Originally Published: September 2, 2008 9:56 a.m.
Some call it a backroads recreational paradise. Some call it a great place to hide out. And some call it a rare surviving remnant of Arizona's colorful mining history.
But all the people who make the effort to wind about 30 miles along dirt roads through the Prescott National Forest to the tiny mountain village of Crown King find themselves in a rare corner of Arizona.
When drivers reach the almost-ghost-town of Cleator, they're ready to approach the most challenging leg of the drive. But first, be sure to stop at the Cleator Bar and shout a hello to its friendly owners, Dave and Darlene Rhodes.
The next 13-mile segment climbs about 3,000 feet over a former narrow-gauge railroad bed. That's the easy route to town, by the way.
On our most recent venture we entertained ourselves with trying to count the switchbacks (four), one-lane segments cut through the mountainsides (about 23), and unusually gargantuan Datura plants (about 50, each featuring numerous 5-inch-wide white flowers that open up only at night).
The appearance of what locals call the "Magic Bridge" signals the arrival at Crown King, where the desert flora instantly gives way to the ponderosa pine forest.
These days the bridge crossing is even more dramatic, since the Lane 2 wildfire torched its way right up to the bridge in July.
"We're definitely unique," said Carol Boles, who owns the Crown King General Store. "You drive 28 miles over a dirt road and end up in a little mountain paradise."
Crown King has been a popular summer escape for overheated Phoenicians since the 1930s, when the City of Phoenix leased acreage in nearby Horsethief Basin from the Prescott National Forest to build a dance hall, lake, playground and cabins.
It's uncanny how many conversations one overhears about visitors longing to return forever.
"You just get hooked on it," said Boles, who first came here from Phoenix with her husband Ben 30 years ago. They eventually bought the 104-year-old Crown King General Store four years ago, one of the few businesses on the dirt main street that stretches only a block on one side of the road. The store features all the basic camping supplies as well as food, history books and souvenirs.
Crown King Curio store owners Greg and Aimee Flores moved up here nine years ago from Scottsdale to escape the stress of the restaurant business that had reached a debilitating level for Greg.
"A lot of folks would love to get out of that rat race," Greg said.
Flores now spends his days creating glass-etch artwork, molding jewelry out of gold from his mine near Bumblebee, and printing Crown King graphics on everything from shirts to shot glasses to wall clocks for sale at the store.
The Flores are building a new, larger store called the Prospector Mall that should open in September. At seven times the size, he'll be able to add a printing facility and glass etch shop on site.
After the fire
The half-dozen or so business owners in Crown King appear to be recovering from the 9,629-acre Lane 2 fire that forced the 100-odd residents and their visitors to evacuate. The town and its surroundings were closed to the public for 11 days until July 9.
The Forest Service helped soften the economic blow by allowing the owners of the two restaurants and general store to return early and feed firefighters.
"It's hard to tell how much business was affected by the fire and how much by the economy," Carol Boles said. She generally believes the fire's effects could have been worse.
The publicity about the fire actually has attracted some visitors, she noted.
"A lot of folks I haven't seen in awhile are coming up to see how things look," Greg Flores said.
While the Forest Service has temporarily closed Horsethief Basin because of the fire, plenty of dispersed campsites, trails and backroads remain open to the public. Visitors literally can set up camp a few blocks away from main street.
The human-caused blaze claimed five homes on the southern fringes of the community. It was the closest any wildfire ever came to torching the town.
But firefighters somehow saved Crown King proper from the flames that ended up within about 200 yards of The Mill Restaurant.
Owners Mike and Sam Marie Christie built The Mill in 1995 out of pieces of old local mining structures. A dining room focal point is the towering, 115-year-old Gladiator Stamp Mill.
Born from the mines
The region was founded on mining; Crown King sprung up at the former Crowned King Mine.
Remnants of former towns and mines literally dot the hillsides. For example a sign along Senator Highway just a few miles south of town commemorates the site of Bradshaw City, a once-bustling community that rose from a mining operation in 1871 but was abandoned by 1880.
A lost camper allegedly ignited the Lane 2 fire in a steep canyon near the former Oro Belle Mine a few miles south of Crown King.
When the ore played out at Oro Belle, miner and town butcher Tom Anderson hired stage driver Frank Morgan and his burros to haul its two-story saloon piece by piece to the latest boomtown of Crown King sometime around 1916, according to the Crown King history book by the late Bruce Wilson.
The saloon is the main gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Owners Mike and Dawn Colt rent overnight rooms in the former brothel on the second floor. Some say the ghost of at least one of the ladies of the night, nicknamed Leatherbelly, still roams the hallways.
Mining still exists around Crown King today, but mostly the town mines tourists.
Crown King hosts a variety of annual events, from the horseshoe pitch in May to the apple festival in October. More than 100 people attended the "Wine in the Pines" charity event at The Mill July 26, which started immediately after a downpour ended.
Some of the more bawdy annual events include July's Crown King Luau ("Come get lei'd" is the theme) to September's Crown King Open Golf Tourney, in which players smack balls down a winding dirt road while making pit stops for drinks along the way.
The community also has its traditional small-town events, such as the ever-popular chili cook-off Oct. 4 and the Fire Department Dinner and Dance Sept. 20.
New this year will be the firefighters appreciation banquet and dance at 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 30 over Labor Day Weekend at The Mill.
The community is inviting all the firefighters who helped save this Arizona gem.