Exploring the old Black Canyon Stage Route is a unique Arizona trip into history. Black Canyon AZ is all about the wild west days of the Arizona Territory. Stagecoach routes, stage coach robberies by the highwaymen, gold mining and frontier settlements. These are all about Black Canyon Arizona and the stage coach’s that traveled this important trail.
Black Canyon AZ was in the area of the Arizona stage coach line between Prescott and Phoenix Arizona. The Black Canyon Route offered plenty of challenges for the Concord Stagecoach drivers, often referred to as “whips“, in addition to avoid being robbed. The change in elevation going from Phoenix to Prescott is some 4,000 feet. This meant starting out in a desert climate and traveling north into a mountainous climate with the expected changes in weather. This was the time of Arizona Territorial days. Prescott, being the Territorial Capital, was a busy place and transportation to it was essential. The best known trail was named the Black Canyon wagon road and stage route which was established years earlier. Starting in 1872, a stage stop on the Agua Fria River, north of Phoenix and the Swilling Ranch further north were a few of the stops serving the stage route. Remarkably, the Arizona stage coach service between Phoenix and Prescott continued until 1917. This was one of the longest running stage routes in the west. Long after Henry Ford developed his Model T.
One of the best books you’ll find on this subject is Arizona Trails and Tales: True Adventures in Arizona’s Old West, by author Charles D. Lauer. Lauer describes just how dangerous this stage trail was resulting in the Wells Fargo Express Company to halt shipments over the route. The portion of the trail around the now ghost town of Gillette Arizona, south of Prescott, saw holdups on a fairly regular basis. The trail was surrounded by boulders and scrub that made it easy for the highwaymen, the term used at that time, to hide and ambush the stagecoach. It was the kind of route where old west legends were made.
The Two Routes From Phoenix to Prescott
Interestingly enough, the Black Canyon route was a secondary route between Phoenix and Prescott during the Arizona Territory days. The regular route went northwest from Phoenix through Wickenburg. Wickenburg was a busy town being closer to California and the ports along the Colorado River. This route ran to Prescott west of the Black Canyon Route. The primary route through Wickenburg was preferred by most freighters because it was much flatter than the Black Canyon Route. The Wickenburg route also had a few less, although still some, old western outlaws lurking around.
The Black Canyon route really grew in prominence when gold and silver mining hit it big in the now ghost town of Tip Top. The town of Gillette, just east of Tip Top actually came into being because of the mining at Tip Top. This became a busy stage route and had many interesting passengers travel on it. Some say that the Earp brothers and Bat Masterson were one time visitors. In addition to this, there was a need for transportation between the old Fort Whipple, located in present day Prescott, and Phoenix. Two additional articles you’ll enjoy from our Western Trips site is the First Yuma Territorial Prison Female Inmate and the story of California’s famous female stagecoach driver Charley Parker.
Viewing the Old Black Canyon Stagecoach Route Today
One of the more interesting things about the old Black Canyon AZ stage route is how it follows many of today’s modern highways and because of this is relatively easy to explore, at least some of it. In the above mentioned book, Charles D. Lauer states that the old Black Canyon stage trail can be seen in many places along present day Interstate- 17 north of Phoenix. In fact, Interstate-17 is often called “The Black Canyon Freeway“. When the Interstate passes New River Arizona bridge, the old stage station can be seen as part of an old service station along the dry creek bed. At this point, the trail has come from Phoenix to Cave Creek and from there on to this New River station.
From the New River area this Arizona Territory stage route ran north to Black Canyon City which was then called “Canon“. The photo at left is of the Agua Fria National Monument just northeast of Black Canyon City and about forty miles north of Phoenix. This is the general route of Interstate-17.
About twelve miles north of Black Canyon City the old trail can be spotted to the west as it wound it’s way up to Bumble Bee, another ghost town. You can actually see the site of the Bumble Bee ghost town to the west from the Interstate’s Sunset Point rest stop. The stage route made it’s way further north to near present day Mayer Arizona. Mayer is about ten miles west of the Interstate on Highway 69. From Mayer to Prescott, the old stagecoach route follows closely this highway all the way northwest to Prescott. From Interstate-17 you can access Highway 69 at Cordes Junction. There are segments of the old trail that go on and off the present Highway 69.
While driving Interstate-17 north of Phoenix to Cordes Junction and then northwest on Highway 69 allows you many opportunities to observe this historic stage route, it is possible for the most adventurous of explorers to actually travel over the trail itself. Because of trail conditions that are basically unpaved one lane ruts in many places, experiencing this would likely require a four wheel drive truck. You’d also have to be on the lookout for any possible traffic coming from the opposite direction, especially around bends in the road. Nevertheless, taking this route would certainly be an historic experience and a real trip into the history of the Arizona Territory.
(Photo of Concord Coach is from author’s collection. Remaining photos are in the public domain)