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36 Hours of Adventure: Eastern AZ and the Mogollon Rim

I strongly believe that every so often people need a reset. We weren’t meant to sit at a desk and stare at a screen for nine hours a day, and the constant chains of emails, spread sheets, and beeping alerts we endure is enough to drive anyone mad. Everyone escapes the never ending parade of technology a little differently. Some do it through a spa-day, others choose a crazy weekend in Vegas, and my friends and I prefer to shrug it off with a little nature and a long dirt road. Our latest get-away was to eastern Arizona’s Mogollon rim road, a  trail that has won a special place in my heart and a must-do recommendation for overlanders.

We didn’t hit FR-300 (The Rim Road) until well after sundown on a very rainy Friday evening. The plan was to locate a secluded camp spot on the rim, one we hoped would be far enough back to escape traffic. We easily found the turn off, but once on the trail the pine needles and overgrowth covered the two-track until it disappeared entirely. Crap.

It wasn’t a good start, but on a dark rainy night it was to be expected. We searched for the correct path on foot for a few minutes before uncovering it again just a little further ahead and left. We made a note on our Hema app and drove the ten minutes to camp.  We quickly lit a fire to ward off the cold and settled into our chairs with a beer and discussions of what lay ahead.

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The morning was damp and a chill hung in the air. We stirred slowly from our warm beds, putting on a few layers before sleepily making our way outside to take in the view. Jackpot. The drop off was fifteen feet from our trailer, and we hadn’t had any idea the night before. I walked with our dog around the small peninsula on which we had parked, snapping pictures here and there. The girls were already beginning the process of cooking breakfast, so I took the rare opportunity to just sit on a rock and watch the clouds roll through the canyons around me.

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Before long the savory scent of pork and eggs wafted past my nose, luring me back to the trailer. The rest of the group had beat me there and we gladly topped off our coffee cups, filled our bowls with meat and eggs, and chowed down on every last morsel. It was delicious, and there was nothing but satisfied smiles as we packed up camp for the drive. If all went as planned today we would be covering over 100 miles of some Arizona’s most scenic dirt roads. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but we were excited to see what the Rim had to offer.

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It didn’t disappoint. Just twenty minutes outside of camp we found ourselves cruising along what has to be one of the best ridge line drives in the state. The drive was smooth, the road was dusty, and the view… well the view speaks for itself.

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We curled our way along the Mogollon’s FR300, snaking in and out of the forest as we did. Each time we burst back to the edge a new view was there to take our breath away. Tree covered cliffs reached up from the valley’s floor, craggy stone spires stood worn by time, and the seemingly endless rim stretched out towards the horizon in front of us. It’s a place that can make you realize just how small you are.

Before long we began to get the distinct feeling that we were far away from where we had started, and the tension of the week slowly faded into the swirling dust trails behind our trucks.

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By the time the road had tucked back into the woods for good, we might as well have been in another country. Our adventurous sides had taken over, and the only things that mattered now were the tress passing by our windows and the destinations ahead..

Unlike the sun baked shelf road we had just left, the forest was still damp from the rain the night before. Everything was quiet and calm, and the clouds rolling overhead gave it an almost fairy tale feel. As if on queue to complete the scene, we rounded a bend to see a band of horses grazing between the trees. No princes or galloping stallions here though, just some animals annoyed that someone had the audacity to bother them during lunch. Thankfully one in particular was kind enough to pose for a picture, even if it was scowling.

Photo by Ashlie Pollard

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We continued heading further East and the road became exceptionally smooth and straight. The speed really picked up and the gravel thrummed out a constant tune from beneath our tires. Tree after tree passed the windows and we had to be careful to not succumb to complacency. We found ourselves wanting to creep ever faster through the unchanging scenery, but a surprise ditch or washout at those speeds could have devastating effect. Eventually a switch of radio stations from rock to classical changed the pace and we cruised to our lunch spot humming along with the orchestra.

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During our brief lunch stop, we spotted this little creature making its way across the road. We always encourage making new friends on trips, just don’t get too close to ones like this.

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The forest went on in an endless sea of green passing by our windows, and before we knew it the 100 mile goal for the day seemed to be rapidly approaching. We were greeted at the edge of the woods by warm sunshine finally breaking through the clouds, and the sight of a beautiful valley laid out below us. It seemed like a perfect conclusion, but the road still had a surprise in store.

As we rounded into the last sections of the trail, brake lights came on in front of me. We stopped and I hopped out of the 4Runner, curious as to what obstacle required us to inspect it. What I saw was rather unfortunate. A low drainage ditch used for ranch access had been flooded, leaving us no route around. The depth wouldn’t be an issue, however it was very slick. I almost fell several times just walking around the pit, and was intrigued to see how my vehicle would do pulling a trailer through the slop.

The Jeeps went first, so I had some advantage knowing where the two trucks had gone before me. I felt confident the Toyota could make it through with ease. I found my desired speed and adjusted throttle ever so slightly to maintain it through the drainage ditch. The slow progression worked perfectly and the mud terrains churned their way through the muck without the slightest hesitation. I handed my camera to Sarah Ramm while I drove through, and she shot one of my favorite pictures of the vehicle thus far.

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The muddy pass marked the end of FR-300. We had reached pavement once more, and though the Rim Road was finished, our adventure was not. It was time to seek out a camp near Greer Arizona, our last destination for the weekend. None of us are usually excited about driving tarmac, but the views were so spectacular that evening we couldn’t complain. We had now reached a high enough elevation to see the colors begin to change in the trees, and despite a lack of diversity, the vibrant yellows clashing with green was a dazzling spectacle all its own.

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Our camp the night before had been phenomenal, but Eastern Arizona managed to top it on night two. With the sun rapidly dropping behind us, we pulled off on a dirt road and made a run for a nearby hill-top. As luck would have it, it turned out to be one of the best views I’ve ever seen. There was a 180 degree view of the mountains, and everything the light touched seemed to glow of gold. The trees radiated with color, the grass in the fields was waving gracefully, and I couldn’t help but think it was a darn near perfect evening.

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Of course while we were busy gawking at one of the best sunsets any of us had seen, we failed to notice the dropping temperature until we about froze. Throwing layers of clothes on like there was no tomorrow, we gathered some downed wood and used the last of our dry stock to start a very toasty fire. We may have cheated a little and used our giga-torch, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

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The flames kept us warm when we were sitting within range of the sparks, but any further back and the biting cold sucked it all away. We tried to make the best of the situation though, and our lumberjack of a friend made a s’mores stick from what appeared to be a fallen tree. It of course got a laugh from the group.

We attempted to dull the chill with some spicy chili verde for dinner, followed by hot tea, followed by hot tea with a little vodka. When none of that worked we turned to our illustrious plan B, drinking hot cider with cinnamon whisky and pretending we weren’t freaking freezing. Despite the weather, the group was all smiles as we talked of adventures, trucks, and parts until a deep need to sleep set in.

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We awoke fairly early the next morning and immediately began to pack the camp. You may think we were being proactive, but in truth we were just really eager for our planned meal in the town of Greer. Mainly, the free refills of hot coffee at the cafe. Warmth and caffeine are a big motivator after a cold night camping. The only one who didn’t seem all too pleased with the concept of waking up was our dog Paxton, who stretched and grunted his disapproval repeatedly around the camp.

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Driving into town, I was amazed I hadn’t visited this place before. The buildings are quaint and clean, and everything has a mountain village flare. A small clear creek runs through the center of the sleepy town, and it looks so good you immediately want to lay in the grass with your feet in it. The people we passed smiled and waved as we drove by and the restaurants all looked local and delicious.

In the end we decided on a crowd favorite, the Greer Cafe. It screams country charm from the moment you pass the guard rooster sign, to when you realize the menu features doggie meals. They serve a mean breakfast (for humans) and we’ll vouch for their excellent eggs benedict and hash. We hear their lunch is just as good, so we will surely be back to try it.

Photo by Ashlie Pollard

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Although it had only been a hop skip and a jump away from our home town, it had felt like we had just made a grand escape. Friday night we had departed with the stress of the week on our shoulders, and here we sat Sunday morning like new people, refreshed and ready to tackle anything. It was funny to think that over the past six years I had lived a stones throw from these trails, yet I had never driven them. It’s why we do weekend trips, and why often times the last minute getaways are the ones that turn into our favorite memories.

We may not have the time or money for an expedition to the poles, an overland journey across Africa, or a drive around the world, but I think we’re okay with that. All we need are a few good friends, a dirt road, and a weekend of an exploring.

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Managing Editor.

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