On the third and final day of our Southeastern Arizona adventure, we started early. Deborah Mendelsohn, our Simpson Hotel B&B innkeeper in Duncan, had prepared a delicious take-along breakfast for us the night before.
Normally, we would have slept in and enjoyed breakfast with her and the other guests, but we had a lot of ground to cover if we were to see all that we wanted to explore and still get home to Tucson in time to pick up our two dogs.
Since leaving Willcox and passing through Safford on our way to Duncan, we had been on the Salsa Trail.
The Salsa Trail extends about 240 miles and unites the towns of Safford, Pima, Thatcher, Clifton, Duncan, Willcox, and York. It also unites about a dozen Mexican restaurants, a chili farm, and a tortilla factory. You can get the Salsa Trail book here.
You can take it any time of year to sample the best Mexican food in the area, and more particularly, many varieties of salsa. But every year, the Graham County Chamber sponsors SalsaFest, sort of a block party that extend over 3 counties: Graham, Greenlee, and Cochise.
Leaving Duncan, we headed north to the once-vibrant mining town of Clifton. Clifton is an old copper mining town. No mine, no town. Rich copper deposits were first discovered here soon after the Civil War.
The San Francisco River runs through town. Over the last century, it has flooded and decimated Clifton several times. Now there’s a fine RV park along the river where houses used to be before the most recent flood.
While taking photographs around town, we met Marla who, with her husband, owns several historic building. She was kind enough to point out some of the more impressive features in and around Clifton, including the Potter Ranch B&B.
Update: October 2018; The Potter Ranch is currently listed for Sale. If I were younger...
On the National Register of Historic Homes, Potter Ranch was built in 1901 by a wealthy miner and the grandfather of the present owner and innkeeper, June Palmer.
You wouldn’t know it just by looking at it, but this lovely home was abandoned after a 1983 flood, and vandalized during the six years it sat vacant. Ms. Palmer, an acclaimed artist, reclaimed the property in 1989 after a 50-year absence, and restored the home to its original Victorian décor.
Most of the buildings along the narrow main street that runs through what was once a thriving downtown district are boarded up now. But at the north end is the museum and offices of the Greenlee County Historical Society.
The exhibits chronicle the long history of this area, from paleo-Indians and Coronado’s Expedition, to Apaches, and most recently miners, ranchers, and other pioneers.
There are 3 places to dine out in Clifton: PJ’s, El Corralito (Pizza & Mexican), and Tyler’s Taste of Texas BBQ. All were closed the early Sunday morning we were in town.
As for lodging, if there’s no room at the Potter Ranch, we highly recommend the Simpson Hotel B&B in Duncan.
Today, the big copper mining activity is at Morenci’ just up the road from Clifton. They say it’s the biggest open pit mine in the Western Hemisphere. But the ‘pit’ is not just a hole in the ground like the Lavender Pit Mine in Bisbee.
The mine in Morenci’ is vast, leveling whole mountains for as far as the eye can see. The Morenci’ Mine offers a tour, which undoubtedly would have been interesting, but we didn’t have time.
You may decry the wholesale destruction of the environment up here, but modern civilization depends as much on copper as on fossil fuels.
Black Hills Country Byway
After several hours exploring Clifton and Morenci’ we headed south a ways and picked up the Black Hills Country Byway. This unpaved road was once the main thoroughfare between Safford and Clifton. Now it’s a scenic back road that takes adventurous people through rough, beautiful back country and across the Gila River.
Along the way are 2 campgrounds with ramadas, and several exceptionally fine picnic areas that we will add to our ‘Best Of’ list. As to the campgrounds, we've seen a lot better. No trees. Just barren ground. But they are well located for exploring or rafting the Gila.
We noted several primitive side roads that beckon off-road enthusiasts. We were driving a high-clearance vehicle, but lacked both time and four-wheel drive capability. Another time, perhaps.
The Byway crosses the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area between mileposts 17 and 18. This conservation area includes 22,000 acres of scenic desert canyons and several perennial rivers and creeks.
Here you will find a 15-mile segment of Bonita Creek and 23 miles of the Gila River, including the steep-walled Gila Box. Two other perennial waterways, Eagle Creek and the San Francisco River, flow into the Gila Box. Rafting, backpacking, hiking, birding, horseback riding, photography, and camping are popular activities in the area.
There’s even an area set aside for rock hounds. Here you may find fire agates, but the predominant geological feature is volcanic rock. This special rock hound area makes a great day adventure for collectors.
The site is open for digging by the public without fees or permits. Camping throughout the area is allowed for up to two weeks. Access is easiest from U.S. Highway 191, just east of milepost 141.
Just on the south end of the old Safford Bridge, which was built with prison labor in the ‘30’s, is were you can launch your inflatable raft or kayak and float down the Gila for miles.
Lower Eagle Creek
Most of this area is BLM land, but there are several cattle ranches long the Byway, and more than a few stray cows in the road.
Little Eagle Creek Road, which you can access just above the Morenci’ Mine, is another gateway to off-road adventures.
At the south end of the Byway is Highway 191/Route 70 and the little town of Solomon, named for the gentleman who made a fortune clear-cutting the surrounding hills to make charcoal for the smelters.
By this time we were hungry, but there were no restaurants open in Solomon or on the way to Safford on this Sunday morning.