Whenever I’d return from a trip to Prescott, friends frequently would remark: “Have you ever gone up the back way? It’s a nice drive up the back way.”
I had no idea what they meant. Which ‘back way?’ There are possibly dozens of ‘back ways’ to Prescott when you consider all the forest service roads, county and state highways and US routes. I’m guessing they mean the ‘front way’ must be the Interstate 17-to-State-Route-69 way, and any alternate route would be the ‘back way.’
For me the back way to Prescott usually was described in two different routes: Route 89 from Wickenburg to Prescott or through Crown King using Senator Highway. The latter would require a four wheel drive vehicle.
While I was scanning the map looking for other possible ‘back ways’ into Prescott, I found Skull Valley on the map. I’d seen this dot on the state map before but didn’t know about the access or anything about the community. Many times these dots are merely highway junctions with a few houses and cluster of post office boxes.
Our drive to Skull Valley was a gorgeous road trip on this sunny, but a bit blustery Saturday. All roads along this route are paved, but the roadway from Skull Valley to Prescott (Iron Springs Road) currently is under construction. December through March may not the best time to be traveling up the hill to the northwest side of Prescott because of possible snow storms and icy roads. Please check local conditions.
However, if you make the trip, when you arrive at Skull Valley, you’ll think you’ve gone back in time. The center of this community is an intersection: a general store on one corner, a working ‘fillin’ station on another corner, and a hometown diner just across the tracks.
Just steps away from the intersection of Old Skull Valley Road and Iron Springs Road is the Skull Valley Depot, now a museum maintained by the Skull Valley Historical Society. June through Labor Day, the museum is open Sundays 2 to 4 p.m. Tours can be arranged by appointment by contacting curator Ida Downing.
The depot building itself was constructed at Cherry Creek near Dewey until 1926 when it was moved to Skull Valley. Trains moved through Skull Valley from 1894 to 1969. It was an important Santa Fe station in Skull Valley, because here the trains had to add engines otherwise they wouldn’t have made it up the steep mountain grade to Iron Springs and on to Prescott. The depot museum exhibits feature antique train and railroad equipment, agricultural tools and other items donated by longtime Skull Valley residents. Adjacent to the depot is the Railroad Section House, where the railway section boss lived. Here, visitors can view more Skull Valley history on display such as a wooden wringer washer, a 1920s kitchen stove and an antique pedal pump organ.
We worked up quite an appetite touring the depot museum and section house so we stopped in at the Skull Valley Diner for lunch. Because we had our collie Molly with us, we dined alfresco. By this time the winds had kicked up and the temperature had dropped – quickly. Hot soup, coffee and a cheeseburger never tasted so good.
After lunch we wanted to take a closer look inside the Skull Valley General Store. This place is the real deal. We were impressed to see wood floors, “penny” candy behind the counter, several huge antique glass display cases full of convenience items plus a wood stove crackling away in front of a checkerboard table. On the walls hung signs for fresh bread, eggs, and other locally made goodies. A large homemade quilt hung on supports, possibly a leftover from the Skull Valley Pie, Ice Cream Social and Quilt Show in October. Plan to spend some browsing time in the general store. Shop for books about cowboys and horse ranching or pick up a souvenir Skull Valley cap.
Another notable feature about Skull Valley is its gas station and garage. On many of our trips along Arizona’s back roads and old highways, we often have encountered some old-style gas stations but the pumps have either been neglected or removed. It’s nice to see folks in Skull Valley have maintained or restored parts of this historic community, whether it’s in the form of a gas station, general store, diner or train depot museum. Skull Valley is a great change of scenery from urban traffic jams and suburban sprawl.
Next week: a tour of the George Phippen memorial studio and gallery