On Highway 89, half way down the hill into the historic district of Prescott,
there is a cross street sign that reads Senator Highway. At first, this “highway” seems to be merely a pleasant street of beautiful older homes, a scene lifted from a Norman Rockwell print. However, first impressions can be deceiving, and such is the case for those adventuresome enough to discover the charms and treasures of this lost highway that is a very loose use of the word highway.
A loop drive that includes the Senator Highway is less than 100 miles but requires at least a full day, two or more to enjoy all that it has to offer. A four-wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended but with care, a little skill and some ground clearance it can be done with a two-wheel drive truck. Winter, however, is another story as snows come early and are often deep here.
The trip begins with a drive through a neighborhood of colorful, ornate towering homes that have cast shadows onto this road for more than a century. Abruptly the pavement ends, the road narrows and it is again the closing years of the 19th century when the Bradshaw Mountains were the crown jewel of the Arizona Territory.
At the height of a mining boom where millions of dollars in gold and silver were produced from area mines colorful communities such as Crown King, Big Bug, Bradshaw City, and Oro Belle sprang from the hillsides, the steep slopes and under the towering pines. Except for Crown King, only vestiges remain of those once bustling communities today.
As the road narrows it begins to twist ever higher into the mountains, pressed on both sides by towering pines one moment and then hanging precipitously on a deep canyon wall the next. In one such narrow canyon the picturesque skeletal remains of the historic Senator Mine complex stand in defiance of time on a shoulder of rock above a small mountain stream.
Wildlife abounds all along this drive and in the early hours of morning, deer are a common sight. In meadow clearings in the forest or where the pines give way to rocky hillsides of scrub oak hawks soaring overhead enhance the feeling that this is still the heart of the western frontier.
After a few more miles of scenic Arizona backcountry, a few dozen twists, and turns, the road breaks into a flowered meadow with a veritable time capsule at its center. The historic two story, log constructed Palace Station that began life in the 1870s as a stage station on the road that linked Prescott, the Senator Mine, and Crown King is now a private residence.
After a stream crossing or two and a few hundred more twists and turns (the thirty-mile drive from Prescott to Crown King requires about four hours) an historic marker, a small clearing in the forest and a grove of trees that are noticeably younger than those around it marks the site of Bradshaw City. Founded in 1871 the town soon mushroomed to five thousand residents and promotion boasted of the most modern amenities. By 1890, the town was gone with many of the buildings dismantled, relocated to Crown King, and then reassembled, including the saloon and restaurant that still serves customers today.
In addition to the old saloon at Crown King, “downtown” features a general store/post office that has been in operation since 1883, a small church along the stream that flows through town built about the same time and a modern bed and breakfast with most modern amenities. There is also an ATV rental store for those wanting to explore miles of forest-shaded roads, and a one-pump gas station.
There are two roads to Crown King thus the opportunity for a loop drive. From Mayer, south east of Prescott there is a steep one lane graded gravel road that follows the old rail bed through a series of twists and turns that present ever more breathtaking vistas. The drive is just less than thirty miles but requires at least one hour.
The railroad that preceded this road is an almost forgotten chapter in Arizona history. In 1899 Frank Murphy, railroad tycoon who had built the line from Ashfork to Prescott, the line from Prescott to Phoenix and the line from Prescott to Mayer, set his sights on an incredible task; link the mines at Poland on the north side of the mountains and Crown King on the south side with Mayer.
The railroad to Crown King was an engineering marvel. The switchbacks were so sharp the rolling stock had to be modified and it was said a passenger in the caboose could actually see the locomotive running alongside. The deep canyons required bridges of incredible height.
Today this rail bed serves as the primary route to Crown King. One lane in many places and extremely steep grades can make it a white-knuckle drive. However, frequent pullouts offer many opportunities to take a breather to savor the majesty of the surrounding countryside and perhaps break out a lunch.
The next time you visit Arizona and need a break from sand, sage and Arizona heat or just the hustle of daily life perhaps a trip back to the frontier and drive in the pines through the historic Bradshaw Mountains is just what the doctor ordered.
Reprinted with permission from Jim Hinckley’s America