Heading west on Bloody Basin Road from Interstate 17, the desert expands like a balloon. And the road itself, which turns immediately to dust and gravel, winds through low-country scrub as it inches into the Bradshaw Mountains.
Once known as the Silver Mountains, the Bradshaws were renamed for brothers Isaac and William Bradshaw, two of the earliest pioneers to find gold in the region.
While resulting settlements at Bumblebee, Crown King, Goodwin, Bradshaw City, Cleator and other locations drew countless miners, they’d turned to ghost towns by the mid-20th century. You’ll stumble upon a few of them during this back-road adventure.
A little more than three miles after you’ve turned off the interstate, you’ll come to a junction. Turn left onto County Road 179 and pass a smattering of abandoned buildings. During a wet winter, patches of snow glisten in the shade and — at the higher elevations — you’ll see firs and spruce trees dusted with white.
At mile 6.4, veer right. Shortly after, you’ll come to another signed fork. Turn right onto County Road 59. You’ll enter the tiny town of Cleator at mile 10.6.
There, the town’s eight residents live in a series of small houses. On a sunny afternoon, you’ll find a few of them on the patio at Cleator Bar & Yacht Club, captained by a friendly gentleman from the nearby town of Mayer. His stories are worth the price of a couple of beers, so stop in for a chat and to learn a bit of the local history.
Continuing on, a one-lane bridge at mile 12 signifies that you’ve entered the Prescott National Forest. From here, it’s a gradual ascent to Crown King as the road cuts deeper into the mountains.
If you’ve heard of this journey before, it’s likely you’ve heard rumors of its grit.
They’re all true.
And this is the point on the road that high-clearance and some terrain-chewing tires become mandatory.
As you approach the Algonquin trailhead — which kicks off a nearly 6-mile trek through the Castle Creek Wilderness — great gaping views of the valleys below consume the scenery. They’ll swallow you whole until, at about mile 23.8, you crawl into Crown King.
The town, which boasts a population of just a little more than 100 residents, was named for the Crowned King mine (it was later shortened to Crown King). The mine produced an estimated $2 million in gold and — at its peak — had more than 500 buildings.
It was also the terminus of “Murphy’s Impossible Railroad,” which ran between Cleator and Crown King along a series of death defying mountain switchbacks. Sadly, the line died and much of the mining operations were gone by the late 1920s.
Today, though, the tiny town is bustling with ATVs, Jeeps and other 4x4s — typically on fair-weather weekends. And, a few old buildings still stand, including the Crown King Saloon. Once a brothel and bar, it’s now a bar and grill. The one-room schoolhouse still exists, too, and serves a number of local children.
But for an education in 4WD, continue on to Prescott via the Senator Highway. It’s a slow, bumpy haul, but it pays dividends in beauty. As an alternate, return the way you came, or hit Interstate 17 again by way of Bumblebee — another old mining town that deflated when the boom went bust.
How to Get There
Directions: From Phoenix, travel north on Interstate 17 for a approximately 60 miles to Bloody Basin Road (Exit 259). Go west (left) on Bloody Basin Road, and follow the signs for Crown King, approximately 23.8 miles down the dirt road. The road is suitable only for high-clearance vehicles, and 4WD is recommended. Do not attempt the route in inclement weather.