The mostly two-lane U.S. Highway 180 travels through historic, scenic and scientific regions in northern Arizona. The highway winds through Texas and New Mexico before reaching the eastern border of Arizona where it generally follows ancient paths and wagon roads that connected small communities and water sources.
Arizona’s portion is about 170 disconnected miles and the only four- lane section is along I-40 between Holbrook and Flagstaff. It has been somewhat re-routed over the decades as it now bypasses Concho and Hunt. The elevation fluctuates between Alpine’s 8,050 feet, to the Petrified Forest at 5,400 feet, to Winslow at 3,700 feet, to Flagstaff’s 6,900 feet and around the base of the San Francisco Peaks at 7,300 feet, and finally to Valle’s 5,900 feet. The physical environment is much the same as it has been for centuries and two national parks are reached from this road: the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest. Following is a brief list of some attractions along this route traveling east to west:
Lake Luna: A lovely spot for a picnic just east of Alpine on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
Alpine: This charming town was originally known as Bush Valley for an early settler, then called Frisco. In 1885, the Post Office assigned the name Alpine because of its 8,050 feet elevation.
Nutrioso: Legend says early settler killed a beaver and a bear and named it “Nutria” for the beaver and “Oso” for the bear.
Springerville: A rowdy historic town, residents included the infamous Clantons who may be better known for their Tombstone presence. The town was given its name for a local merchant who didn’t stay long. One of the nation’s 12 ‘Madonna of the Trail’ statues is located here.
These 18-feet high granite monuments were sculpted by August Lienback to honor America’s pioneer women.
Lyman Lake State Park: Little Colorado River water was dammed at this location by LDS settlers several times before the dam held. It is also the site of prehistoric ruins. This portion of U.S. Highway 180 is sometimes known as the Mormon Honeymoon Trail as it carried LDS couples to St. George, Utah, to seal their marriages in the temple.
St. Johns: Originally named San Juan by settlers who were sheep owners. They built a bridge across the Little Colorado River and charged freighters moving goods between Zuni and Fort Wingate. LDS moved in about 1880 and eventually settled adjacent to the Mexican town. When the Post Office was established in 1880, the name was changed to St. John. An ‘s’ was added to the end of the name somewhere along the way.
Petrified Forest: This area of ancient trees hardened into stone was first in private ownership in 1887. By 1896, a business was grinding the stone into powder to use as emery. Locals protested the destruction of the priceless scientific evidence and the U.S. secretary of the interior quickly took action to protect the site by naming it a national monument in 1900. It is now a national park.
Holbrook: This frontier town flourished because of its proximity to the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Puerco Rivers. The railroad’s arrival also helped ensure its survival. It has a raucous history particularly because of the presence of cowboys from the Aztec Land and Cattle Company (aka the Hashknife). It was named by LDS John W. Young for a railroad engineer. U.S. Highway 180 connects with I-40 at this juncture and heads west.
Meteor Crater: Site of an enormous crater that significantly altered the northern Arizona landscape through the displacement of millions of tons of rocks and soil.
Two Guns/Canyon Diablo: This was a temporary camp for railroad workers to live during the months-long construction of the Canyon Diablo railroad bridge. Rumor says this spot was named for an Apache with the last name of Two Guns. Legends abound about this site, but few facts are available, except it was the location of an armed robbery of the railroad in 1889. Sheriff “Buckey” O’Neill led a posse north to southeastern Utah where the bandits were captured and the stolen money recovered.
Fort Valley: Location of a historic LDS fort that gave the area its name. Also the site of permanent water sources at Big and Little Leroux Springs that aided east-west travelers. In 1990, this part of U.S. Highway 180 was designated as the San Francisco Peaks Scenic Road.
Kendrick Park: Kendrick Peak, named for military explorer Major H.L. Kendrick, overlooks this valley that was a substantial farming area up until the 1940s.
Valle: This terminus for U.S. Highway 180 seems to have existed for the Grand Canyon railroad. It is also the site of an airport business venture designed to provide easy access to the Grand Canyon South Rim, and the Arizona Snowbowl resort. This 1950s project provided funding for the paving of U.S. Highway 180 between Fort Valley and Valle. The final and newest portion between Flagstaff and Valle became part of U.S. Highway 180 in 1961.
— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of the author.