishing skills. He seemed to be the only creature catching anything.
Returning home was a lovely ride downhill where evening cocktails were waiting. In some respects, it was a crazy unusual day, totally unprepared and off the cuff, yet enjoyable and full of good memories. We would like to go back and spend more time in this heavily laden pine forest, just the wondrous smell turns me on.