Harquahala Mountains - Margie Anderson
Experience Both History And Beauty Here
April 1, 2018
The road to the top of the Harquahala Mountains takes you to the historic Solar Observatory. We had read several accounts of the road, and many of them said that it was very rough, even dangerous. The day we went there it was neither.
Yes, there are a couple of place where 4WD came in handy because of loose rock, but for the most part it was not that bad. There is one short stretch near the end that has been paved with concrete, and that part was apparently the worst place before the paving was put in place. It's a fun drive. It's a National Back Country Byway and is 10.5 miles long.
The Road To The Top
The road was built for mining access over a span of 70 years. Still, it is very narrow and steep in places, and several spots have a lot of loose rock. I wouldn't attempt it without a 4WD vehicle. Watch for vehicles coming the other way, especially on the steep switchbacks near the summit. You also have to keep an eye out for large rocks in the road – they roll off the mountain.
Start by getting to the Harquahala Mountain Back Country Byway. Take I-10 to the Salome Road exit and go up Salome Road for about nine miles to Eagle Eye Road. You can also catch Eagle Eye Road in the town of Aguila.
The Harquahala Mountain Back Country Byway turn off is about eight miles north of the Salome Road. There's a big sign that says "Four-wheel-drive required". Just off the Eagle Eye Road there is a really nice staging/camping/picnic area with restrooms and a covered area with interpretive signs.
A 1920s Solar Observatory
In 1920 a two-story solar observatory was built at the top of the mountains. It was made out of adobe and the scientists lived on the top floor and worked on the bottom floor. The harsh weather caused constant problems, and all the food and water had to be hauled up a 5-1/2-mile pack trail on the northwest slope. The nearest water was over a mile away and over 1000 feet lower!
One of the scientists even brought his wife along, and by all accounts she made a lot of improvements in the living conditions there. The observatory never used telescopes, so it might not look like you expect, but it is still there. It has been reinforced with lumber but it isn't safe to go in, so there is a fence around it. You can still see inside through the open door.
A Challenging Trail
The trail is still there if you're hardy enough to hike it. There is a 3,360 foot elevation change over the 5.4 miles, and there are great views. However, it is a steep and challenging trail, and I can't even imagine trying it in the summer.
The northern slope of the mountains is now a Wilderness area - 22,880 acres. To get to the hiking trail, take Highway 60 southwest 13.6 miles from Aguila - it's near mile marker 71 and there is a palm tree on the opposite side of the highway. Turn left here onto a jeep trail. The trailhead is 2.2 miles down this jeep trail and you'll need a high clearance vehicle at the least.
Bring lots of water no matter what time of year it is - this is a super-tough hike uphill all the way. It's out and back, steep both ways. This trail doesn't get a whole lot of use but it is still clear and easy to follow. While you're hiking, imagine having to haul food and water up that hill by foot and mule. Once you get to the top you may run into people who drove up and are enjoying the views.
Relics Of The Past
The people who lived and worked there in the '20s originally used a heliograph for communication - that is basically using mirrors to reflect the sun and use Morse code. It was pretty cumbersome, and eventually they got a radio and then a telephone. Now there are towers up there built by Central Arizona Project, and they control the canals. There are interpretive signs around the solar observatory building, and the hiking trail is also clearly marked. There is an old well or cistern there too, but it's all filled up with dirt to about 4 feet deep.
Gorgeous Views, Wildlife
We had a nice time walking around everything - wherever you go, there are gorgeous views. You can see for miles and miles, and entire mountain ranges look small. It was very windy up there as well. Just before you get to the very top, there is a large parking and picnic area with tables. Parking at the very top is limited, but it isn't far to walk from the picnic area.
We saw deer, roadrunners, ground squirrels, hawks, and lots of other kinds of birds on our drive, and apparently the Wilderness area is home to rare cacti and bighorn sheep. The first couple of miles of the road have occasional pull-outs with fire rings, but once you hit the steeper parts it gets narrow and twisty with no room for pull-outs. There are no guardrails, so slow and steady is the key.
Fun, Beautiful, Historic
It took us about an hour to get to the top, and about the same coming down. We went on a weekday and we only saw one other vehicle, and that one was parked at the top when we got there.
The story of the scientists and the solar observatory is interesting, and you will learn more about it from the signs at the top. If you have a 4WD vehicle, I highly recommend this fun, beautiful, and historic drive.