will tell you it was formed by a great upheaval followed by flooding and erosion in the Mesozoic age. Geographers will tell you it measures 200 miles long and forms the southern end of the Colorado Plateau.
Ordinary folks simply stand on its most dramatic point and gaze up at its 2,000 foot-high rock facings and try to find words to match it magnificence. But most never give a second thought to the particulars of its course, what’s along it, or what it means.
The answers to those questions lie along Forest Service Road 300, The Rim Road, anchored on the west by the communities of Strawberry and Pine and on the east by Show low, Pinetop, and Lakeside.
The drive covers a major portion of the Rim, 120 miles, some of them rough; passing campgrounds, hiking trails, seven lakes, and numerous lookouts. It offers abundant wildlife-viewing in three national forests – Coconino, Tonto, and Sitgreaves.
Plan for at least two days and don’t expect easy answers: alive, theatrical, always changing – the Rim is an elusive character.
Even its signature pine trees, so thick in the journey’s earliest stages east of Strawberry and Pine, give way at the 12.5-mile mark. The dirt road curls through thick stands of ponderosa pines before suddenly opening to a pasture of stripped poles standing bare, their limbs outstretched like grasping arms. More than a decade ago, the lightning sparked blaze later named the Dude Fire burned the trees. Hundreds of blackened and ghostly logs nearly covered the ground nearby. The effect appears almost gothic.
But it fits perfectly. The Rim, a place of extremes, inspires grand, sometimes lunatic ideas.
In 1883 the operators of the Arizona Mineral Belt Railroad set out to lay track from Flagstaff south through the pine forest, over the Rim to Tonto Basin and on to Globe. But they had no intention of going over the Rim. No, these fellows planned to dynamite a hole through it, fashioning a tunnel 3,000 feet long and 16 feet wide.
Entrepreneurs actually stood atop the imposing mass, hands on hips, gazed at their surroundings, eventually without anything approaching normal human awe, and said “Sure, we can do this.” Men hired to drive the spikes received no pay, agreeing to take company stock as compensation. Globe’s Arizona Silver Belt newspapers reported the laborers worked just as hard as if “they were making $4 a day, cash.”
Modern-day visitors can relive their hallucination by hiking down the Railroad Tunnel Trail (TR390). It begins off TR 290, 12 miles from the start of FR 300, and makes its curling, boulder-strewn way down the Rim. The hike measures only a bit longer than a half-mile, but proves steep and challenging. Somewhere here, amid the plunging canyon sides and nasty shrub tangles, hides the tunnel opening, said to have penetrated 70 feet by the time the on-again, off-again work finally stopped in 1887.
The Rim has attracted people with outrageous ideas, and some succeeded. Gen. George Crook’s Troops in 1872 began construction of a trail connecting Prescott’s Fort Whipple to the west with Fort Apache, a feat of amazing grit at a time when the Rim rated as wild as any place in the Territory. His trail later became the third major road built in northern Arizona.
Today’s Rim Road parallels Crook’s Trail in some areas and overlaps it in others, such as at Kehl Springs Campground, about 7 miles east of Strawberry, easily recognized by the old-fashioned split-rail fence that surrounds it. Small chevrons nailed to trees mark the overlapping places. Even some of the original blazes that Crook used to mark the way remain etched high in the bark of the pines.
Crook’s vision helped with the Apache wars, but the going proved perilous, his successes achieved one ax swing at a time. The rim doesn’t present such danger today, but modern travelers should know that the big rock retains its own temperament, even its own weather.
Conditions might be moderate in, say, Heber, or even at Bear Canyon and Knoll Lakes, just north of 300. But venture down to one of the many collision points, places where the outside world rises to meet the Rim, and watch out. The temperature plummets. The clouds drop so low they flatten your hairdo, and the wind might just scoop you up and deposit you into a different area code.
Al Fulton Point, at the western intersection of the Rim Road and State 260, offers something like that. Stand at is promontory and gaze down at a mob of ponderosas, a deep green ocean that ripples softly over the miles, interrupted by a brown dot of a ranch clearing here or there, back to the blue mountains, each ranch defined by a ragged line that grows fainter as it goes, the mist thickening, until finally, the last one is shrouded in silver, the way heaven must look. The beauty will capture you. It does anyone who breathes oxygen.
Don’t be surprised to find visitors, any time from dawn through the blackest part of night, sitting in a dreamlike state at one promontory or another. Western writer Zane Grey, who wrote several of his books nearby at a cabin on Tonto Creek, once told an interviewer that he liked to sit on the Rim and ponder.
As I stood at Fulton, one hand resting on a pine tree, a terrific wind gusted up and stout as it was, I felt that tall pine swaying against my hand. At other viewpoints, such as the one below Woods Canyon Lake, you might notice wooden crosses and metal markers nailed to trees by family and friends who gathered to heave a loved one’s ashes over the edge. (The Forest Service discourages this practice).
That’s the Rim for you, a chuckling chameleon. Beauty one moment, the threat of eternity the next – but still brimming with life, hidden though it might be.
Yes the rim is a place of mystery, beauty, and intrigue. It is surrounded by history on all fronts and is for all of us to explore. When you visit Payson, and we hope you will - take a few days to visit our museums and gain an understanding of the Rim. Then go and see it! It will blow your mind and leave you breathless.