Bloody Basin
Agua Fria National Monument & Tonto National Forest • Arizona
January 8, 2015



Bloody Basin is a well-known name in Arizona, if only because there's an exit off of Interstate-17 about 60 miles north of Phoenix for Bloody Basin Road. The actual "Bloody Basin" is about 25 miles east of Interstate-17, at the rim where the mountains and highlands drop into the Verde River Canyons in Yavapai County.

The name comes from an 1873 battle between the Tonto-Apache and U. S. forces led by General Crook. The Tonto Indians were known for their stealthy attacks, and this battle essentially brought down the Tonto-Apache. Those who survived were relocated to the San Carlos Nation near Globe.

Of course, if you believe the sign put up by the Forest Service where Forest Roads 24 and 269 meet, you'd be led to believe that it gets its name from the reddish-colored rocks and cliffs. That's as pansy a description as I have ever read, and offensive since it sidesteps the real reason, which is not mysterious to anyone who barely follows Arizona history.

Anyway, the main route into and out of Bloody Basin is via Tonto National Forest Roads 269 from the west, and 24 from the south. It's a drive I have heard about for years, and finally, Beth and I decided to go do it, getting up very early, and arriving at the Bloody Basin exit at 7 a.m. We parked at the entrance to the Agua Fria National Monument and waited about a half hour for the sun to rise. It was chilly where we were, but nice. There were high clouds, but no threats of rain.

The initial drive through the Monument is nice. The road is well maintained for about four miles, and it meanders through hilly high-desert country. The road narrows and then bypasses the Horseshoe Ranch, at which point the condition worsens. We dropped into the Agua Fria River, which was flowing. I got out to be sure I could ford it in my truck. It looked safe, the flow very slow and the depth about 10 inches at most. I was concerned the bottom would be very muddy, but it was solid. Past that, we encountered some bumpier roads, a small campground, then a 300-foot gain up the side of a mesa, where the road was heavily eroded and in need of a blading. I needed 4-wheel drive here. This turned out to be the worst stretch of the entire drive.

Now on top of this mesa, we rumbled eastward. The road was smoother, but heavily rutted from where people had driven it while wet. This went on for about two miles. Finally, we came to the boundary of the Tonto National Forest and the end of the Agua Fria National Monument. Here, the road's condition improved considerably. There were still sections of rocks and ruts, some stretches where it got steep, and even some patchy snow from a week ago, so I kept the truck in 4-wheel drive and never got above 15 m.p.h., which was just fine since we were enjoying the scenery. There was not a soul back here today.

The road eventually climbs to a highpoint at about 4,900 feet elevation, where it crests the cliff rim overlooking the Verde Canyon. This point was about 18 miles from Interstate-17, going by my truck's odometer. The drive down the cliff was spectacular, the road cut in to many twight switchbacks, but always in good condition, although it was steep (about a consistent 7-9% grade). We had awesome views of the surrounding mountains, such as the Cedar Peaks, distant Four Peaks and Mazatzal Peak, and dozens of mesas and hills within the canyon.

More toward the bottom, we could see a pointed peak called Turrett Peak. This is where the actual battle took place in 1873. The Tonto were encamped up here, and surprised by Crook's men. Many of the Tonto jumped to their deaths. The rest were hauled away.

The road kept high on some ridges before finally dropping a total of 2,000 feet, bottoming out where it meets with Forest Road 24. Here, we parked, about 25 miles of driving from Interstate-17. I killed the engine and we took about a thirty minute break here to walk around and explore. I looked for the "Bloody" USGS Benchmark, supposedly near where the two roads meet, but could not find it. I also read about the area from a forest sign, where my sensibilities were safely not offended by anything truthful about how Bloody Basin got its name. The fact that it gets its name from the red rocks gave me a warm feeling inside, and I smiled.

We exited by driving south on Forest Road 24. This road gains uphill, passes West Cedar Peak, across some plateaus, and up some mesa-sides, eventually getting as high as about 4,500 feet elevation. We have done this drive before, and it's always nice, but not as amazing as where we had just come from. We emerged back to pavement in north Scottsdale, the total dirt-road driving covering about 45 miles. We were back home by noon. Despite the short outing, it was far more than we expected and one of the most spectacular drives we have ever done in the state. I would suggest that if you do this drive, come in from the Agua Fria side so that you can come down the cliffs, not up, and although most roads were decent, 4-wheel drive will be nice for the few spots that get rutted or rocky. If it has been wet recently, avoid it because the roads can get slick, and the creek crossing could be flowing.

Photos (Click to enlarge)

East view, stoill on the Agua Fria National Monument.

West view, same spot. The Bradshaw
Mountains are in back.

The Agua Fria boundary.

Now we're in hillier country

At the cliff rim. Those are
the Cedar Peaks ahead.

Inching down the road.

And more down...

Some of the cliffs and ridges.

Turrett Peak in the distance,
site of the Bloody Basin battle.

The road we came down starts
up on those cliffs at the
low point way up there.

Parked at the junction of FR-269
and FR-24. That's the sign that lies
about the origin of the name "Bloody Basin".

Another view.

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(c) 2015 Scott Surgent. Arizona is so freaking awesome!