It is amazing. In less than 50 miles northwest of metropolitan Phoenix you can arrive in a mountainous world so desolate and yet so beautiful as to severely jar the city-dweller’s brain.
Out there along a 36-mile dirt and gravel path called North Castle Hot Springs Road you can find the Hell’s Canyon Wilderness, the one-time hospital where President-to-be John F. Kennedy stayed for three months in 1945 to rehab his WWII injuries, a few ranches, some mines, cattle, wild burros and many other wonders should you leave the car and venture in. The mountains shoot up a thousand feet or more belying their low elevations because the road itself is so low. But most of all, it was the stark Sonoran Desert landscape that proved the star.
I did the drive yesterday in my low-slung Honda Civic. It took forever, it seemed. I probably didn’t average much over 15 mph, the road being so rocky, steep and winding in places and in others flat on the sandiness of huge Castle Creek wash. Top speed was 25 but then I felt I was missing stuff and slowed down. And I stopped often to shoot, according to my software, 39 photos of various big things and small that caught the eye.
It began as a search for access to Hell’s Canyon Wilderness. When I couldn’t find one I just kept driving. For most of this sunny and windy afternoon, I was the only vehicle on the road. For miles and miles. The drivers of the few moving vehicles I saw were friendly and we exchanged waves, as if we were the few survivors on some distant planet and we needed each other. A breakdown out here is serious business.
Here and there, a smattering of cars was parked in turn-outs along the road, their drivers out of sight, hiking, hunting or whatever. Zillions of dirt roads, some no more than over-grown dirt paths, led off to god know’s where. Some to mines, some to ranch houses, I imagine. Some, like Champie Road and Buckhorn Road, even have modern sign posts.
I had some mildly cool water with me, but nothing to eat. No 7/11s out this way. I also carried a “survival” pack with GPS, compass, camera and the most valuable thing I own, a time-wrinkled notebook with jottings about the many hikes, recons and drives I’ve made. It’s irreplaceable.
The highlight of this trip, as usual, was the Castle Hot Springs Resort. It is the place JFK came to rest his wounds but is now in disrepair. It rests along the north side of the road with a dramatic southern view of Governor’s Peak. A small forest of palm trees covers the once-bustling yards around the place, and those trees form the startling first sight you see driving in from the east.
The old resort is going up for auction again, I’ve heard. It is completely fenced off from visitors with a guard at the gate. The guard, a well-fed blonde, sat on an ATV reading a book. She ignored me as much as possible. To irritate her, I moved around nearby shooting photos of the property. Finally, she turned her back to me and appeared to continue reading.
Just up the road west, I stirred up a half-dozen wild burros along the wash. Two stop in the sand to stare up at me from 100 yards away. Then all six decide in burro-talk to mosey into some trees where I could no long see them.
The wind picks up as I drive south and west. It is the harbinger of a storm expected to arrive this weekend. It should bring our first rain of the year. The land has been in a drought for many years now. Dry, yes, but coming around a bend in the road I see running water. The road is almost soaked through at one point. I did not stop to seek its origin as sunset was looming.
I arrived back home in darkness, tired and hungry. But it was a trip I will not forget soon. And the terrain inside the arc that is Castle Hot Springs Road leaves hope for exciting hikes and adventures into this no-man’s land so very close to the millions of urbanites to the southeast.