Yavapai County High Point Trip Report

Mt Union (7,979 ft)

Date: January 11, 2003
Authors: Scott Surgent and Beth Cousland

With a weekend free and the weather in Arizona its usual spectacular self, we entered the wonderful world of highpointing with a trip to the highpoint of Yavapai County, Mt. Union, not far from Prescott. Scott visited this highpoint back in 1999 coming in from the north via the towns of Walker and Potato Patch, and driving the truck all the way to the lookout complex atop the peak. This time, however, we decided to make this a real interesting full day and we came up from the south via the fascinating old ghost towns of Bumble Bee, Cleator and Crown King, and over 50 miles of dirt road.

Mt Union is the highpoint of the Bradshaw Mountains, which take up a large chunk of land south and east of Prescott, north of Phoenix and west of the Interstate- 17 corridor. The Bradshaws are known for mining, and it is the mines (literally thousands of them, named and unnamed, working and defunct) that begat a series of boom towns that evolved into ghost towns that still stand today, some in remarkable shape. For the hiking enthusiast, Mt. Union, in my opinion, isn't really an attractive hiker's mountain. It is too far set back from civilization to see it, and it is surrounded by numerous peaks in the 7,000 - 7,800 foot range so that Mt. Union itself hardly stands out, even when it's visible. On the other hand, the Bradshaws are laced with miles of good dirt forest roads, thus making a drive to near the top (or the top itself) a relatively easy event. With that in mind, we did not view this trip as a long day hike but instead as a chance to explore the back roads and the ghost towns.

We left Chandler about 9:30 am and exited I-17 at Bumble Bee - Crown King Road (Exit 248), about an hour's drive. From here the road quickly becomes dirt, although it is well-graded and very wide. The first ghost town we came to was Bumble Bee, 5 miles from the interstate. Bumble Bee today consists of a cafe and gift shop, and about 5 or 6 bungalows built in the 1930s; most of the original buildings from the early 1900s having been burned down or carted off. We stopped in the cafe and chatted with a man named Virgil, representing half of Bumble Bee's full-time population. A few other folks live there seasonally, and there's a large ranch spread about a half-mile south. For those who have driven I-17 and stopped at the Sunset Point overlook/rest stop, Bumble Bee is easily visible in the valley below.

Nine miles up the road, Cleator appears suddenly as one crests the road near some hills. Unlike Bumble Bee, most of the buildings in Cleator are original and laid out haphazardly, more typical of these towns that were hewn into hillsides. According to our book, Cleator features about a dozen full-timers and an occasionally open bar/shop. We saw a few trucks parked there and noted that we missed "Cleator Days", which was December 7th, including a parade and a chili cook-off. We'll be sure to be there next year! Now, I'll admit: most ghost towns tend to be a let down: most of the buildings are gone and/or the town has been redeveloped in a mawkish, touristy manner. Cleator, however, seems genuinely authentic. It is privately owned, which probably helps, and it is fascinating to consider that it is located within an hour's drive of Phoenix and yet seems literally right out of 1900.

Continuing out of Cleator, we followed the Crown King Road now generally southerly. The road itself is the old railroad bed of "Murphy's Impossible Railroad", which was built to haul ore out of Crown King's mines. One look at the mountainous terrain justifies the name of the railroad. To put it in, long stretches had to be blasted into the rock, and to account for the low grades required by railroad cars, long switchbacks snake up the mountainsides at a very lenient grade by automobile standards. The views are magnificent! Finally, twelve miles south of Cleator and almost 26 since the interstate, we crossed a short bit of road hewn through a cliff and then into Crown King, which sits at nearly 6,000 feet elevation amid tall pines, a sudden change in flora from the more desertscape of the drive in. Including our stops, this drive took a little over an hour. We stopped in at the general store and toured "Main Street", featuring a restaurant, a saloon, a church and a FS fire station. About 100 people live in Crown King full time. There are some mines still working in the area, but most people live there for the remote solitude and cool weather. About another 300 people live there seasonally, and weekend crowds from Phoenix are common, especially in summer. The road is well-graded and passable by passenger vehicle, except in the worst of weather.

After about a half-hour, we set out again. Most people who drive to Crown King apparently leave the way they came in. Our intent, instead, was to drive the Senator Highway to Prescott. Leaving Crown King, we drove about 2 more miles to the town site of Bradshaw City, which has no significant remains today, for a picnic lunch. During our time there we saw one Jeep and about four or five quad-runners pass us. The road is no longer an old railroad bed, but now a more typical forest road: narrow, steep occasionally rutted and rocky. The sign said 38 miles to Prescott, and the guidebook said to allow three hours.

The Senator Highway today is just a long, interesting forest road (FR-52). In its hey-day, it was a stage-coach route from Prescott to Crown King and on into Phoenix, back when Prescott was the territorial capital and Phoenix was a hot, lonely outpost in the desert. Signs are intermittent along this road, but appear just often enough to reassure people that they are not lost! Traveling this road isn't difficult. The signs and guidebooks insist that a high- clearance vehicle is mandatory, but for most of the 38 miles into Prescott, the road is reasonably level and reasonably smooth. However, there are areas of ruts, rocks and steep grades, plus some creek crossings, thus warranting the high-clearance suggestion. We did not need any 4-wheel drive. Periodically we'd come to an unsigned junction, always staying straight and following what appeared to be the road most traveled. There were moments when I wondered if we'd made a bad decision but then a sign later on down the road would reassure us we had not. Traveling was slow; even on the occasional smooth straight stretch we'd be lucky to get up to 15 mph. This was fine by us: we were happy to take it slowly and take in the sights! Oncoming traffic was rare: we could see them well in advance and we'd say there were about 7 vehicles the whole way in, most just outside of Prescott. We made one stop to hike up an unnamed hill for some nice views, including Mt Union, still way off to our north.

After nearly 2 hours on this road, in which time we had covered no more than 25 miles, we came upon Palace Station, which was a stage stop along the Senator Highway, and today consists of one preserved building and some interpretive signs and walking areas. Just north of this spot was a hand-made sign mentioning "Snow, 4wd" in orange spray paint upon a wooden palette. A few days earlier a storm had moved through Arizona and though most of the snow had melted and we had seen very little of it on our drive in, we were coming upon some areas shaded from the sun where snow might still be in place. Well, there was. We used 4wd in some short stretches but previous vehicles had already worn paths through the standing snow. Our concern was ice, as the sun was now mostly low in the sky and the temps getting quite cool. In any case, we finally came upon the Mt. Union Road junction and drove as far up as we could before coming to a locked gate about a half-mile from the summit. There was still much snow on this short stretch of road, and it was obvious very few people had driven this in the previous days.

We parked and hiked in, achieving the summit after about 20 minutes in cold, brisk but beautiful and clear weather. After some photos at the summit, we headed back down and drove the remaining road out to Prescott, arriving as darkness fell. We ate at the St. Michael's Hotel Restaurant on Whiskey Row. After a night at a Super-8, we headed back to Phoenix.

To attain Mt Union from the south via our route we had driven 54 miles of dirt road: the first 26 via the Bumble Bee - Crown King Road, and the next 28 via the much narrower Senator Highway. Including stops it had taken us nearly 5 hours to get to the base of Mt. Union. In all we drove nearly 61 miles on dirt before finally hitting pavement just outside of Prescott. The road to Crown King from I-17 is quite interesting and we'd do it again any time. However, the drive along the Senator Highway is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, although it's worth going back to that area and exploring some other side roads.