It's difficult to climb and even the name doesn't allow for much hope, but Grief Hill is changing again. The route already has depth in Verde Valley history. Now another chapter is being written.
Yavapai County historian Jean Cross, writing for the Sharlot Hall Museum, quips that the pioneers who established the arduous route through Grief Hill could not have known that the route they chose was probably the most difficult and so it persisted formally for only five years from 1865 through 1870. It is likely that a "crude track" into the Valley followed where hay cutters operated or possibly rancher King Woolsey, she continues.
The first wagons to use the route had to be unloaded and the contents lowered by block and tackle.
When Company K of the New Mexico Cavalry penetrated the valley to create fortifications for white settlers, it is believed they used Grief Hill. They would eventually establish Fort Verde.
But John Schrieber, a State Parks ranger, had a hard time justifying the Indian "massacres" for which Grief Hill is better known. He was able to document only two killings there.
The route was so rugged and steep that it was not long before soldiers who were populating the Fort found a smoother climb between the Verde camp and Fort Whipple.
In 1870 troops from Fort Verde began a new road through the Black Hills to replace the difficult Grief Hill just a little to the east. Engineers followed much of that new trail in the 20th century when the new Interstate 17 trail blazed north for those who wanted a speedier and less fearsome trip.
As was reported in the Weekly Arizona Miner in February 1870, "28 men of Company C, 21st Infantry, were grading a new road north of the old one, and one which avoids the infernal break-neck pitch known as Grief Hill. It will also shorten the distance --- some six miles --- between Prescott and the post."
Another element of Grief Hill is the pathway it forms for the few lingering sheep drives. Only two
Casa Grande sheep ranchers, of Basque descent, continue to follow the historic path that puts thousands of sheep into cool summer grasslands. The route is said to date back to the 1600s, and it became a federally designated livestock driveway in 1919.
In a tale retold recently by Diane Lovett, Carmen Auza recalled that her family and the Manterola sheep ranching family resumed the drives after trying trucking the entire distance between the Casa Grande ranches and the Mogollon Rim pastures for a few years. But that was not practical. Auza said the Forest Service use areas are closed to grazing until June anyway and it is too hot to leave the sheep in the south. The drive, she said, also makes the sheep healthier for breeding. The trip takes 30 to 45 days. The animals are trucked as far as Badger Springs, then driven by hoof through the Verde Valley and on to Flagstaff. The drives begin soon.
In the late 1990s there was avid work to re-discover those trails. And today, there continues to be an effort to re-establish the Black Canyon Trail joining with the Beaverhead-Grief Hill route especially as a future equestrian and perhaps mountain biking ride. Yavapai Supervisor Tom Thurman is an active advocate of that endeavor.
The Black Canyon Trail follows much of the Black Canyon Sheep Driveway route that parallels I-17 to the west.
It passes through the ghost town of Cordes, where the Cordes family celebrates the arrival of the sheep each spring and fall with barbecues.
"There used to be at least seven trails from Casa Grande and the Valley (of the Sun) that came through here," Patsy Cordes told The Daily Courier in 2010. "Except for two, they're all gone now."
The numbers of the fluffy ewes were also much different, in the millions, not thousands of sheep.
Recognizing all that history and lore, now come our contemporaries.
The Town of Camp Verde has asked that the Verde Front committee restore the Grief Hill Trailhead off Cherry Creek Road as part of five interconnected trail systems across the north face of the ridge. In recent years, the Prescott Forest and area agencies and government partners began planning for uses including trails in the Black Hills, leading to the sub-zone of the Verde Front, the north facing ridge line.
The process intends to develop five interconnected trailhead facilities with both motorized and non-motorized links between the Cottonwood-Clarkdale area and the Camp Verde area along the foothills of the range.
The Copper Canyon Trailhead opened in 2012 as a hub of multi-use trail facilities and amenities such as picnic ramadas, grills, restrooms, ATV loading ramps and parking for horse trailers. But a loop trail system has never been realized. Camp Verde is asking that the loop trail be developed.
A second system would restore the Grief Hill Trailhead off the Cherry Creek Road as a hub for a looping trail system. Scant amenities supporting the trailhead have declined in recent years.
Planning would look at both in terms of connectivity to the Black Canyon Trail Sheep Driveway Trail that is under development from the south, as well as connectivity to Upper and Lower Verde Communities.
The City of Cottonwood had already submitted a proposal for the West Mingus Avenue Recreation Area off West Mingus Avenue. That project is currently in the environmental review stage with the Prescott Forest.
The Black Canyon Trailhead near Quail springs was relocated and improved by the Forest last year along with the Hayfield Draw motorized facility.
Through the centuries, travelers, merchants, military and ranchers have already used the route and it has overgrown again and again. Add to that recreationalists. They will also find this one a challenge.
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