Tales from the Trail: Arizona’s Mogollon Rim

By Bill Dragoo

For this Tales from the Trail, Bill and Susan Dragoo took Overland Expo’s Ultimate Overland Motorcycle 2022, Yamaha’s Ténéré 700, through a portion of the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route. The Ténéré 700 will be a part of other storytelling throughout the year. Follow the Ténéré 700’s adventures on its official landing page.

If I only had a day, or maybe two or three, I’d ride the deserts and mountains on my bike.

Bill Dragoo

That was all the time we had, but it was enough for Susan and me to sample Arizona’s premier off-pavement Backcountry Discovery Route (AZBDR). I rode the incredible dream machine, Overland Expo’s Ultimate Overland Motorcycle 2022, the Yamaha Ténéré 700 built by Eva Rupert. This motorcycle was set up to showcase some of the best bits and pieces available to the discerning adventure rider.

Susan followed me, piloting our trail-ready fifth-gen Toyota 4Runner. Since we were already in the area for Overland Expo West, why not poke around amongst the saguaro cactus and ponderosa pine of Arizona, and enjoy a night on the Mogollon Rim?

We blazed south out of Flagstaff past Lower and Upper Mary Lakes and Mormon Lake, barely mud holes now with the drought. Still, the ride was a nice way to wind down after a busy Expo. We arrived in Globe at the bottom of the Arizona BDR map’s Section 3 midday in time for a typical adventure rider’s lunch at Subway — a reliable start indeed.

The AZBDR route took us north to a turn-off on NF 203, or Cherry Creek Road, into the Tonto National Forest. This mildly groomed gravel road wound its way through tall saguaro cactus, arms outstretched to greet us, point the way or amuse us with their creative contortions. Who knows the motives of a cactus plant?

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

To our surprise, there were a couple of actual creek crossings with real water, not just mud or dry sand to suggest a route carved by some prehistoric rainfall. Cool shade urged us to linger beneath the cottonwoods but our aim was the Mogollon Rim by our second night on the trail. So, we moved on.

We crossed Cherry Creek north of Bee Canyon, skirting the slopes to our right, passing Bladder Canyon then turning up Banning Wash on NF 202. A switchback climb led us past Boulder Spring then on through Moonshine Gulch. I had only to squint when reading the names of these places to imagine it was 1889 and I was on a horse, saddle creaking as I rode along at sunset, looking for a place to bed down for the night.

Snapping out of my illusion, I maintained a decent pace on the T7, slowing now and then to check Gaia on my not-so-bright, 21st century iPhone. To my surprise, Susan appeared within seconds, putting the 4Runner’s Icon Stage 7 suspension through its paces. Nostalgia meets technology.

Cattle signs (cowboy speak for cow patties) reminded us we were sometimes on private land and to be respectful of our bovine hosts. We slowed and eased past the small groups of Angus reluctant to moo…ve over. Baby calves kicked up their heels at us as if to say, “I’m not ready to be your burger yet.” Apologies to PETA and my vegan wife. 

Rock formations came and went, teasing us to guess what form the next one would take. Someone had taken advantage of one particularly interesting shape to stack stones into a cairn, marking the way for those who would come later. Did a modern rider of the BDR do this, or was it a restoration of an ancient road sign of sorts? Who knows, but we took the bait and kept a pace that allowed us to look around, not just lock our eyes on the trail as though it were a racetrack.

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

This was a fine way to ride the backcountry. But we still adhered to the BDR’s “Ride Right” campaign on blind turns, maintaining awareness for oncoming traffic, even though we seldom met another vehicle. It would only take one errant encounter to ruin the day, or for us to ruin theirs.

Peach Flat and Lone Pine Divide continued the western theme and I began to see the wisdom in the descriptive names, fitting for the surrounding terrain.

READ MORE: How-to: Ride Adventure Motorcycles on the Rocks

We left the main route for the expert section on Primitive Road 54 at Middleton Mesa and began looking for a decent campsite. We had passed many along the way but for the sake of making a few more miles we risked them for a suitable place later. We found what we were looking for, a flat spot along the rocky double-track climbing into the forest. A few old fire rings suggested others had shared our thoughts. We circled our wagons, as it were, parked the 4Runner near the Ténéré, and popped up our tent.

It was a dry camp with no fires allowed during the drought, but we made do, entertaining ourselves with the Sky Map app to identify a few of the countless constellations and brighter stars. There was a time when the heavens were the most interesting objects of attention for our ancestors, before electronic media and 12-volt fridges chilling bratwurst and Chardonnay. We managed a reasonable balance between then and now.

Youngsters

Dawn comes early in these parts, with first light before 5 a.m. Still, we slept in, finally stuffing our tent and sleeping bags around 5:45. It’s easy to make miles if that’s the desire, with such long days in May. It was 7:00 a.m. by the time we’d had our breakfast of oatmeal and tea but there was nobody around to judge us.

We found the expert section not so rough on the Ultimate Overland motorcycle and tricked-out 4Runner with only a few mildly sketchy climbs and descents. The +25mm, TracTive suspension may have had something to do with the ease with which the Ténéré negotiated the rocks.

The trail eventually dumped us out at the historic town of Young. The Hoghland General Store caught our eye as we drove by. Two old “Youngsters” peered at us over garden implements as we entered their open gate. There was no “open” sign. However, their presence and the eclectic collection of ancient automobiles, aging buildings, and memorabilia demanded closer inspection. So, we obliged by courteously apologizing for the intrusion and explaining our attraction to the allure of their homestead.

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Both 70, Robin and Carla Alborn looked up from the waterline trench they were backfilling and graciously indulged our questions about their place. The store was first opened around 1920. Adjacent buildings were built in support of the establishment. The Alborns were in the process of restoring the structures and preserving the contents, which included numerous products sold in the early to mid -twentieth century and a few much older relics. Most of the cars and trucks sitting around could purportedly still run. The 1953 Alma travel trailer sitting outside was pristine inside and filled with period furnishings.

Past their prime but obviously still quite robust, our impromptu hosts reminded us that it’s when you stop living that the process of dying sets in. Their dream is to complete the venue and make it a museum, a monument to the rich and at times violent history of Young, aka Pleasant Valley. It was one of those stops you can’t help being thankful you chose to make. I believe we made new friends in Robin and Carla and we wished them the very best in their ambitious venture. May they forever be “Youngsters.”

It was time for gas, which we found at the minimalistic station and store on the hill just north of town. I noticed that it was for sale and asked the manager how much. She allowed that the property came with a trailer house and the acreage, store and all, could be had for “seven.” She said it was originally an even million but the price had recently been dropped. It was beyond my budget, so we paid for our gas and moved along.

Road manners

Adventure riding is so much more than just big bikes on dirt. Road manners, that is, the bike’s handling characteristics on pavement, are a big part of the allure and the sweeping curves of Heber Road provided an opportunity to let the T-7 have its head and dance. We came close to dragging the treetop-tall footpegs a few times but kept things well within a reasonable envelope of safety. The Bridgestone Battlax Adventure II tires gripped surprisingly well once warmed up. 

The pavement suddenly ended and we found ourselves at the doorstep of Forest Road 300, the Mogollon Rim Road. This amazing geological phenomenon was named after the Spanish governor of what was then the province of New Mexico, Juan Ignacio Mogollon.

The rim forms the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, and runs diagonally some 200 miles, presenting a 2000-foot escarpment from northern Yavapai County eastward nearly to the New Mexico border. The road itself skirts about 43 miles of the rim, with magnificent campsites and stunning overlooks. Hawks glide effortlessly, soaring on endless air currents and scouting for tender, unsuspecting critters.

READ MORE: Get Ready to Ride at Overland Expo Pacific Northwest

I drug my feet, figuratively speaking, to let the sun get low enough that I could convince Susan we should camp on the rim. We burned some time backtracking, looking for a trio of cyclists we’d passed earlier. We found them freshly stopped in a rim-side campsite, about to break out their gear for the night. They turned out to be a father, J.D. and his daughter and son, Juliette and Leo, from Canada.

J.D. was out for a few months and planned to ride his bicycle all the way home while Leo and Juliette only had a couple of weeks to spend with Dad on this trip. There are many ways to enjoy this fascinating section of the Arizona BDR, wheeled or by foot.

We found our own perfect camping spot near the Myrtle Point Lookout, about a half mile off the Rim Road on a rugged piece of two-track, eventually ending in a cul-de-sac next to the edge. We set up camp a short distance from the rim amongst the trees, for some protection from the winds we knew would come with sunset. The evening’s display was worth the early stop and it gave us ample time to enjoy a nice dinner as the sun made its final dive beyond the western mountains over the little town of Payson.  A spectacular ending to a glorious day. 

Mogollon Rim

Sunrise drew the curtain of shadow back from the western horizon, tucking it beneath the massive eyebrow of the Mogollon Rim and exposing the scene below to a new day. At 7,000 feet, the morning chill was perfect for a cup of hot tea and another simple breakfast of instant oatmeal. 

We left the Rim Road just beyond Barbershop Canyon. Soon giant ponderosa pine stood sentinel, marking a distinct pathway inland, almost like a river flowing into the ocean of trees below the rim. The road’s surface was well groomed and abandoned, urging a brisk pace. That is, until a family of elk bolted across within a few feet of my headlight. I curbed my enthusiasm and resumed a more leisurely stride through the woods. 

We saw a few trucks and a deer or two (one so close it forced immediate braking to prevent a crash), as we approached our Highway 87 crossing. Then we were increasingly alone again, the further we got from that lifeline to civilization. 

Continuing north, we turned off on 82 to cross Anderson Mesa, possibly the most persistently rocky section of the route, with miles of bone-jarring baby heads as we passed Long Lake and Canyon Diablo, possibly explaining some of the lack of vehicles. Cow Lake was a dusty oval beside the road and a fingerprint smudge on the map. 

Soon a ranch gate led to the last Expert section we would do this trip. A warning sign left no doubt our pass could be revoked for bad behavior. We respectfully left all gates as we found them, open and clear of the road or securely closed, and proceeded with amazement through yet another level of beautiful countryside. Dry, sandy washes, steep up and down hills strewn with rocks of all sizes, and fence line roads were a stark but pleasant contrast to the groomed National Forest roads linking us back to the rim. 

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

Photo by Susan Dragoo

We stopped for lunch in the sparse shade of a juniper, just beyond our route’s junction with the main AZBDR. As we sat there on a log, enjoying a sandwich and Oreos, the distinct sound of an LC8 motor broke the silence. It was the first bike we had seen on the trail since passing two travelers near Young. A couple on a KTM 1190 emerged through the sage and two familiar faces shocked us like a midnight sunrise.

Well-known authors, world travelers and D.A.R.T. Alumni Tim and Marisa Notier pulled up, chin bars open on their modular helmets, and brightened our day right there on the spot. They had stayed with us in Oklahoma only two weeks before, as they rode from Chicago to Overland Expo in Flagstaff. We shared snacks and a soda, reveling in another random encounter, not so foreign to an adventure rider. Once again, we said our goodbyes and continued on our paths to somewhere else.

Empty tanks and full hearts escorted us over the last few rugged miles and across the intersection of Interstate 40 into Winona.

If I only had a day, or maybe two or three, this is exactly how I would like to spend them. I’d ride the deserts and mountains on my bike, making new friends and meeting old ones along the way.

About BDR: Free GPS tracks for the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route are available at www.ridebdr.com. Maps and videos are also available.

About the author: Bill Dragoo is a BMW Motorrad Certified Off-Road Instructor and owns and operates D.A.R.T. (Dragoo Adventure Rider Training) in Norman, Oklahoma. All brands are welcome. www.billdragoo.com

Photo by Brett Willhelm

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