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BLM > Arizona > What We Do > Recreation > Autotouring & Pleasure Driving > Black Hills Back Country Byway
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Black Hills Back Country Byway

"Riches from the Earth"

Take a journey back in time to learn lessons of the people and the riches of the earth they loved.

  Along the Way  

As you travel the 21-mile-long Black Hills Back Country Byway, try to imagine the first travelers on this road...rugged pioneers who lived close to land. Today, we can embrace the romance of the Old West as we travel this same route. Let the Black Hills Back Country Byway take you on a journey back in time to learn the lessons of these people and the riches from the earth they loved.

Black Hills Byway Entrance The Black Hills Back Country Byway is unpaved, but is accessible to high clearance vehicles during dry weather. Portions of the byway have narrow drop-offs or are confined by steep cliffs. Do not attempt the byway if you have a travel trailer or any vehicle more than 20 feet long. Motor homes and trailers can be left at parking areas provided near kiosks at each end. Please take extra care to drive defensively on this route. Always expect a vehicle around the next bend and remember: mountain courtesy gives uphill traffic the right of way.

Allow at least two hours driving time one way to travel the byway, not including stops. If you plan to stop and enjoy the scenery or explore some of the side routes, your travel can be extended. Have enough gas, water, and other provisions for your trip since no services are provided along the byway. If you choose to be more adventurous and travel some of the side routes, remember all of these single lane roads require a four-wheel-drive vehicle. These roads are not maintained and portions can be steep, rough, and rocky. Washes crossing these routes tend to make it difficult to tell where the road is at all times. Please be sure you are properly prepared. Notify someone of your travel schedule. A topographic map and compass are helpful when exploring more remote areas.

Adventures in the Past

The first known inhabitants of the area were Native Americans. Mogollon people 1,000 years ago farmed, hunted, and gathered wild plant foods. The byway passes through the historical territory of the Chiricahua and Western Apache, who arrived in southeastern Arizona around 1600. Some Apaches used the area as a local travel route and hideout prior to the surrender of Geronimo in 1886.

View of the Black Hills Coronado passed through this region in 1540 as he led Spanish conquistadors in search of gold and the Seven Cities of Cibola. James Ohio Pattie, a famous mountain man, trapped beaver along the Gila River in the 1820s. General Kearny and his guide Kit Carson led troops through the Gila Box in 1846 en route to California to participate in the Mexican-American War.

Pioneer ranchers and farmers eked out a living in these hillsides starting in the 1870s. A copper deposit of great significance was discovered near Clifton and in 1872 the first claims were staked. As the mines grew, Anglo, Spanish, and Chinese settlers supplied wood and vegetables to the miners, traveling over treacherous mountain trails.

Prisoners toiled from 1914 to 1920 to construct the Safford-Clifton Road -- now the byway -- greatly enhancing travel between the agricultural Safford valley and the mining communities of Clifton and Morenci.

Today, the adventures of the past are being continued by those seeking natural resources or outdoor recreation. The hard work of sometimes forgotten pioneers is still reaping benefits; both local residents and visitors can enjoy the byway's tale.

Black Hills Byway ViewGeology

The Black Hills represent the northern end of the Peloncillo Mountains, a volcanic mountain range with sand and gravel deposits on its flanks. The byway provides a good cross section of this relationship. Sands and gravels occur along the southern two miles and northern six miles of the byway, and volcanic rocks occur in the high country in between.

Geologists estimate that volcanic activity in this area began about 20 million years ago. Volcanic rocks at the southern end of the byway are comprised of several types of lava flows, mostly andesite, rhyolite, and dacite. These lava flows are interlayered with varicolored ash falls and ash flows, which form deposits of tuffs, cinders, and pumice. The lava flows are typically dark gray and gray-brown, whereas the ash deposits are commonly light gray with red or yellow hues.

Except for modern stream deposits, the sands and gravels along the byway are part of the Gila Conglomerate. Fragments of quartzites and red granites found near the top of the formation are thought to have entered the area through tributaries of the Gila River.

WildlifeWildlife and Natural History

Each end of the byway begins in a desert shrub plant community. Only the hardiest desert plants, such as creosote with its waxy leaves, can survive the hot dry conditions at these low elevations. Wild animals have adapted: lizards have thick skins, birds fly to distant water sources. Mammals such as kangaroo rats hide during the heat of the day and emerge from burrows at night. This is the home of the roadrunner, whip-tailed lizard, and diamondback rattlesnake.

At higher elevations, the road passes through a band of desert grassland. Gambel's quail use the grasslands and pockets of brush to feed and hide from predators. In late summer, birds and mammals come from adjoining areas to feast on the bright red fruits of the prickly pear cactus. Coyotes live all along the byway, but are more likely to be seen here. Raptors such as red-tailed hawks and kestrals often perch on power poles or tall yucca stalks, searching for rabbits and grasshoppers.

The highest areas of the byway pass through a community of evergreen trees and shrubs: juniper, pinyon pine, and oak. This is called interior chaparral, and it is the rainiest and coolest of the plant communities. Trees attract migratory birds that come north from the tropics each year to breed. White-crowned sparrows and rufous-sided towhees feed on fallen seeds and insects under the bushes and trees. Birds such as phainopeplas eat mistletoe berries that are poisonous to humans. The thick vegetation at ground level makes it tough for reptiles to move around, although a few snakes, such as striped racers and Arizona black-tailed rattlesnakes are occasionally seen. The trees and thick brush make this the best for mule deer and javelina, but you have to look closely to see them moving across the hillsides.

Where the byway crosses the Gila River, you will see strips of riparian vegetation along both shorelines. Perennial water makes this the most productive plant community. Summer and winter floods can quickly reduce these ribbons of green to barren banks, but flooding also renews life, preparing the river course for the next generation of riparian vegetation. During summer, watch for cliff swallows as they dart and soar, feeding on flying insects.


Rights-of-way for utilities, communications, and transportation are an important use of the vast acreage of the West's public lands. Individuals, businesses, and other governmental entities all benefit from rights-of-way crossing this byway. The Guthrie Peak communication site is a major communications link for southeastern Arizona, and the Federal Aviation Administration tower is important to pilots. Numerous roads, power lines, and a railroad cross the byway. The byway itself is a right-of-way, a road maintained by Graham and Greenlee counties.


Recreational pursuits along the byway are limited only by your imagination and abilities. Many primitive side roads provide opportunities for off-highway vehicle driving, and a challenging ride for the experienced mountain bicycler. Rock collectors can visit the nearby Black Hills Rockhound Area, while interesting rock formations along the road can be studied and photographed. Hiking along side roads, trails, or cross-country can be rewarded with scenic vistas of the Gila Box or close-up views of the area's plentiful wildlife. Camping and picnicking are permitted on public lands along the road, with several developed sites available. Midway on the byway, the Canyon Overlook Picnic Area provides shaded ramadas with a scenic vista of the Gila River canyon. Closer to the east end of the byway is the Owl Creek Campground with seven units perched on a cliff overlooking the historic Old Safford Bridge. The south end of the bridge is a popular launch site for those floating the Gila River and for fishing for catfish. The north end of the bridge has a small picnic area. Mule deer, javelina, and quail can be hunted on public lands along the byway.

Rancher moving his cattle along the BywayLivestock

Almost 700 head of cattle graze 65,000 acres on the five ranches the byway crosses. Ranching families, some of whom have operated here since the 1800s, still live close to the land. Grazing systems developed by ranchers and BLM range specialists provide periodic rest for pastures to maintain and enhance healthy ecosystems. Vegetation, livestock, wildlife, and weather are monitored and management is adjusted to meet changing conditions. Over the years, a number of range improvements have been constructed. These include a network of water developments and a system of fences that protect riparian areas and allow rotation of cattle among the many pastures.

Looking upstream at the Gila RiverGila Box Riparian National Conservation Area

The byway crosses the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area between mileposts 17 and 18. Designated by Congress in 1990, the conservation area includes 22,000 acres of scenic desert canyons surrounding perennial rivers and creeks. A 15-mile segment of Bonita Creek and 23 miles of the Gila River, including the steep-walled Gila Box, form the core of the NCA. Two other perennial waterways, Eagle Creek and the San Francisco River, flow into the Gila Box. Rafting, backpacking, hiking, birding, horseback riding, photography, and camping are just a few to the popular activities in the area.

Black Hills Rockhound Area

The principal attraction for rock collectors here is fire agate. Fire agate is a relatively new gemstone, only identified and formally recognized in the 1930s. It has the color play of precious opal with gem quality reds, greens, and blues.

The desert regions of Arizona, southern California, and central Mexico are the only areas of the world where fire agate is known to occur. Although its origin is unknown, it is always associated with volcanic deposits.

This rockhound area makes a great day adventure for rock collectors. The site is open for digging by the public without fees or permits. Camping throughout the area is allowed for up to two weeks. Access is easiest from U.S. Highway 191, just east of milepost 141.


Climatic conditions in the area are similar to those throughout the desert Southwest, with mild to warm temperatures throughout the year. Summer highs typically reach between 85 to 100 degrees, with lows around 60. Mild winter days average around 60 degrees; nights about 30. Precipitation, mostly rain, averages 12 inches, and occurs primarily in summer and winter. Summertime thunderstorms can be very intense. An occasional winter snow is not uncommon, but it usually doesn't take long to melt.

Arizona weather can change quickly. Be prepared. Dress in layers, wear a hat, and pack sunscreen. Always carry plenty of water.

Finding Us

The Black Hills Back Country Byway is located between Safford and Clifton in southeastern Arizona, about three hours northeast of Tucson or 3 1/2 hours east of Phoenix. Both ends of the byway are accessed from U.S. Highway 191. The southern end is at milepost 139, the northern end at milepost 160.

Audio cassettes interpreting the colorful history of the byway are also available. To purchase a tape, or for more information about the many scenic and recreational attractions available in Graham and Greenlee counties, contact:

Graham County
Chamber of Commerce
IIII Thatcher Blvd.
Safford, AZ 85546
888-837-1481 (toll free)
Greenlee County
Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 1237
Clifton, AZ 85533
BLM Safford Field Office
(see below)

The Black Hills Back Country Byway is a cooperative effort between the Bureau of Land Management, Graham and Greenlee counties, local communities, and the Phelps Dodge Corporation. This project was financed, in part, from the Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Fund administered by the Arizona State Parks Board.

This byway is part of the Bureau of Land Management's National Back Country Byway system, offering opportunities to rediscover the splendor of the West's public lands along scenic corridors that are "off the beaten path." BLM's Back Country Byway national partners include Farmers Insurance Group, American Isuzu Motors, Inc., and the American Recreation Coalition.

  Safford Field Office
711 14th Avenue
Safford, AZ 85546-3337
Phone: (928) 348-4400
Fax: (928) 348-4450
Field Manager:  Scott Cooke
Hours: 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., M-F