Black Hills Back Country Byway – Safford/Clifton, Arizona
Enter the world of the past with this 21 mile long trek through history. This unpaved, but accessible to high clearance vehicles (during dry weather only) road to take you on the journey of the past. You will need at least 2 hours to make this trip and you won’t be able to take a travel trailer or any vehicle more than 20 feet long. These can be left at parking areas provided near kiosks at each end of the road.
This trip is made for the adventurists, not the rocking chair marathon participant. You will need to ake enough gas, water and other provisions for your trip since no services are provided along the byway. The side routes you will be faced with steep, rough, and rocky areas where washes make crossing them quite difficult, you sometimes can’t tell where the road is so be ready. Let someone know your travel schedule so if you get lost there is someone that knows where you were planning to go and can send help.
This area was inhabited by Native Americans as much as 1000 years ago where they farmed, hunted and gathered wild plant foods. The Chiricahua and Western Apache (who actually arrived in AZ around 1600) were from this area.
The Safford-Clifton Road was constructed by prisoners between 1914 and 1920.
This area is home to a number of wild animals such as the lizard, birds (who can fly for miles to get water), kangaroo rats, the roadrunner, whip-tailed lizard, and the diamondback rattlesnakes. Just think what you might see while taking your hike.
The higher elevations offer a different type of wildlife for you to see. Here live Gambel’s quail, coyotes and raptors such as red-tailed hawks and kestrals. The animals come to this area in late summer to eat the bright red fruits of the prickly pear cactus.
The highest areas of the byway pass through a community of evergreen trees and shrubs: juniper, pinyon pine, and oak. This is called interior chaparral, and it is the rainiest and coolest of the plant communities. Trees attract migratory birds that come north from the tropics each year to breed. White-crowned sparrows and rufous-sided towhees feed on fallen seeds and insects under the bushes and trees. Birds such as phainopeplas eat mistletoe berries that are poisonous to humans. The thick vegetation at ground level makes it tough for reptiles to move around, although a few snakes, such as striped racers and Arizona black-tailed rattlesnakes are occasionally seen. The trees and thick brush make this the best for mule deer and javelina, but you have to look closely to see them moving across the hillsides.
The byway offers you the opportunity to engage in many challenging rides on your off-highway vehicle. The challenge for the mountain bicycler is certainly something that those that are good enough to enjoy this type of ride will remember for years to come. There is a great opportunity to do some quality rock collecting here too in the Black Hills Rockhound Area. Fire agate is a relatively new gemstone, only identified and formally recognized in the 1930s. It has the color play of precious opal with gem quality reds, greens, and blues.
The desert regions of Arizona, southern California, and central Mexico are the only areas of the world where fire agate is known to occur. Although its origin is unknown, it is always associated with volcanic deposits.
Hiking along side roads, trails, or cross-country will give you a most rewarding view of the area. You can camp or picnic on the public lands along the road and there are several developed sites available. Midway on the byway, the Canyon Overlook Picnic Area provides shaded ramadas with a scenic vista of the Gila River canyon. Closer to the east end of the byway is the Owl Creek Campground with seven units perched on a cliff overlooking the historic Old Safford Bridge. The south end of the bridge is a popular launch site for those floating the Gila River and for fishing for catfish. The north end of the bridge has a small picnic area. Mule deer, javelina, and quail can be hunted on public lands along the byway.
The byway crosses the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area between mileposts 17 and 18. Designated by Congress in 1990, the conservation area includes 22,000 acres of scenic desert canyons surrounding perennial rivers and creeks. A 15-mile segment of Bonita Creek and 23 miles of the Gila River, including the steep-walled Gila Box, form the core of the NCA. Two other perennial waterways, Eagle Creek and the San Francisco River, flow into the Gila Box. Rafting, backpacking, hiking, birding, horseback riding, photography, and camping are just a few to the popular activities in the area.
Location: The Black Hills Back Country Byway is located between Safford and Clifton in southeastern Arizona, about three hours northeast of Tucson or 3 1/2 hours east of Phoenix. Both ends of the byway are accessed from U.S. Highway 191. The southern end is at milepost 139, the northern end at milepost 160.
More information: Bureau of Land Management
711 14th Avenue
Safford, AZ 85546-3321