The Mogollon Rim in Arizona is the southwest escarpment of the Colorado Plateau. It is a vast locale that includes the area near Payson and stretches through the White Mountains on the east side of the state toward the New Mexico border. Most of its popularity is due to its incomparable beauty, diverse terrain and cool, unique environment. Its winter beauty is also well known, although it is not usually experienced from the seat of a motorcycle.
One part of the Rim that is frequently enjoyed by Arizona motorcyclists is FR300, also known as the Rim Road. The most well known part of the road skirts the edge of the Rim itself. My riding partner, Hal, and I usually ride it from the entrance north of Strawberry to where it comes out on pavement near Woods Canyon Lake. Riding it this way is about 40 miles of unpaved forest road. It is big bike friendly, but that makes it RV friendly as well. One must be mindful of slight inconveniences such as oncoming trucks and trailers sideways in turns, which is always good for a momentary adrenaline rush.
Entering the road from the west end, riders come into a network of heavily traveled roads used mostly by weekend campers in summer and hunters in the fall. The road soon splits at a “Y,” but FR300 is clearly marked as turning to the left. It winds, climbs and falls as it weaves its way through the forest. On this end the road is rougher and narrower and seems to carry the most traffic. Soon after climbing a short but steep rocky ascent, you come out on the edge of the Rim.
It might as well be the edge of the world, for as far down and far away in the distance as you can see. If you park your bike and walk to the edge, the drop is breathtaking, stomach clenching and vertigo inducing. The forest is endless below; the trees are a thick carpet, punctuated only by dusty slashes that define the roads. The roll of mountains in the distance fades in the haze, and it is easy to see where the dome of sky over the Phoenix area begins because it is white—all color pulled from it by the relentless heat.
Back on the bikes, the road skirts the edge for some time before moving into the trees again. Then you return to the edge, with the abyss on the right side, the wind pushing you away. There are days on the Rim when the wind howls incessantly and roars like angry waves through the treetops—a presence that lets you know just where you are. The grasses bend and flail and the air is cold.
The dust swirls in the throes of the current drought cycle. Last spring, we rode 300 miles in late April. We almost didn’t go because rumor had it that the gates were closed since snow was still present. (The area is gated and plowed shut with piles of snow during winter.) But when we got there, to our surprise, there not only was no snow on the road, the road was dry and already dusty. Despite the warm day, patches of snow were still found in areas of deep shadows and among the craggy rocks, but snow was long gone from the road. By June, the fine dust grows deep and turns to the consistency of talc.
In summer, you can start at the west end with the weather sunny and warm. The big fluffy white clouds seem cheerful and bright, but build and push up into tall columns where they turn darker and more ominous. If you are not paying attention to their growing malevolence, you can be caught in a crashing thunderstorm within minutes and soaked by cold rain. Shivering, you would turn on your heated grips, pull over, quickly dig out your rain gear—if you thought to pack it—and hope that a lightning bolt doesn’t choose that moment to come shooting out of the sky.
Fall is one of the more sedate times to experience the Rim. It is also most beautiful then with the golden leaves swirling in the air. The most spectacular part is near Woods Canyon Lake, where the roads get a little wider. By that time of year most camping traffic is already less than in the summer and the varying shades of green, tan, brown, gold and the occasional red delight the eye. It starts from the ground up, and as the road climbs in elevation, the colors increase. When you finally reach the pavement at the lake, you can meander slowly along the narrow road and either pull over at one of the overlooks for a scenic view or ride to the parking lot near the intersection with Highway 260 to air up your tires.
Heading west on the 260 and back toward Payson to complete the circle of the ride is a dizzying descent through the coils of turns as you reluctantly come down from the lofty Rim. The joys of the ride are soon over as the temperature creeps back into the 90–100 F range the closer you get to the Phoenix area, as if the coolness were only a dream.
The Rim is a place of contrasts and a place of escape—a coveted joy—so that no matter how many times you go, or in which season, it is always worth the trip.