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postheadericon Riding SoAZ Part VII (Route 77 to The THING?)

Part VII of this series covers the northeast section of Southern AZ. (Kind of reminds me of the city of Northeast Southwestern in the old “Electric Company” show.) As defined in part I, Southern AZ is made up of Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise Counties. This segment will describe roads and highways in the northern parts of Pima and Cochise Counties, north of Interstate 10. Because this area has fewer roadways than the areas south of the interstates I will be talking about towns and points of interest on or just a short distance south of I-10 as well. I will start in the area immediately north of Tucson and work my way east.

Oracle Road is/becomes Route 77. I am going to cheat just a little bit on my own definition, because the northwest side of Tucson has now expanded almost to the Pinal County line, just outside of the suburb of Catalina. I am, therefore, going to talk about a couple of routes that are actually in Pinal County. If you are looking for ways to go to Phoenix or other points in the north and you DO NOT want to use the interstate, Route 77 is a road with which you need to be familiar.

About 5 miles north of Catalina, there is a fork in the road. A left turn puts you on Route 79, which for some reason, known only to a select few member of the AZ DOT, is also marked as State Highway 80. (This peculiarity only lasts from the Rt 77 junction to Florence, then State Highway 80 ceases to exist.)

Route 77/79 Junction

Route 79 takes you to historic Florence, AZ. Florence is home to a state prison and I think my favorite attraction in the city is the Prison Outlet Store.

Prison Outlet Store

Am I the only one who finds this hysterical?

From Florence, there are a number of ways to proceed in to Phoenix. A few of these are noted in the “Ride Maps” section of this website. Also, if you are interested in driving a loop to Tucson’s north, about 10 miles from the junction is Park Link Drive. Until a year or two ago, it was dirt. Now it is a good quality paved road that connects Route 79 to I-10. It comes out right a the little town of Red Rock. For TV history buffs, the Tom Mix Memorial is just a few miles north of Park Link.

go back to Route 77. About 6 miles past the junction is Biosphere II. This former space experiment turn tourism destination is becoming very popular. I have yet to visit there but it is on my list of “Places to Go Unless I Change My Mind.” It is actually visible from the forest service road which leads from Ski Valley to the top of the Mt Lemmon ski lift.

A few miles past Biosphere is the town of Oracle. As of this writing, the state park located there is closed. However, if you turn right onto American Avenue and continue to drive, it eventually becomes the East Mt Lemmon Highway. The word “highway” here is very misleading. This is a rough, 4-wheel drive, narrow, steep road which does eventually lead to the top of Mt Lemmon. It is considerably less scenic than the other Mt Lemmon highway as well. If you are in the right kind of vehicle, it is a fun drive, though. Also along this stretch of dirt road, nearer to Oracle, are the Triangle Y Camp and Peppersauce Canyon and campground. These are both places where many Tucsonans went to summer or church camp in their youth.

Proceeding north on Route 77, you pass the exit to San Manuel. 77 is your gateway to points north. It will take you to Globe. From there you can go north on US 60/77 to Pine Top, turn east on US 70 and go to Safford or turn west on US 60 and loop down to the Phoenix area. If you are taking Route 77 for a loop toward Phoenix, I recommend taking the Route 177 spur out of Winkleman that leads you to Superior. It’s a great little road and takes you past the mine outside of Winkleman. It’s impressive.

Now we shall turn our sites east of Tucson and look down the eastbound Interstate 10 corridor. As mentioned previously, I try to avoid using the Interstate, but in many parts of Arizona, there are few, if any secondary roads to get to some locations. Some of the points I will mention in this segment are accessible from roads that come up from the south, but those will be discussed in a future segment.

East bound on I-10, the next point of interest is the town of Benson. Important routes leading south, which will be discussed in the future are Routes 80 and 90. An interesting northbound road is Cascabel Road. It starts as Pomerene Road and is on the east side of Benson. The first 15 miles or so are paved. After that, it is well maintained dirt/gravel and will eventually take you around the Rincon and Catalina Mountains and back to the town of San Manuel and Route 77. It’s about 55 miles from Benson to San Manuel using this road. There are no services at all between the two towns, but you will pass near the ghost towns of Tres Alamos and Reddington.

On the west side of Benson is the “town” of Gammon’s Gulch.

It is actually a movie set however, it is open to the public for much of the year. You can set the town from I-10 when you’re west of Benson. It is near the foot of the mountain as you’re looking north. Another interesting thing you can see from I-10 is Agua Verde Castle, also known as Durham Castle. It sets atop a small peak 5-10 miles east of Vail. It’s on the north side of I-10. It is a private residence and is not open to the public. If you ever go to Colossal Cave, they have those telescopes that you drop a quarter into and you can get a pretty good look at it from there.

As you go east out of Benson, you begin a fairly steep climb up to a pass in the Dragoon Mountains. At the top of the pass is Texas Canyon, so named for a group of Texans that settled there.

One of the many rock sculptures in TX Canyon

Texas Canyon is very interesting to drive through. One minute, you’re driving though desert with sagebrush and a few cactus, a mile or two later, the landscape is covered with huge boulders. Some are just laying around, other are stacked on top of each other in bizarre sculptures.

There are several interesting places nearby. There is the old Butterfield Stage stop about 7 miles south of I-10. On the opposite end of that historical spectrum, there is the Amerind Foundation Museum. Then there is “The THING?” The Thing is that typical roadside Americana kitsch that you usually think of as being found along Route 66 next door to the hotel where you sleep in the tee-pees.. There is gas, a Dairy Queen, a huge gift shop and, of course, the museum that houses “The THING?” What is it? I won’t tell you here, but if you haven’t stopped there, it’s worth the price of admission just to tell your friends that you’ve seen “The THING?”

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In the next segment, I will discuss Willcox, Rex Allen, pick-your-own produce and the “Devil’s Highway.” Please check back in a few days.

Ride Maps

Park Link Loop – 88 miles if you’re starting in mid-town. Difficulty – Easy. This loop has gentle, rolling hills and easy curves. From Red Rock back to Tucson I recommend the I-10 access road if you’re on a bicycle or scooter or if you just don’t want to zoom along at 75mph and miss the scenery. There is fuel and food available in Catalina and in Marana.

Winkleman-Superior-Florence Loop – 200 miles. Difficulty – Easy. This loop cruises through some beautiful country along the San Pedro River valley. It includes the 177 spur from Winkleman to Superior. If you continue on to Globe on 77 you get to go through Top-of-the-World and it is only 26 more miles.

Tres Alamos-San Manuel Dirt Loop – 159 miles with about 50 miles of dirt/gravel. Difficulty – Moderate IF you have the right vehicle. This may be rough on the average street bike or family sedan. Because of how remote it is, make sure someone knows what route you are taking and bring along some water. This route could be treacherous during monsoons.

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