That last bump nearly jolted me out of my passenger seat and I heard Susan sigh anxiously from behind me. I don't blame her; she'd just put four new tires on her SUV and the rocks in the deeply rutted dirt road looked sharp enough to slice the sturdiest of tires and large enough to scrape the oil pan right off. Brian was doing his best to carefully and slowly navigate around the worse of it, but it quickly became apparent that the single-lane, rock-strewn road to Mount Ord, with its tight switchbacks and no guardrails, was definitely not for wimps. But for birders, it is well worth the fist-clenching, gut-wrenching jaunt up the steep road to experience some of the best birding in Maricopa county. At least it usually is. But I'm getting ahead of my story. Some background first.
Mount Ord, 50 miles from Phoenix, is in the Tonto National Forest, its summit straddling the line dividing Maricopa and Gila counties. It is named after Major General Edward Ord, an American engineer and U.S. Army officer, who saw action in the Seminole War, the Indian Wars and the American Civil War. Mount Ord is the second highest mountain in the Mazatzal mountain range, standing at 7,128 feet and encompassing a variety of environments from Upper Sonoran landscape of creosote, saguaro and paloverde, through grasslands of manzanita and up into a deciduous forest of Gambel oak trees and pines. From the top, Roosevelt Lake, the Four Peaks and the Mogollon Rim can all be seen. A forest service road, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, leads from the base of the mountain to the summit, with the last few miles of the seven-plus-mile dirt road restricted to foot traffic (except for forest personnel) as it winds around the south side of the peak and ends amid communication towers and a 102-foot fire tower that crowns the windswept summit.
We parked the car at the base and as we began to walk the steep trail called FR 1688, we were disappointed to hear a child screaming into the echoing forest and it wasn't long before we came upon the family's campsite just off the trail. We blamed the lack of birds on the noisy child and barking dog, but the further we climbed, the quieter it got. Where there should have been all kinds of tweets and twitters, chatters and chirps, all we could hear was our own labored breathing and an occasional squirrel amid the quiet hum of Mother Nature in the midst of a change of seasons.
Maybe it was the crisp air and the deep shadows, we reasoned, that kept the birds in their hiding places this early fall morning, so we hiked on and were encouraged when we walked through a sunlit area and the bird activity picked up. We spotted a couple of Woodhouse's Scrub-Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers and even a Ladder-backed Woodpecker (unusual for this elevation), as well as Bridled Titmouse, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Northern Flickers.
Heading back down a slightly different path through tall pines and oaks in early fall colors, we were rewarded with sightings of not just one, but two Steller's Jays, an infrequent bird to Maricopa County.
We climbed back into the car and continued up the main road toward the summit, stopping at a metal gate that blocked auto traffic to the very top where the communication towers are located. As we walked, dramatic views of the Mogollon Rim awaited us around every switchback and we could clearly see the sheer cliff face that is the southernmost edge of the Colorado Plateau. We also found a few good birds, including a male Olive Warbler, a first for me.
Returning to the car, we headed back down the mountain the same way we came up. As we reached the highway, we took a moment to gloat about our accomplishments: we made it up and back in one piece without having to pass another car, Susan's SUV and the new tires were undamaged and we had a number of good bird sightings, despite the eerily quiet morning. Susan suggested that we have t-shirts made with "I survived the road to Mount Ord" on the front. She then repeated her vow to never drive that road again, but I know she'll be back. After all, we'd just proved we're no wimps.
I hope you enjoy these images from the trip. My thanks to Brian and Susan for showing me the wonders of Mount Ord.