For the 50-odd miles between Douglas and the New Mexico state line, old US-80 cuts diagonally across the southeast corner of Arizona, a rugged country of mountains, canyons, and volcanic outcrops rising above sagebrush plains. There’s not much to see along the highway, but to the northwest rise the enticing Pedregosa Mountains, whose forested peaks, now protected as part of the Coronado National Forest, long served as sanctuary to Chiricahua Apache people and sundry outlaws and wanted men. While you can also reach them from the north off I-10, the best access to the mountains from the south is via the aptly named hamlet of Portal, west of old US-80 from the New Mexico state line. In Portal, the Portal Peak Lodge (2358 Rock House Rd., 520/558-2223, around $85) is a welcoming oasis, offering peace and quiet, fresh food, and comfortable rooms, plus a handful of nearby cabins.
Above Portal to the west rise the sheer cliffs of Cave Creek Canyon, which writer William Least Heat-Moon described in Blue Highways as “one of the strangest pieces of topography I’ve ever seen,” its pale sandstone walls looking like a sun-bleached twin of Utah’s Zion National Park. Fitting in well with its astounding natural setting, Cave Creek Canyon draws visitors who come to enjoy its superb bird-watching, with more species in one place than you can find anywhere else in the United States, including hummingbirds, bright red cardinals, tanagers, and raptors. Birds and bird watchers flock to Cave Creek Ranch ($125 and up, 520/558-2334).
A narrow but passable (except in winter) 20-mile dirt road from Cave Creek climbs over the mountains’ pine-covered 7,975-foot-high crest, ending up in the west at the foot of intriguing Chiricahua National Monument, a veritable “Wonderland of Rocks” whose contorted shapes were formed out of soft volcanic rhyolite by eons of erosion.