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Casner Mountain Trail: A Changing View

Growing up in Texas brings with it a different outlook on life. You learn to appreciate certain things that many people take for granted. Hills and any color other than brown for example are rarities in the Lone Star State. If you’ve ever driven through West Texas you’ll know what I’m talking about. Needless to say when I received an invite to travel the Casner Mountain trail through one of the most beautiful sections of Northern Arizona, I accepted.

It was originally named for the Casner family who used it to move their cattle from their summer range on the Mogollon rim, to their winter grazing plot down in the Verde Valley. Nowadays however, it’s a rare opportunity to cross this route as the trail is limited to just one group of travelers a week and is only open a total of 10 weeks throughout the year.

We started out early, gathering at the trailhead to air down and catch up with old friends while meeting a few new ones. There certainly wasn’t a lack of beautiful vehicles on this trail ride, and we even had a few older vehicles that are rarely seen on the trails these days. Near the front of the group and trying to avoid some of the dust, were two tastefully modified classic Ford Broncos and a CJ8 with some well-chosen upgrades. All of their occupants were upbeat and ready to enjoy the beautiful day that this morning was shaping up to be. Of course there were a few Toyota Tacomas and Jeep Wrangler JKs on the trip as well, with modifications ranging from mild to wild.

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It wasn’t long before the group set out on the trail leaving behind nothing but dust which quickly rose into the clear Arizona sky. Climbing slowly, we drove for a while around slight bends and curves before turning sharply towards a large hill off in the distance. Following the power lines, the road transitioned into a series of switchbacks that were impressive by almost any standard. The click and clanks of people shifting into four-wheel drive could be heard as everyone prepared for the climb in front of us. At the bottom of the hill we were greeted by a large yellow gate, which appeared capable of stopping a freight train before giving out. It required a special code from the forest service (and some serious elbow grease) to unlock it before entering the trail.

At the time, I couldn’t understand why such a thing would be necessary to guard the short 8-mile stretch of road, but we soon would find out.

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With a section of loose rock and tight turns that progressively became more difficult, we had officially started the climb. The experienced group handled the ascent with ease using delicate throttle application resulting in hardly any wheel spin or bumping over the rocks. As the elevation continued to rise, the views transitioned from impressive to spectacular. Sedona’s red rocks protruded from the green earth with a vibrant contrast that I have rarely seen before. Mark, who organized this trip, stopped the group at the peak to allow everyone to enjoy the view before continuing on. When everyone began loading into the trucks, I almost didn’t want to leave, but rumor had it even better things would lie ahead.

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Only a short distance after the trail began to flatten out, we found ourselves passing through a field of wild grasses and flowers. After jumping out of the Land Rover to take a picture, I could only hear the sounds of bees buzzing, the wind blowing through the flowers, and the ever-present yet gentle thrum of engines idling. It was one of those perfect moments that reminded me why we explore places off the beaten path—and why it’s so important to preserve the areas we visit. Eventually we continued down the trail between the hill tops, and along the epic ridges that seemed to reach out of the ground like giant roots from the base of the mountains.

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As we pulled up to another large yellow gate, the eight-mile trail was coming to a close, and admittedly, I was a little disappointed because I didn’t want it to end. I thought back on the sights we had seen and the beauty that was so abundant in nearly every direction. It was frustrating knowing I wouldn’t be able to return to this trail for at least a year, or probably longer. As we drove toward our next stop, I started noticing the occasional beer can, trash thrown throughout the woods, and soon after, a large section of forest that had burned completely to the ground. It stood as a sharp and sad contradiction to the beautifully protected area we had just left and led us to contemplate how people could be so careless.

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We soon rolled into our lunch stop next to hidden cabin. A remote little homestead, it was still mostly intact and was a fantastic sight to see. As Mark, our trip leader, explained its history we were again confronted with a story of general disrespect and ignorance. The cabin’s contents, which used to be plentiful and preserved, were broken, misplaced, and just plain stolen in some cases. We moved on to eat lunch trying to forget the damage and just enjoy the afternoon talking about adventures and one of the participants of the trail run gave us a basic lesson on preparing a proper first aid kit.

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After lunch, we folded up our camp chairs and made our way to the trucks for the short trip to Williams, Arizona where we’d meet up with pavement once again. It saddened me to realize that the limited access of Casner Mountain actually made sense. As much as I want to believe that everyone is as careful and responsible, as we try to be, the reality is that they are not. People tear up hills, rut out roads, and smash through bushes, streams, and just about anything else they come across. The remainder of the trip continued to stun us with its beauty, and impress upon us even further how important it is to protect these trails.

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Fortunately, thanks to programs like Tread Lightly, more and more people are traveling off-road responsibly while preserving the environment around them. There are still many out there though who have never even heard of treading lightly and don’t understand the damage they could be inflicting on the trails and this activity’s access rights. The Casner Mountain pass has made me realize that if we are to continue to enjoy this thing we call overlanding, we have to spread the word of responsible use to as many people as we can. If we don’t, the trails we all love will soon be closed down and our way of adventure will quickly begin to disappear.

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Casner Mountain trail is an absolutely stunning route and a must do for anyone who gets the chance. Although it is only open to trucks and SUV’s a few times a year with a special permit, it is open year round for motorcycle and ATV use and would make for an excellent ride.

To learn more check out the Coconino National Forest website here:

To learn more about Tread Lightly and what you can do to help, check out their website here:

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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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