One of the great things about the great state of Arizona is its geologic diversity. In fact, of all the states in the union, few offer a landscape with more color and variety than The Grand Canyon State. The reason is due to the great geologic forces that shaped the state long ago. Arizona is made up of three distinct geologic regions: the Colorado Plateau region in the north, a transition zone in the middle, and the basin or range region in the south. The Colorado Plateau region includes the Mogollon Rim, the Grand Canyon, and the mountainous area around Flagstaff. The latter boasts the highest elevations in the state with the San Francisco Peaks, and more specifically, Humphrey Peak, reaching the highest at 12,633 feet. Fortunately, there are some terrific forest roads that you can drive on to explore this incredibly scenic area. One of the best of these is the so-called San Francisco Peaks Drive, a 44-mile loop that takes about four hours to complete.
The best part of the San Francisco Peaks Drive is the 14-mile-long unpaved stretch of road, linking Highways 89 and 180. This road, dubbed Forest Road 418 (along with a 2-mile stretch of Forest Road 151), is located in the Peaks District of the Coconino National Forest. The scenery along the route is terrific and worth checking out. On the road you’ll twist and turn your way through thick forests of aspens and ponderosas as you skirt along the north side of the San Francisco peaks. The surface of the road is graded dirt and can be traveled in any type of truck camper. Some parts of the road can be a little rough, especially after a rain, but nothing that a truck camper rig with a good clearance couldn’t handle. The elevation of Forest Road 418 varies between 7,000 and 8,500 feet, which means you’ll enjoy cooler temperatures in the summer–highs in the 80s during the summer—and lots of snowfall in the winter (because of the elevation the road is usually closed to vehicle traffic during the winter).
The cool temperatures around Flagstaff are a big draw during the summer. Thousands of Arizonans flee the triple-digit temperatures in the southern part of the state and Flagstaff gets a major share of those getting away. Arizona’s dry heat is especially harsh in June before the summer monsoons. June is fire season in Arizona and in much of the Southwest. During our time exploring this area in late June, a large forest fire was burning west of the loop and had closed nearby Highway 180 to the Grand Canyon. Fire season also means that campfires and cooking with charcoal is prohibited. Cooking with propane stoves, however, is allowed.
Anyhow, the drive was pretty enjoyable and relaxing. We were surprised to still see some snow on the peaks in late June. We drove the loop counter-clockwise. The best place to start the drive is where Forest Road 418 and Highway 89 meet. To get there from downtown Flagstaff drive northeast 14 miles on US 89 until you reach Forest Road 418 near Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. The entrance to FR-418 is on the left or west side of the freeway. This particular area near the highway is also a popular boondocking/dispersed camping location.
And speaking of boondocking, the best boondocking in the San Francisco Peaks area can be found on FR-418. Along this stretch of road we counted over a dozen scenic pull-offs where you can camp for the night. All of the pull-offs were level with plenty of maneuvering room. Verizon cell service on FR-418 was also surprisingly good with two to three bars of LTE service. Some parts of the road had no cell coverage at all, but for the most part, this was the exception rather than the rule.
If you’re interested in taking a more scenic route, I have one recommendation. Don’t take the loop to Highway 180 via Forest Road 151 at the end of FR-418. Take Forest Road 151 south to Highway 180 instead. This is what we did. Approximately 9 miles long, FR-151 skirts the west side of the peaks and is worth the time to explore, though, surprisingly, some of the land you pass through is privately owned. Unfortunately, boondocking along Forest Road 151 is almost non-existent until you get near Highway 180. As you approach this highway you’ll find plenty of locations where you can boondock. This area, in fact, was a little too crowded for our tastes. During our time there, we boondocked on nearby Forest Road 794, between Forest Road 151 and Highway 180. Verizon cell service on FR-794 was also surprisingly good with two to three bars of LTE service.