A Model T 'road'
Next time you travel North out of the Verde Valley toward Flagstaff watch your surroundings as Interstate-17 rises away from Highway 179 (the Sedona exit) and climbs across a broad expanse of rolling, juniper-covered terrain. Geologists call this area 'the ramp basalts.' Those long-cooled sheets of molten lava which once rolled like red waves into the shallow, brackish lakes of the Verde Basin have provided a route in an out of the Verde Valley for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. You can hike one of these pre-interstate routes on a trail known as the Old Munds Highway. The Old Munds Highway trail traverses a US Forest Service administrative area signed as the 'Rattlesnake Quiet Area.' Hiking gurus Richard and Sherry Mangum accurately describe the Old Munds Highway from its northern TH in their 'Flagstaff Hikes' book. This description deals with the southern TH, as if the reader/hiker were arriving from Phoenix or other points south.
Drive past the Sedona turnoff , continue north and exit at the Stoneman Lake Road. From the off ramp stop sign, turn right and proceed 4.5 miles along a paved but bumpy road. At the 4.5 mile mark you will note an obvious cattleguard on the left. Park in this area. A nearby interpretive sign gives brief homage to the historic Palatkwapi Trail that roughly parallels Stoneman Lake Road. Prehistoric peoples used this route to travel to the salt, copper and hematite mines of the Verde Valley for hundreds of years. The exploration party of Spaniard Antonio De Espejo followed Hopi guides along this trail to what's now known as Jerome in May 1583.
The Rattlesnake Quiet Area technically begins at this point. Supposedly, the area is closed to vehicular traffic from August 15 to December 31 so people can enjoy a quiet experience. More on this later. Note a well worn, very rough, rock-cobbled road leading north from the parking area. Walk down this 'two-track' and you will note a Forest Service carsonite sign with the number '80' on it. This is the trail and Forest Road '80' shows up on all editions of the Coconino Forest map. About a quarter mile or so from the parking area, bear left at the 'Y.' The road crosses a small drainage and climbs gently along the side of a scenic basalt bluff. About a mile from the TH, the road tops the bluff and begins to decend into another drainage, losing about 200 feet along the way. A portion of this section of the roadway is flanked by various interesting plants. Apparently, some water must be seeping nearby as some willows are growing in unlikely spots. Some intriguing canyon walls are visible downstream as the drainage takes on the more pronounced characteristics of its topograhical namesake: Rattlesnake Canyon.
As the road/trail decends into the drainage, you will notice some excellent examples of early 20th Century road building in the primitive road cut along the way. As you walk along a road which was built around the time of Arizona statehood you will probably be struck by its juxtaposition with a panoramic vista of tractor-trailers groaning their way up the last steep pitch of nearby I-17.
You may wish to pause and reflect on the Northbound Lane of this Interstate here. Have you ever wondered why it exists? The two Northbound lanes of I-17 were built specifically to carry cement from Clarkdale, Arizona, to the Glen Canyon Dam site near present-day Page, Arizona. The Redwall Limestone exposed along the Verde Fault near Jerome provided the most convenient source of high quality, economical cement. Believe it or not, during the first year of construction of the dam, the cement haulers actually negotiated the switchbacks at the head of Oak Creek Canyon. Cement trucks worked 24/7 in those days and every speck of cement in that damn dam was hauled up from the Verde Valley!
As the road/trail crosses the drainage, note the scars high up on the truck of the large ponderosa clinging to life in the floodway. Those scars are from flood debris carried by sudden snowmelts pulsing down from the Rim toward Phoenix. By this time you realize you are walking straight toward the interstate, getting closer and closer until you are walking within a literal stone's throw of the guardrail. Ample litter bits have been washed off the interstate's shoulder down into this road/trail's treadway.
Eventually, the trail winds into an old 'borrow pit' which provided material for construction of the highway. We've always wondered why they call them 'borrow' pits when nobody ever gives back what they excavated out. Look closely on the north side of the old pit and you will see the ancestral road climbing the smooth side of a basalt hill. The treadway turns pretty rough in this area. Keep going another half mile and the trail becomes a typical Forest Service road which eventually reaches a closure gate and another sign marking the north boundary of the Rattlesnake Quiet Area.
The elevation gain from the bottom of the drainage to this point is about 500 feet. This point makes a good turnaround. We spent a little more than a couple of hours hiking from Stoneman Lake Road to the north boundary and a little less than a couple of hours hiking back. Throw in a few stops to watch an elk herd and eat some lunch and our total time was 4:45 for an 8 mile round trip. The aggregate elevation gain walking in and out of the drainages was about 800 feet.
We'd classify this hike as easy to possibly moderate. The views of some of the Verde Valley and some of the Red Rocks over by Sedona are pretty good but not the best available in this region.
The crowning irony of this excursion is the dubious distinction given the area by the Forest Service. We speculated it was possibly someone's bureaucratic idea of a joke. About three-quarters of the hike is dominated by the truly thunderous roar of tractor-trailer traffic. Mufflers, jake brakes, crunching gears, belching diesels, the whine of turbochargers and the occasional blaring horn are certainly a far cry from anyone's idea of 'quiet.' There are only relatively small potions of this trail where one is out of sight of the Interstate highway, too. As a trail, the old road has a pretty fair treadway. As a vehicular route, the road would rate either horrible or terrible. There are some spots which would challenge even gonzo four wheelers. So, it's kinda of funny to think that the Forest Service closes off an area where few sane people would want to drive their vehicles while subjecting quiet seekers to the same horrendous roar that has made the Black Canyon Freeway so famous in Phoenix. Go figure! (We did call the ranger station for some detailed information about the Rattlesnake Quiet Area but the two people we talked to couldn't answer our questions.)
We hiked this section of roadway to reflect on the trials and tribulations of early road builders and adventurous travelers of the budding 20th Century. Getting in and out of the Verde Valley was a real chore in those days and, if this was the main route in and out back then, we can surely understand why the Verde was an economic and cultural backwater until the development of the Interstate turned the ever growing hordes loose on Sedona and its neighbors.
The Old Munds Highway draws it name from a pioneer family whose name also marks other topographic and cultural features of Northern Arizona. The route eventually reached the Verde Valley via the Blue Grade Highway, a four mile remnant of which is now known as 'the back road to Montezuma Well. and Rimrock.'
Check out the Official Route.
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.