Haystack Butte Road

Prickly pear cactuses are among the desert vegetation along Haystack Butte Road. | Eric Heaton
Prickly pear cactuses are among the desert vegetation along Haystack Butte Road. | Eric Heaton

Tonto National Forest, Globe
By Noah Austin

‘‘Harquahala” might not look like a four-letter word, but it serves as one in the Austin household. My son, Westley, loves to bring up the time I took him up a remote peak west of Phoenix: “What were you thinking with that Harquahala Mountain drive, Dad?”

That drive was steep, rocky and a little scary for a 5-year-old. Wes is 9 now, and when I decide to take him on another drive, I settle on Haystack Butte Road, north of Globe. My Tonto National Forest map indicates it’s a well-maintained, easy road with views of mountains and the Salt River. This one will be easier than Harquahala, I think. But life has a way of defying expectations.

We set out from U.S. Route 60 on Haystack Butte Road, marked here as Forest Road 303. The smooth dirt road dips through a few washes as it passes a ranch; then, around Mile 3, we see the road’s namesake peak straight ahead. It’s easy to spot: It’s the butte that looks like a haystack.

A couple of miles later, prickly pear cactuses begin to dominate the scenery. These desert plants typically bloom in late April and early May, so if you time your drive right, you’ll be treated to a colorful roadside display. The road then winds into a canyon before climbing again, with numerous yuccas joining the prickly pears. This is a good place to see mule deer or Gambel’s quail, although Wes and I don’t spot any on our drive.

At Mile 7.8, we get the best panorama of the trip — one that includes Haystack Butte to the north. To the west are the Blackjack Mountains, which top out at 6,939 feet, and to the southeast are Timber Camp Mountain and Jackson Butte, both of which rise above 6,000 feet. We then pass a jumble of volcanic rocks as we twist and turn toward 5,725-foot Haystack Butte, finally rounding its western flank around Mile 12.

It’s been a stress-free drive, and Wes is loving the scenery and enjoying his first Clif Bar. And then we reach a “Y” intersection at Mile 13.5. To the right is a private ranch; to the left, the route continues as Forest Road 303A. I know going left will get us to the Salt River, so I go left. But the road narrows considerably and gets extremely rough. Within a couple of miles, we’re inching down a steep road littered with washouts and football-size rocks. The whole road isn’t like this, but if we make it to the river, we might have trouble getting back, even in a four-wheel-drive SUV. “What do you think, Wes? Should we keep going?” I ask. “It’s up to you,” he says. (In Wes-speak, that means “Hell, no.”)

We find a spot to turn around, and there, we get a glimpse of the waterway far below. The way back features a little wheel-spinning and a lot of me assuring Wes that we aren’t going to die. But we’re both relieved when we get back to the main road and start the easy drive back to U.S. 60.

In summary, I can’t recommend driving all the way to the Salt River, which is about 4 miles from this drive’s stopping point. But you can get a nice view of the river by going only partway down FR 303A. Use your best judgment, and consider your vehicle’s ruggedness and your own driving ability. The views along FR 303, though, make it a stellar drive in its own right, whether you’re on your own or getting a little father-son time. And you won’t have to hear, on the way back to Globe, that the drive on that other road was “way worse than Harquahala Mountain.”

Tour Guide

Note: Mileages are approximate. 

Length: 13.5 miles one way (from U.S. Route 60)
Directions: From Globe, go northeast on U.S. Route 60 for 16.3 miles to Haystack Butte Road (Forest Road 303), which is just past Milepost 268 and across the highway from Jones Water Campground. Turn left onto Haystack Butte Road and continue 13.5 miles to the intersection with Forest Road 303A.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, but four-wheel-drive is not necessary in good weather. Continuing past the intersection on FR 303A requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle and technical four-wheel-drive experience.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Globe Ranger District, 928-402-6200 or www.fs.usda.gov/tonto