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  • April 19, 2015

Following the open road

Florence-Kelvin Highway provides plenty of beautiful desert scenery in Pinal County

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Posted: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 1:00 am

Before the days warm up to unspeakable temperatures and weather pushes visitors and locals alike to the high country, one drive especially offers opportunities for close-up views of untouched Pinal County.

The county provides many scenic drives that show just how diverse and changing the desert really is depending on the season and the weather. But just east of Florence off Arizona 79 is a 32-mile stretch of partially paved road called Florence-Kelvin Highway that heads east through some of the most beautiful views of the Sonoran Desert.

The road, which connects with the Arizona Trail, is a great stretch for bikers and automobile travelers alike where the terrain changes often. There is plenty of room for vehicles to pass each other if they so choose.

The Arizona Trail is an 800-mile stretch from Mexico to Utah connecting many historic sites, with fascinating areas, nature hikes, the cliff dwellings at Tonto and Walnut Canyon National Monuments, Roosevelt Dam and many more attractions.

It’s a good idea to reset the mileage at the start of the highway to measure the mile markings and ease your mind as the end never seems quite in sight. But it’s not a negative. The entire trip takes under an hour.

The desert road is paved for only 12 miles, but then it turns into an easy-to-drive graded dirt road that winds its way through giant saguaros, wildflowers and ocotillos.

The real fun begins when the road enters a box canyon and temporarily turns sandy. Then the views become stunning as boulders appear almost out of nowhere. The large boulders are stacked on top of each other near a nice pull-off spot to take in the scenery for miles.

At this point a brief detour on Cochran Road leads you to some fields of smaller boulders, but the scenery is about the same. Many locals use the area for camping since it’s flat and wide open and incredible views both near and far.

“We camp here all the time,” Terry Milner of Phoenix said. “The quiet out here at night is almost unsettling, but to find a place like this that hasn’t been overpopulated is pretty great.”

A return to Florence-Kelvin Highway signals a slight change in the road, which opens up a little, but it’s still advised by locals to keep the speed near 25 miles an hour while winding your way through the land.

“You’re always going to find someone who just wants to get through here as fast as possible,” Milner continued. “But I don’t know why. There is so much to see and if you slow down and even pull over from time to time you have some really great photo opportunities.”

Shortly after the boulders, you come up on the The Boulders at Skyrise, which is a non-developed spot that is gated but also home to yuccas as far as the eye can see. In fact, just as the saguaro’s start to disappear is when the yuccas come into view.

If you’re lucky, you can even come across the many varieties of wildflowers and cacti already in bloom and maybe even cattle that can get out from time to time.

Near the 18-mile mark in your trip the Tortilla and Dripping Spring Mountains come into view and are a spectacular backdrop for the thousands of cacti that inhabit the area. The mountains are split by an open mine pit. Just after the mountains and a mine come into view a riparian area fed by the Gila River jumps out of the desert terrain with a lush green splash of color that breaks from the traditional oranges, reds and browns of the desert.

After some more twisting, turning and climbing, the road finally comes out onto pavement and connects with Arizona 177 in the very small town of Kelvin.

But the journey isn’t over if you want to make a day of it. A left on 177 and you can head north toward Superior, Miami and Globe for more sightseeing and some antique shopping as the road connects with U.S. 60. Or, you can make a right and drive into Kearny and on to Winkelman.

In Kearny, you find a small town with a really nice downtown area taking less than a minute to drive through, but it has a grocery store, pizza parlor, other small businesses and a train park for the perfect spot to slow down and stop for a picnic lunch.

All in all the roughly 90-minute stretch is a great way to spend the morning exploring the desert, slowing down and taking one of the many roads in Arizona that are rarely traveled for recreation.

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