Monday, June 09, 2014

US Hwy 191: Coronado Trail — "Devil's Highway"

US191 north of Clifton, AZ, is also known as the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, which purportedly approximates the path taken by the explorer between 1540 and 1542. Because it was once called "Highway 666" it also has the nickname "Devil's Highway" — a name it well lives up to.

In the 90 miles between Clifton and Alpine, various fans of the Trail have counted the number of its "turns" — many of them switchbacks — in the 450 range. With probably twice that many "curves" there is little, if any, room for straights. Topographically, the route climbs from 3500 feet to almost 9000 feet, with numerous multi-thousand-foot climbs and dives along the way.

While researching the Trail on the internet, I came across many descriptions of it using words like steep, twisty, scary, dangerous, nauseating and "not recommended for trailers." It is a very popular route for motorcycles and performance cars, but otherwise not much used. In fact, the Coronado Scenic Byway has been measured to be the least used federal highway in the country, averaging only one vehicle every 20 minutes.

I really wanted to drive the Coronado, partly because it is a legitimate segment of US191, but also because it is a famous drive. While you can't believe everything you read on the internet, you also shouldn't be stupid and disregard any intel. As is my wont, I decided to scout it out for myself.

I started by mapping a possible detour between Clifton and Alpine which goes through neighboring New Mexico, a route that Google Maps persistently suggests as the only way to get there. Then, I scheduled my departure from Safford early enough in the morning to arrive in Clifton the minute the visitor center opened. There's nothing better than getting reliable intel from people who actually live, work and drive there.

My timing was perfect. As I pulled into the parking lot, a couple of the center's volunteers pulled in next to me. I told them my story and asked for their honest opinion. They looked at my good, new truck and my short, light camper then said, "Take it easy and you won't have any problem." That was good enough for me, so I set off on the drive.

Along the way, I shot over 200 photos with my dash-cam and can't believe how poorly they show the challenging turns, curves, climbs and dives of the road. You just don't get the same sense of it in two dimensions as you do in three. That said, here are a few photos that at least give the impression:

I was in 2nd gear most of the time, often in 1st and only occasionally in 3rd. My average speed was about 20mph, often as low as10mph and a few times up to 30mph. I continue to be very impressed with the engine/transmission control of my F-150 which allowed me to use the brakes only once in a while. The drive was a good workout for me and my rig, but at no time would I say it was scary or overly dangerous. My dog Happy slept the whole time, of course.

I had a little more success with representative photos taken while dismounted during some of my many stops. It really is a beautiful road and you'll just have to drive it to get the full effect.

One highlight was when Happy and I stopped for lunch in this picnic area. The sun was out, the sky was blue and the temperature was a perfect 75 degrees. She ran around like a maniac, enjoying a long overdue romp among green trees and wonderful scents carried by a pleasant breeze. I sat on a bench and ate, alternating mouthfuls of food with laughing out lout at my dog's antics.

Because of my early start, I was prepared for the 90 mile drive to take as long as 8 hours, at least twice the "usual" drive-time of 3-4 hours. In the end, it took me 6 hours, comprised of about 4.5 hours driving (20mph average) with about 1.5 hours of stops along the way. Even if I had a faster, more nimble rig, I don't think I'd do it any quicker and cheat myself out of the chance to enjoy it.

If you're ever in the area, make a day of driving the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway. I think any decent driver in a good condition vehicle can make the trip if you take your time. Contrary to the internet's many cautions, I also think it's safe for pulling trailers up to about 26 feet in length, provided you have good power, brakes and downshifting control. Larger trailers or poorer equipment can probably do it, but I think you'll face sufficient discomfort to detract from what really is an exceptionally fun and beautiful drive.

With two solid weeks of miserable desert heat — and now the post-Coronado Trail drive adrenaline crash — behind me, I'm going to stay here in Alpine for a few days. It's too beautiful, sunny and cool not to enjoy. Plus, my dog Happy is downright giddy laying out in the shade of her tree, smelling the alpine air and romping in the fields. She's been a wonderful sport throughout our desert ordeal and deserves a nice break, too… Stay tuned!

Click here to see exactly where I am posting this from on Google Maps.

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