Last weekend we took an impromptu drive to an area we had not experienced before. We do this occasionally when the whim strikes. Years ago, we once left our house on a Saturday morning to go to the bank, an expected twenty-minute errand. We pulled back into our driveway some thirteen hours later, having made a grand tour of the northern California gold country, including a stopover at Donner Pass and lunch in Nevada. Sometimes you just gotta go.

Last Saturday was just as serendipitous an outing, but we knew this one would take a while. Our goal: Traverse the Rim Road (NFS-300) from its intersection with AZ 260 in the east to AZ 87 in the west. The Colorado Plateau spans the northern part of Arizona with a near shear drop of 2,000 ft. to 3,000 ft. It provides beautiful overviews of the region’s forests and is home to several lakes and is a popular camping and hunting location. We had visited Woods Canyon Lake (1) previously so didn’t need to make that stop, but Willow Springs Lake (2) and Bear Canyon Lake (3) were on our agenda. I was primarily scouting for sunrise / sunset and Milky Way photo shoot locations; my lovely bride was along for the ride and moral support. As it turned out, the moral support came in handy.

The smartest thing we did was stop at the ranger station to get good information. The not so smart part was rushing out of the house without slowing down to really think our great idea through and prepare adequately. Lesson learned.

We started at Willow Springs Lake, just a mile or so east of the 260/300 intersection. It has good views to the east, so-so to the west, but I did find a good sunrise shot. We made our way to the shoreline and I began exploring for just the right composition. I was planning to take a couple of quick shots, so I would have them for reference and to mark the spot’s coordinates (that helps when stumbling about in the early morning dark with a full load of gear). Just as I got the camera onto the tripod it started to hail. Hail! We quickly scampered back to the truck and eventually tired of waiting, at which point we set off again.

We bypassed Woods Canyon Lake and headed for Bear Canyon Lake. There is one very important thing to note about the turnoff to Woods Canyon Lake, however. That is where the paved portion of NFS-300 ends. We were five miles in to a thirty something mile drive that took us nearly four hours. The road is referred to locally as “one heck of a washboard.” I rather think the drive was like sitting on top of a jackhammer for four hours.

We found the west shoreline of Bear Canyon Lake, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Following up on a tip, we backtracked to find the eastern shore. We never did find it (actually, we drove past the TINY dirt track that leads to it several times in our search) and eventually turned to the west again on NFS-300. What followed was hours, about half of it in the dark, navigating “jackhammer road” as I now call it, along the edge of the rim. I did find a nice forest grove (4) with beautiful ferns, and an awesome overlook that will be a good Milky Way shot (5) next week.

We ended up in Pine, AZ at the Old County Inn (6), our favorite local pizza pub hangout for a late evening dinner. All in all, a long and “oh my aching back” kind of day, but also one filled with good company, beautiful scenery, and a few laughs. We were fortunate that our lack of planning did not come back to haunt us.

It is always good to review lessons learned, and we had a few notes for our next trip to the area:

  • Leave earlier and check the weather before you close the door behind you!
  • Take SIG with you whenever you venture into remote areas.
  • Find your location for night shots during the afternoon, then wait for it (better than stepping off the edge of the rim in the dark).
  • There is a good stand of Aspen and Maples along the road to Bear Canyon Lake that will be colorful in a few weeks.

And of course, there were a few highlights along the bone jarring road. We saw elk grazing among the pines, found that fern covered forest floor, laughed with our newfound “camp buds” while dodging the hail, ate some fine pizza with staff that are now friends, and finally pulled into our own driveway. The biggest highlight, however, may have been the visit to our chiropractor. Like I said, sometimes you just gotta go.