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1971 Chevrolet Corvette Cruising in Phoenix

By any other name…Phoenix and its environs would still make for one sweet drive

Steve Temple Apr 22, 2014
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Before there was ever a city named Phoenix in Arizona, there were pumpkins—lots of 'em. So many, in fact, that the area was named Pumpkinville. Patches of these orange gourds flourished along the canals a few miles east of the current city center. So while not exactly as romantic sounding or socially sophisticated as a mythological bird of fire, this early fruit-inspired appellation was nonetheless appropriate.

The name Phoenix eventually won out because the city was born from Indian ruins, much like the eponymous creature that arose from its ashes. Those pumpkin-lined canals actually dated back to much earlier times when the Hohokam Native Americans lived there for about 2,000 years, building some 135 miles of irrigation ditches and turning the desert into arable land.

Pumpkinville Arizona 2/8

As you might expect in such an arid area, water resources have traditionally dictated the ebb and flow of the fortunes of Phoenix. After a combination of extended drought and severe flooding, the Hohokam were forced to abandon what had become a substantial trade center.

Yet some infamous events have also influenced the city's colorful, "Wild West" character, which in the long run turned it into an ideal destination for touring, especially in a souped-up Corvette. No surprise then, that Phoenix has nearly a dozen different clubs for Vette owners. But before touching on those various sights and routes, including the area's passion for cars in general, we should provide a bit more information on the background that gave rise to the city's auto-centric culture.

With the arrival of Confederate Army veteran Jack Swilling in the 1860s, the ancient Indian water system was revived. It would endure to serve as the foundation for some modern-day water projects as well. And while railroads were also a key factor in the growth of Phoenix, the city's streetcars eventually became a source of contention. Their suspicious torching in 1947 led to the development of an extensive road system, with automobiles subsequently becoming the preferred method of transportation.

1971 Chevrolet Corvette Arizona State 3/8

Concert halls, along with sports and other activities, can be found on the campus of Arizona State University.

This shift to reliance on cars and trucks no doubt contributed to the area's current automotive enthusiasm, evidenced by the massive collector-car auctions held each year in Scottsdale. So whether you plan on bidding on or selling a collectible, or piloting a new Stingray at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, there are all sorts compelling Corvette "roads" to explore in and around Phoenix.

To aid us in our quest, we turned to longtime resident and Corvette owner Chuck McCleary, who was generous with his time and knowledge of the area. He's owned his matching-numbers Miglia Red '71 Vette since 2005, and he's put thousands of miles on the odometer exploring the city and environs. Powered by a 350 and backed by a Turbo 400, it's a dependable runner, and it gives a good account of itself when tooling around town or through the canyons.

Speaking of in-town touring, another Phoenix native we contacted—John Washington of Reaction Research, which makes a Ferrari GTO–style body conversion for the C4—pointed out how the streets are laid out in a systematic grid, with the traffic lights all operating pretty much in sync. That makes for fewer stoplights starts, plus simpler navigation.

If you prefer to stay close to town, one of our favorite stops is Papago Park, dotted with eerie sandstone formations and surrounded by walking trails. The park is also home to a couple of the city's more popular destinations, the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden.

 Chevrolet Corvette Papago 4/8

Interesting historical side note: This location was once the site of a WWII–era POW camp. German soldiers interned there hatched an escape scheme that involved floating down the Salt River to Mexico (a questionable stratagem, considering that Mexico had declared war on the Axis powers in 1942.) What they didn't realize is that the bed of this waterway was mostly unnavigable, so they were left high and dry, and were quickly apprehended.

Escaping from Papago Park to other sights in the area is much easier by road. We'd recommend a visit to Scottsdale's Old Town district, to savor its rustic Western style. Located a few minutes northwest of Phoenix, downtown Scottsdale is a tony spot that combines cowboy and couture, as it's chockfull of art galleries, restaurants, shops, museums, and nightclubs.

If you'd rather flee from the urban experience to blow out the pipes on your Vette, there's all sorts of expansive desert terrain outside of the city, making it easy to find remote roads suitable for triple-digit bursts of speed. On a couple of cross-country drives, we've veered off the main highway to take a shortcut heading northeast through Payson and Holbrook on Routes 87, 260, and 377. These detours offer a thrilling combination of winding mountain roads and long, flat straightaways.

Another excursion was shared by Phoenix resident Bruce Dickson of Corvette Performance Arizona , who hosts the popular "Corvettes and Caffeine" monthly gathering at his shop. "I recommend taking Hwy 260 north of Phoenix to Cottonwood, then 89A to Jerome, and then backtracking on 89A to Sedona," he advises. "It's a real ‘Corvette Road', with lots of twists and turns." He adds that a great place to stay in Cottonwood is the Tavern Hotel, which offers an excellent weekend package.

Another option, especially if you're headed either to or from Las Vegas, is to take 93 through Wickenburg. City slickers are welcome in this Western enclave, but be prepared to get your boots dusty. Located around 60 miles northwest of Phoenix, Wickenburg feels a million miles away from the bustle of the city. Known for its working ranches, this waypoint is a colorful place where visitors can ride, camp, and even work alongside weathered ranch hands.

Other routes recommended by the award-winning Arizona Highways magazine include Gila-Pinal Scenic Road, a 26-mile stretch of U.S. Route 60 from Phoenix to Globe. This scenic drive runs past some of Arizona's more interesting landmarks and places of legend. From the road, you can see the peaks of the Superstition Mountains, the rocky columns in Devil's Canyon, and picturesque Queen's Creek Canyon.

From there, consider taking the Desert to Tall Pines Scenic Road. It spans 76 miles of State Route 288 from 15 miles northwest of Globe to State Route 260. Be warned, however, that only a portion of it is suitable for Corvettes, since it eventually turns into a dirt road.

The paved, first section of the route snakes along the Salt River Mountains, then crosses the Salt River on a single-lane bridge, where it ascends into the majestic Sierra Ancha. From that vantage point, terrific views of Roosevelt Lake are possible. The second, unpaved stretch features wilderness on both sides as you travel through the sleepy town of Young and then up the Naegelin Rim.

Tempe Mill Avenue 8/8

The Tempe Mill Avenue Bridge is the second-oldest automobile crossing on the Salt River in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and has been in continuous use since its completion in 1931. It was the major transportation link in three transcontinental highways (U.S. Routes 60, 70, and 80), and was Arizona's only north-south route until the freeway system was begun in the 1950s.

Another recommended drive is on the Apache Trail Historic Road, running northeast on 41 miles of State Route 88 from Apache Junction to Theodore Roosevelt Lake. This excursion exemplifies how Arizona can be both harsh and lush, offering views of the Superstition Mountain range and unique roadside attractions on the way to Roosevelt Dam. The initial portion of the route is paved, and meanders past places such as Goldfield, a ghost town with tours and attractions and Canyon Lake.

All told, whether you prefer the allurements of the city or the spectacular scenery of the Southwest, Phoenix has it all. Even if you call it Pumpkinville.



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