Sometimes the destination is a place, and sometimes it’s a road. But if you plan well and are lucky, it can be both. US-191, also known as “The Coronado Trail Scenic Byway,” runs through the Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona and is one of the top low traffic, high scenic highways in the country. Its designation used to be US-666, but 666 is reputed to be the devil’s number, and when that number is combined with the complex topography of this part of the road, it became known by those that rode it on two wheels as “The Devil’s Highway.”
Possibly as a public relations effort, the road was renamed US-191not too long ago, perhaps because of all the US-666 signs that kept being stolen, but those who have ridden this road enthusiastically know differently. The route is painted with a fairly straight highway centerline as it continues south from Alpine for about 20 miles, while treating riders to a few easy sweepers. But, once past Hannagan Meadow, it looks as though the painter found the key to a liquor cabinet and didn’t sober up until he got to Clifton, 72 miles down the road. You won’t see 18-wheelers on this section of US-191 as vehicles longer than 40 feet are prohibited; they just can’t make the turns.
I think the best way to ride it is south from Alpine. My preference is to get to Alpine by first riding US-180 north from I-10 at Deming, NM (elev. 4335 feet). US-180 north begins with a straight run of about 35 miles, then transitions into broad sweepers and slow inclines through the Mogollon Mountains until you get to Glenwood. From there to Alpine the road is a bit more twisty, the inclines steeper, and the temperatures much cooler. There are a lot of great picture opportunities along this route.
The elevation at Alpine is 8050 feet. Riding US-191 south, the topography is mostly descending, but the elevations throughout the 95 miles to Clifton (elev. 3450 feet) vary from about three thousand to ten thousand feet, often with lots of challenging twisties and many switchbacks, but also some broad sweepers through sub-alpine woodlands. The two-lane road is well maintained, but there are long stretches of decreasing radius curves where the shoulders are narrow, the rock faces high and sheer, and the drop-offs steep; don't look for guardrails, there aren't any. Posted speed limits range from short distances of 50 mph to long stretches of 15 to 10 mph—and you’ll know why.
For less experienced and careful riders traveling at moderate speeds with good equipment, it’s an opportunity for a safe and stimulating ride on a low traffic road. For experienced motorcyclists, it’s an exhilarating pleasure, but nevertheless one that for even highly competent riders requires much forethought and caution. Be especially careful of taking liberties with double solid centerlines; the sight line between twisties is very short, and it’s impossible to know what’s coming at you around the curve. Take some time to enjoy the pull-offs; there are a fair number of wide, scenic places to catch your breath. It is typical to see mountain sheep, elk, deer, ground squirrels, and cattle. This is a road best ridden in daylight, when it’s dry, and in the company of friends.
Of course, you can start your ride the other way round, heading north from Clifton and ending in Alpine. It’s great both ways, but the character of the two rides will be different. For the rider who wants to challenge the road, I think riding south is best because I personally find that ascending hairpins are trickier than descending ones. But, heading north or south, every time you ride it, it’s different. By the way, before you start in either direction, find a gas station and fill your tank; they’re scarce on this road.
It can take competent riders in a hurry a little more than two hours to make the run; longer if they take it easy and pull over at the wide spots to take in the views and snap a pictures. With sticky tires and lots of experience and stamina a rider can do it faster; it’ll be an exhilarating but exhausting ride. This section of US-191 is a low traffic ride any time of the year. On an early June morning this year, I saw three cars and two motorcycles en-route north and only one car heading south. Heated gear is recommended if you ride before May or after September; the mornings and evenings are cold. July and August is the height of their “monsoon” season, and it usually doesn’t start to snow seriously in the higher elevations until the middle of October. On a late spring or early fall morning, you’re already riding in or above the clouds.
In June, 2011, careless campers caused a fire that burned over 800 square miles of the Bear Wallow Wilderness area, but it’s recovering quickly. Plant and wildlife are returning, and patches of damaged trees are still evident along this road. I saw mountain sheep, elk, and deer just off the road on my June ride this year.
Be sure to stop near the end of the ride at Morenci, near Clifton, AZ, and you’ll see one of the largest copper producing surface mines in the world, contributing about 15 percent to the total world production. It’s worth stopping at the pull-off and snapping a picture.
No matter the destination for motorcyclists, it’s always the ride, but sometimes it can be more than just the road that makes a journey memorable. In Alpine, The Bear Wallow Café is a serendipity bonus. Riders who long for a time before interstates, when there were lots of roadside and rural cafés, where the service was friendly and the décor strictly local embellishments, will enjoy a meal at The Bear Wallow Café in Alpine.
Walking in the door is like visiting the past. Breakfast is my favorite meal there; the food is good and plentiful, but it’s the 11 varieties of pies, as good as those they say grandma used to make, that make me look forward to a Bear Wallow visit. You’ll meet local people who are glad to talk about where you’re from and where you’re going; if you can’t get into a friendly conversation in The Bear Wallow Café, you must be avoiding it on purpose. While you wait for your food to be served, meander about the place and check out the pictures and critters that populate The Bear Wallow’s walls; it’s like a small museum out of time but in the right place. Prepare to relax awhile; The Bear Wallow isn’t a fast food restaurant.
People who ride on two wheels know that there aren’t words to tell non-riders about the feeling; it’s like trying to tell someone what chocolate tastes like. It’s one of those things that must be discovered in person; vicarious doesn’t really work. Every rider experiences and feels a ride in his or her own way, and for different reasons. There are no standardized thrills; each of us is a different rider, and we're tuned into our own perspectives. That’s what makes telling non-riders about the thrill of a ride so difficult, and why we gravitate to organizations like the MOA and local BMW clubs. As I said, you have to experience something to really feel it, and I also believe that you have to share an experience to really enjoy it. So, one of these days try US-191 and some of the neighboring roads, and while you’re there, try the Bear Wallow Café. I know you’ll look forward to going back and doing it again. As a matter of fact, I just did.