Trail Review: Smiley Rock

Smiley Rock is a scenic trail that circles Woodchute Mountain. The route begins in Jerome, an old mining town turned tourist attraction. The trail starts out easy, with some steep hills and overlooks before entering Martin Canyon. Once in the canyon, you’d best have high clearance and low range. A locker wouldn't hurt.

Trail Access: Jerome calls itself “America’s Most Vertical City”, and aptly so. Each successive street is set up Cleopatra Hill another hundred feet. High Street is the most active part of town, hosting artisan shops, cafes, and even a winery. It is well worth budgeting a few hours to see the town and visit the historical sites. As always, be sure to bring a camera. The trail itself begins on the outskirts north of town on the 72. You’ll pass the historic Gold King Mine and Ghost Town before starting your trek around the mountain.

Woodchute Wilderness: For the first 18.3 miles of the trail you will be driving along dusty roads on the edge of the mountain. The drive offers easy access to the wilderness hiking trails and panoramic vistas of the Verde Valley, red rocks of Sedona, Sycamore Canyon, and the San Francisco Peaks. The route also takes you along a short portion of The Great Western Trail. After passing a power station, the trek will become more difficult. Tight brush and rocky hills are a prelude of the fun to come.

The trail becomes difficult to navigate once you turn onto FS9701V. There are no mile markers or signs to keep you on course. Follow the tracks from previous vehicles as best you can. Once you arrive at Martin Canyon your only marker will be a smiling rock face. This is where it gets tricky. Charles A. Wells and Matt Peterson rate this section as "difficult" in their trail guidebook. Given our recent trip to Moab and our shiny new tires, we were confident this section would provide a fun challenge, even if we didn't have a winch. Or locked axles. Or high ground clearance. Or a buddy to pull us out.

We were a little overconfident.

Smiley Rock: The smug facade of this stone marks the beginning of the boulder field. If you were just on the trail for its scenic vistas, this is your turnaround point. Going forward the trail becomes littered with large rocks. No one stone is hard to mount on its own, but there always seems to be another rock in your way and traction slips away from you at the worst moments. It was dry as a bone while we were on the trail. I do not recommend attempting this in the rain unless your axles are locked.

Picking the right line is essential. Loose rocks are common and if you are too aggressive with the throttle you will send granite flying up under your vehicle and out behind you. The canyon was a tight fit even for our little explorer. In many places, continuing forward is the only option. We (or rather, I) had to stack rocks constantly just to gain enough clearance to slide over an obstacle. And I do mean slide. We hit every part of the gas tank, spare tire, oil pan, and exhaust at one point or another. Thankfully our rig has skid plates covering such vital elements.

The trek through the hard part of Martin Canyon only goes on for about a mile. The trail will undulate slowly from the canyon floor to low ridges. We lost precious time stacking rocks, inching forward, trying new lines. We made progress, but it was painfully slow. The minutes ticked by and before we knew it the sun had abandoned us. We had never tried to navigate a trail at night before and we were about to get a crash course on the subject.

Eventually rocks and boulders gave way to brush and branches. We made our way up and out of the canyon and onto a plateau that looked out over Potato Patch Campground. We stopped here to get a look at the vital components of the vehicle before continuing on to highway 89A. The gas tank had taken on a new shape, and I had crushed the driver side rear shock, but we were serviceable for the road. We took it slow and checked our GPS for the nearest Denny's, as is tradition.

Conclusion: Smiley Rock is a scenic trail granting access to hiking areas and beautiful vistas. It should also provide a fun challenge for built up vehicles. To be frank, we were unprepared for this trail. It was an act of folly. At the time we rode this trail our rig has a scant 9" of ground clearance at its lowest point. Larger tires or a suspension lift would have alleviated a lot of the troubles we faced in the rocks. If you run this trail, bring a wheeling buddy, preferably with a winch.

Trail Rating: 2 out of 5. While the trail has its scenic points, it lacks any notable features. The exception is Jerome, worth a days visit all to itself. Plan a few hours to visit the town.

Difficulty: Easy, Difficult. The first 18 miles of the trail are easy, mostly dirt roads. The challenging point in the trail is near its end, but if you break down in the rocks you could find yourself without an easy path of escape.

Features: Jerome is the largest and most exciting feature of the trail. Plan to spend a few hours here visiting the museums and patronizing the local artists.

Damage Report: We trashed every skid plate and side skirt on the vehicle. Further, my liberal use of the throttle resulted in a toasted clutch that gave out a few blocks from home. Repairing the clutch is covered in the Build Log 0 - Repairs entry.

Further Reading:

Guide to Arizona Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails 2nd Edition
By Charles A. Wells, Matt Peterson