A recon to a sky island

Mingus Mountain from the west near Jerome.
Mingus Mountain from the west near Jerome.

When I think of the Verde Valley I also think of Mingus Mountain.  The two are locked together in my mind.  The desert lowlands  and forested high country.

The sad thing is that for all the times I’ve visited the Valley, driven along Interstate 17 through Camp Verde and all the times I’ve looked up at that high ridge of overhanging mountains, I had not once been to the top of the highest, the  flat-topped Mingus Mountain.

It was a hot afternoon in early August, and after brunch at a Denny’s in the sultry river town of Camp Verde, I decided to make at least a recon of Mingus with the intent of someday hiking to the very tip-top and adding it to my list of Arizona peaks summited.

It is not the easiest thing to get up there.

Mingus Mountain and its towers from the Viewpoint.
Mingus Mountain and its towers from the Viewpoint.

For one thing, you have to put brakes on your mental outlook.  You have to change gears.  You have to leave behind cruise-control, monotony and the speed of I-17, the only direct route between Phoenix and the high country around Flagstaff.

You have to leave all of that for a languid drive up the Valley toward the booming city of Cottonwood.  You have to be ready for round-abouts and unexpected turns, then up a serpentine two-laner called 89-A to the bustling tourist town of Jerome, at about 5,000 feet, and then more steeply-winding pavement upward for another 8 miles at snail-speed to the pass at 7,000 feet.  It is enough to drive an urban man crazy.

It was there at the pass that I found myself turning east for once, along the dusty track that is Forest Road 104.

Usually, I stayed on 89-A, venturing to or from Prescott.  I had no memory of this turn-off at all.  I did know that it was possible to drive on top of Mingus, if not the 7,815-foot summit itself.

At the top of the hang-glider runway.
At the top of the hang-glider runway.

FR 104 quickly turned into a well-maintained dirt road, easily wide enough for two cars to pass.  But it was bumpy, like surfing a washboard.  Big deal.  No problem for the low-riding Honda Civic coupe and its new set of shock absorbers and struts.

The road runs eastward about 2 1/2 miles through Prescott National Forest land, and as I plugged along I discovered a couple of things I should’ve already known.  This was not lonesome country.  Nor was it typical Sonoran Desert landscape.

Numerous vehicles were parked in a Methodist church campground and at the mud-hole identified by signs as Mingus Lake.  The mud-hole was being fished by anglers sitting on the banks, while others picnicked nearby.   Other vehicles were coming and going along the 104.

Hang-glider waiting for a pilot.
Hang-glider waiting for a pilot.

And, too, Mingus was a sky island.  To the astonishment of many visitors to the sere Southwest, the higher mountaintops are covered with trees.  Often they are pines.   Shut your eyes on the way up to the pass from Cottonwood, then suddenly open them on top of Mingus.  You would not believe how lush it looks with a forest of Ponderosa pine and Gambel oak.

Most remarkable was the temperature, 76 F.  That was 30 degrees less than the Phoenix high, 20 less than at Camp Verde and about 15 down from Cottonwood.  It was wonderful.

I came to the end of the road at the Mingus Mountain Campground.  At the four-way stop, you can take a right to the Viewpoint, a left to the hang-gliding area and cellphone towers.  I chose to go straight ahead, across a perpendicular road and into a parking lot with a shaded picnic table with a sign that said $5 use fee.  A hiking trail, #106, starts down at the far end.  It was getting late, and I wanted to see everything else up here.

At the Viewpoint I peered down on a wide panorama of the Verde Valley and Cottonwood.  On north were the red mountains of Sedona, and behind them on the horizon, the San Francisco Peaks, the highest ground in Arizona.

Looking north past Mingus to Red Rock Country.
Looking north past Mingus to Red Rock Country.

From there I drove north up to the hang-glider area, passing the ugly metal towers, fenced in with razor wire like military zones.  There is a launching point beyond the towers with a short cement runway and a sudden drop-off into space at the end of it.  A hang-glider rested nearby under a cover of Ponderosa, a wind instrument at its side.  You can soar off Mingus and down to the airport in Cottonwood with some precautions and rules stated on a sign.   Trail #105 heads out from the left.

I had no idea where the actual tip-top of Mingus is.  Nor did I try to find it this day.  Another trip.  At least I know the lay of the land now.

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