Yarnell Hill: Hardly a place for tragedy

I’ve driven many a time up Yarnell Hill, stopping for breakfast at the little town of Yarnell, then across Peeples Valley, on my way to or from Prescott.  But not once did I ever think it possible a catastrophe of such magnitude could occur in these idyllic mountains of gray granite boulders and chaparral.  It is hard to get the mind around 19 firefighters killed in a single swoop up there.  Yet that’s what happened on June 30 during the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The road up Yarnell Hill is not well-known, even to Arizonans.  At least it wasn’t until yesterday, when on a late Sunday afternoon winds from an approaching thunderstorm took a dramatic turn south, trapping the Granite Mountain Hotshots in a fiery burst.

The switchback road, or state Highway 89, is the backdoor to Prescott from Phoenix and other points south.  And it is the best choice for those few who prefer a scenic route to the other major track, bland Interstate 17 and Arizona 69 far to the east, which is shorter and faster.

On weekends, you’ll often find the road filled with riders on motorcycles driven at low speeds, as they enjoy a relaxing trip through the mountains, the Weavers to the south and later approaching Prescott  the pine-topped Bradshaws.  Traversing the hair-pin curves among beautiful stands of Ponderosa, more than one rider has driven off the pavement and into trouble.

From the top of Yarnell Hill, you can see 80 miles or more, almost to Phoenix.  Over just 8 miles, the road rises sharply about 1,700 feet off the desert floor from the old mining town of Congress up to another wee town called Yarnell, which rests under the area landmark, a mesa called Antelope Hill.

On the way up to Yarnell, you find the foundation of an old restaurant with once-magnificent views of the desert below and a turn-out to a grand vista.  The restaurant ruins are no doubt a testament to changing times and “progress,” when people chose speed and expediency of the Interstate to beauty.

In the evenings, as the sun subsides, the views from up here are other-worldly.  You can look down on Arizona as it has always looked and take in the aroma of history.

Rich Hill sets just below.  Huge nuggets of gold were reported to have been discovered on top by among others Jack Swilling, one of the founders of Phoenix.

On the horizon to the south, there is distinctive Vulture Peak, a large volcanic plug near Vulture Mine, the most famous Arizona gold mine of Territorial days.

Snaking below to the southeast is the historic Hassayampa River.  It is dry in most places for much of the year.  The first white men to venture into central Arizona, the Walker Party in 1863, followed the river upstream in search of gold.  Their settlement, Prescott, became Arizona Territory’s first capital.

Just over the dry hills from Yarnell, and out of sight, is the scene of one of the biggest dam disasters in the West.  A large free-masonry dam south of the village of Walnut Grove burst in February of 1890 and killed about 50 people downstream.

In olden times, traveling up and down Yarnell Hill was avoided like the plague.  It was way too steep and rugged.  The old stagecoach road between Prescott and Phoenix, via Wickenburg and the Vulture Mine, circumvented Yarnell Hill to the west, through Date Creek and a no-man’s land once filled with danger, particularly from Indian ambushes at places like Bell’s Canyon.

The first road on Yarnell Hill was built in 1872.

The project was first discussed in June of that year as a toll road.  Several men, including noted Peeples Valley pioneer, Charles Genung, established a company to raise $5,000 for funding.  They planned to sell 200 shares of stock at $25 a share.  Like I-17 in modern times, the route would be shorter and faster — and likely become the most traveled route between Prescott and Phoenix.

The road went by several names.  The Genung Cut-Off and Antelope Hill were the most used before “Yarnell Hill.”  By early 1873, the route was used by light wagons but was still too rough for the larger ones moving freight.  Later, the Genung route was abandoned for a nicely paved highway to the southwest.

With the tragedy of June 30, this land of history and beauty is receiving a more dire reputation than it deserves.

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