This day, as all others, ends up just a bit shorter than planned - but to nobody's disappointment.
Assuming our camping spot high in Coconino National Forest, we plan to visit Sycamore Point and Sycamore Falls, and take fire roads generally East towards I-17. Then we would take I-17 South to the exit to Schnebly Hill Road, and continue on this road to Sedona. If time permits, we’ll exploit some of Sedona 4WD trails. From Sedona, our plans take us on SR 89 South towards Cottonwood/Jerome/Prescott, to spend a night either at Mingus Mountain campground, or at dispersed camping areas near Prescott or Jerome. Total distance: 150-170 miles, roughly half of it off pavement.
We wake up about 70 miles from our planned camping spot in Coconino National Forest, some of which are on dirt and not always fast. A combination of IPA, Bulleit, and Jameson, during the last night's festivities makes for a slow start. Gabriel and Richard find and patch the hole in the tire, although it does not look promising beyond being a trail spare.
After breakfast, Travis bids adieu to us and high-tails to San Diego. We're down to 7 vehicles.
We roll out around nine in the morning (California time - if that matters at all), and begin the day with a steep climb up to the ridge of Sierra Prieta mountain range West of Prescott. On our way up, I spot two places we could have camped the night before, only one really competitive. On the ridge, near Copper Basin Road, the place I had in mind was crawling with campers of every possible sort.
Since not all in our group have seen Prescott, we take a road trip through the center of town, and lose half the vehicles at the intersection of State Routes 69 and 89. The separation is short-lived, and we proceed North looking at Watson Lake at our right.
Another fuel and grocery stop between Chino Valley and Paulden, and we're off towards Drake on SR 89. I am itching to leave the blacktop, and take the first possible turn suggested by Gaia GPS app on my phone.
... That leads us pronto into a locked gate to a private ranch.
The next turn results in elaborate meandering in a small patch of land adjacent to SR 89 and a large canyon near Drake cement plant. We find every faint two-track in the neighborhood leading up to a locked gate, backtrack to pavement, and resign to driving through the cement plant.
For a little while, we are on an awesome, well-graded, Arizona DOT-standard, road into the forest. And then we leave it - and, prompted by the change in road surface, stop to air down.
Somehow we end up on the same road we took several months earlier - an 11-mile long, fairly steep and rocky climb, gaining two thousand feet in elevation in the first 9 miles. Google Maps optimistically suggests it only takes half an hour to drive it - I dare anyone to maintain a 22-mph pace on this stretch. It is a proper low range climb, so I urge the crew to keep the eyes on the temperature gauges. At least, once again, it is not too dusty - we're moving way too slow.
We emerge on Coconino Plateau and take a flat and wide Forest Road 105 towards the turn-off to Sycamore Point; the Point is about 13.5 miles from the turn-off. We reach Sycamore Point already in mid-afternoon; the place is fantastic, but we cannot linger for too long - we still have a lot of ground to cover.
After a brief lunch, we hit the dirt again - drifting generally North-East towards I-40 and Flagstaff. Pavement comes in 28 miles; the weather seems to quickly trend downhill - beautiful cumulus clouds of Coconino Plateau converge into a complete dark-grey layer near Flagstaff, and we briefly drive through a torrential downpour. It gets late; we make a lame attempt at getting spots in cabins at a campground in Munds Park off I-17 - denied, no vacancy. A few voices in favor of looking at the motels around are put down by Richard's question - "Is it Fairweather Rovers Club road trip?"
Not being weenies, we opt for dispersed camping once again. We lose Matt and Thao at the exit to Schnebly Hill road; down to six trucks, we find ourselves a large, flat, camping area in a beautiful pine forest a quarter-mile off Schnebly Hill Road. In retrospect, we could've moved a little more inland from Interstate 17 - since we still hear the Jake brakes and Harley exhaust a few miles from the freeway.
Miraculously, the rolling thunderstorms pass us on both sides, but we're still dry. Still under the fire ban, we only congregate for drinks at Eddie's Awesome Awning Cafe.
Tally for the day: 64 miles on dirt and 82 miles on pavement. Remarkably close to the original estimate; are we getting better?
Photos from Day 3
Peter Matusov and Nikolay Matusov