Located within the Ironwood National Monument, with a National Park to the south and the beautiful Tortolita mountains to the northeast, it’s easy to forget about the rugged and remote Silver Bell Mountains to the west of Marana. Out in Avra Valley though, those distant, jagged silhouettes are more than just a beautiful horizon. They are home to the Ironwood Forest National Monument as well as a highly productive copper mine. They don’t attract as many visitors as other local mountain ranges, and for many, that’s part of what makes them so attractive. For this Marana adventure, take a risk on something new.
There are a number of ways to explore this beautiful landscape. Today, we’re going to hit the road for a scenic drive, but hikers, backcountry campers, and rock climbers will all find numerous adventures in this wilderness. When planning this drive, a four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle is strongly recommended.
How to Get to The Silver Bell Mountains
Head west on Avra Valley Road, past the Marana Regional Airport. Aviation has played a major role in this region for many years, starting with the airfields constructed during World War II to train rookie pilots. The El Tiro Glideport still operates on one of the old landing pads near today’s drive, and a brief detour on Pump Station Road will take you there.
For now, continue west on Avra Valley as it snakes into the hills towards the Silver Bell Mine. Asarco uses this site to extract valuable copper and molybdenum from these rocks, minerals which help to enable advanced technology, like the smart phone you’ll probably use to navigate along this drive.
Note the mileage on your odometer when you pass Pump Station road. In 6.75 miles, you will reach a fork, with a dirt road leading to the left. Take this left fork to begin your drive along Silver Bell Road. For many miles, you will travel along this unimproved road, and a four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle is necessary. Use caution along this road during monsoon season, as it will cross through many washes. If you reach a flowing wash, do not attempt to cross it. Either wait for the water to recede or retrace the path to return to Avra Valley Road.
The first parts of this road offer spectacular views of a small cluster of hills south of the mine. Though unnamed, a few trails lead up these slopes, and bushwhacking wouldn’t be difficult here due to the thin vegetation.
As you continue driving, the road will gradually curve northwest along the perimeter of the mine. Keep your eyes peeled for a variety of old relics along the road that point to the long and varied history of this land. At one point, you may notice cattle flanking the roadway. Admire their long, sharp horns from the safety of your vehicle and rest assured that if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
You may also spot a few old buildings perched on the steep slopes of the mine. Though no longer in use, they may once have been home to the miners who lived semi-permanently on this site. If you’re here at night, it’s easy to envy their incredible views of sunsets, saguaros, and thousands of stars.
From a distance, the desert plane often appears as a long, flat expanse of scrubland interspersed with towering mountains. Exploring that land, however, tells a different story. Up and down you’ll scramble on this drive, dropping steeply in and out of washes. Keep an eye on the color of the rocks, and you’ll observe the fascinating geology of this region. In one wash, the boulders will gleam in Sedona red, while in another, the more familiar grays and browns will reflect the bright Sonoran sun.
Keep an eye on the road as you continue to curve around the massive mine. At one point, you’ll pass a sign inviting you to the Ironwood Forest National Monument—this is about the halfway point of this horseshoe-shaped dirt road.
Now you’re heading north, and soon, the memorable profile of Ragged Top Peak will come into view. Its summit is one of the highest points in the Silver Bell Mountains at just under 4000 feet. If you’re looking to hike this bad boy, do your research before you hit the trail. This is not a hike for beginners.
When you’re able to tear your eyes away from Ragged Top, you may be surprised to find a few settled residences along this road. While this is a public road, please be respectful of residents and be careful not to wander onto private property. Admire their perseverance in this hard land from a distance.
Soon, you’ll reach a signed intersection of Silver Bell Rd and Red Rock Lane. If you’re ready to start heading home, take a right, but if you’re still looking for some adventure, go straight. Several miles up Red Rock Lane, you’ll come to Sasco, an old ghost town that was once home to 600 miners and their families. Now only ruins, this site is yet another vestige of Arizona’s history.
If you turned right on Silver Bell, you might grow concerned about driving through a sandy wash. Don’t worry, though. While the road darts in and out of the wash, it’s mostly on graded surface, and if you stay on the main path, you won’t have to worry about sand traps.
Keep an eye on Ragged Top as you skirt its foothills. The mountain never moves, but you do, and each new vantage point affords a new perspective on this topographically fascinating landmark. In the waning hours of sunset, the palette of colors on its slopes changes every few minutes. Whites and browns fade to oranges and reds which fade yet again to blues and purples. Drive out here on a cool fall evening, and you’re in for a light show like no other.
Continuing along Silver Bell Road, you’ll notice a gradual transition from tall, shady ironwood and mesquites to the desert scrub of palo verdes and creosote. Soon you’re passing occasional homes, often surrounded by plenty of space for horses and cattle. Many of these homes demonstrate the iconic adobe architecture of the Sonoran desert. Eventually, you’ll climb back onto the pavement and make your way back to civilization.
It may be hard to return after such a memorable journey, though. To ease the transition, we recommend a stop at The Feed Lot, Cattleman’s Café, near the corner of Kirby Hughes and Luckett Roads. At this western eatery, you can enjoy delicious burgers and fries in an authentic cowboy setting. They host weekly cattle auctions in this same building, and the rustic red siding is no façade. This is the kind of atmosphere that kitschy roadside diners across rural America try to approximate, but when you’re chomping down on a delicious burger, you’ll realize there’s nothing quite like the real thing.
In fact, that’s the takeaway from today’s entire journey. You’ve seen country roads leading to active mines, through thick desert vegetation, across (hopefully) dry washes, and around spectacular mountains. There are many places where open space is carved out of development, but here, there’s nothing but authentic beauty. Discover the wild desert when you Discover Marana.