Scott’s Big Adventure, Day Sixteen: Springerville to Benson [feat. The Coronado Trail]

Day Sixteen dawned with clear blue skies, calm winds, and perfect temperatures. Time to ride!

Ride Through the White Mountains on the Coronado Trail

I headed south from Springerville on Highway 191, which heads up into the White Mountains and continues south hugging the far eastern side of Arizona. Apparently the White Mountains are a popular summer vacation area for people seeking to escape the heat of Phoenix. I saw lots of resorts and recreational areas as I traveled along Hwy 191, especially at the northern end just south of Springerville.

As I continued further south and got higher up in the mountains, the road turned into a twisty, windy roller coaster. This part of the ride was a lot of fun, but there isn’t a lot of video or pictures to show for it because I was too busy trying to stay on the road to bother much with those. I’m glad I waited an extra day for the weather to blow over. Riding this road in high winds and rain would have been risky. A lot of the curves had no guard rails; one false move and over the edge you go. But once I got into the rhythm of braking and turning and accelerating, it was a blast!

This road is called the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway because the Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado lead an expedition up this way from Mexico in search of the golden city of Cibola in 1540. He never found Cibola–because it doesn’t exist–but instead ended up crossing modern-day New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, reaching eastern Kansas before returning to Mexico. As I was riding this roller coaster, I kept thinking that poor Coronado could have found an easier way.

Massive Open Pit Copper Mine in Morenci

As you come out of the mountains at the southern end of the range, you encounter a MASSIVE open pit mine. This things must measure so 5-miles long (N-S) and a mile or two wide. The rode winds right through the middle of it, with fences on either side to keep visitors out. There’s one spot where you can watch these huge dump trucks being loaded and driven out of the pit up the side of a hill. They look like ants but when you are right beside them you realize that they are gigantic.

Here’s what it looks like from space:

I learned later that this is the largest copper mine in the world. I should say so. Gone are the days of the lone prospector with his wooden-shored mine and donkey-powered equipment. This is mining on an industrial scale. Passing through the company town of Morenci, I saw a train on a siding with nothing but tanker cars–at least 50 of them–full of sulfuric acid, which is used to extract the metal from low-grade ore. I wonder what happens to the waste?

Run in to Benson

Continuing on, after you get out of the foothills, the highway angles off to the southwest towards the town of Safford, which is pretty much the big city in this part of the state. This area is the upper end of the Gila River valley, so its pretty well irrigated and cultivated, and here’s where I found something surprising: They grow cotton here. Lot’s of it. Pretty much all of the fields I passed on the way into Safford where planted with cotton. I’d never actually seen cotton growing before with my own eyes, but there it was.

In Safford, I made a little navigational boo-boo and headed off in the wrong direction for a little white. I should mention that the Magellan GPS unit that I have leaves a lot to be desired for this type of travel. Among its other flaws is that it is practically impossible to see during the day due to the color scheme that they chose to use. Lots of pastels including some which are very similar in color. If I shade it with my hand, I can read some of the information, but if I want to see everything, I have to pull off the road and find a spot out of the sunlight. There’s no way to modify the color scheme. Bad design.

Anyway, I missed a turn in Safford and ended up going the wrong way for about 10 miles. A road sign told me I was headed for Phoenix. I checked the GPS and found it wanted me to make a u-turn, so I did. Got back to Safford, got on the right road, and that was that. The “right road” is still Hwy 191, which takes you directly south from Safford, and intersects Interstate 10. Getting on I-10 from this point takes you to the southwest in a loop around a mountain range, and eventually lands you in Tucson. At the bottom, or southernmost, part of the loop is the little town of Benson, which was my destination for the day.

Benson is yet another of these little mining towns, all of which were founded at around the same time, 1880 give or take a few years. Benson is about 20 miles north of Tombstone, which was where I was actually headed. But I try to stay away from spending the night in these tourist towns because the jack up all the prices.

Day Seventeen: Tombstone and vicinity.