Greens Peak

Evergreens surround autumn-hued aspens in a view from atop Greens Peak. | Bill Hatcher
Evergreens surround autumn-hued aspens in a view from atop Greens Peak. | Bill Hatcher
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, White Mountains
By Noah Austin

The San Francisco Peaks, Escudilla Mountain and Big Lake are just a few of the Arizona locations where people flock to see aspens display their autumn hues. If you’re an aspen enthusiast and you’re reading this magazine, you’ve probably been to one of those places, or to all three. You probably haven’t been to Greens Peak, the focus of this easy 20-mile drive in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona.

It’s time to change that — and if you visit at the right time of year, you’ll see why. (“The right time of year” changes from year to year, so keep an eye on the forecast, but late September and the first three weeks of October are a good bet for catching golden aspen leaves at their most vibrant.)

From State Route 260 near Pole Knoll Recreation Area, head north on Forest Road 117, a well-maintained dirt road that rolls toward Greens Peak. Aspen groves are interspersed with ponderosa pines in the early going, and a sign notes that this is a recovery area for reintroduced Mexican gray wolves. You aren’t likely to see a wolf — according to recent surveys, there are just more than 100 in Arizona and New Mexico — but you could spot elk, pronghorns, mule deer or even a black bear.

Four miles in, you’ll reach an intersection with Forest Road 61. It leads to Forest Road 61C, which in turn leads to the fire lookout atop 10,134-foot Greens Peak — the highest of the rounded volcanic peaks in this section of the White Mountains. You’ll need a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive car to tackle this steep, rutted side trip, but if you’ve got such a vehicle, the view from the summit is hard to beat. In addition to the nearby meadows, evergreens and aspens, you can see Baldy Peak about 15 miles to the south. (If your car isn’t fit for the climb, but your legs are, you can do the side trip as a hike. From FR 117, it’s about 2 miles to the lookout.)

Back on the main route, continue on FR 117 as it winds past the southeast slope of Greens Peak, offering a good view of the aspen groves on the mountain itself. It then curves to the northeast, cutting between Whiting Knoll on the left and St. Peters Dome on the right. At Mile 10.5, you’ll reach an intersection and turn right onto Forest Road 118, which climbs a hill before gently descending into a thick ponderosa forest.

The landscapes along this road aren’t as jaw-dropping as those in the drive’s first half, but that means you can focus more on spotting wildlife. In addition to elk and mule deer, the area attracts numerous bird species, including mountain chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches and golden-crowned kinglets. And in the grasslands surrounding the mountains, keep an eye out for northern harriers and red-tailed hawks.

You’ll finish the drive back on SR 260, about 5 miles east of where you started. From here, it’s a short drive to dinner at Molly Butler Lodge in Greer. You’ll be forgiven, though, if you’d rather check out more aspen leaves in the White Mountains. As you’ll find out at Greens Peak, they’re beautiful this time of year.

Tour Guide

Note: Mileages are approximate. 

Length: 20 miles one way (from State Route 260)
Directions: From Eagar, go west on State Route 260 for 15.8 miles to Forest Road 117. Turn right onto FR 117 and continue 10.5 miles to a “T” intersection. Turn right onto Forest Road 118 (also signed as County Road 1325) and continue 9.5 miles back to SR 260.
Vehicle requirements: None in good weather for the main route. The side trip up Greens Peak requires a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle, such as an SUV or truck.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Springerville Ranger District, 928-333-4372 or fs.usda.gov/asnf