Located on the San Carlos Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona, Willow Mountain is a remote, seldom-visited gem of a peak in a part of Arizona no one goes to. The range it belongs to is so unknown, it does not have a formal name. Willow Mountain itself used to host a lookout that was abandoned in the 1960s, and it's still there but ready to fall over any day now. A decent road goes all the way to the summit, but I encourage you to park early and enjoy the easy walk where you will almost certainly be the only person in the range. From the top, you have great views of Mount Baldy, the White Mountain highlands in Greenlee County, Mount Graham and the Natanes Mountains.
The whole journey is a delight and should not be rushed. The drive along Indian Route 8 from US-70 is along good pavement and is very scenic, much of it paralleling the Nantac Rim, the south-facing thousand-foot tall cliffs of the Natanes Mountains. There are old ruins in these cliffs that can be visited. Once above the rim near Point of Pines, you feel like you're hundreds of miles from everywhere. Very few people come here, mainly hunters and fishers, but if you see more than 5 people on your trip, there must be a convention somewhere. This is an area simply ignored by Arizonans and since no one comes here, it's unspoiled and gorgeous, with vast meadows, grass rangeland, and forested hills.
Locate yourself on US-70, about 8 miles east of Peridot (the "main" town of the San Carlos Nation), at the junction with Indian Route 8, signed for "Point of Pines". Drive north on IR-8, following up and over a number of passes and across long stretches of grassy rangeland. The road bends east then southeast, then about 35 miles in, makes a sharp left bend toward the Nantac Rim cliffs up ahead. Here, the road gets steep and gains up and across the cliffs to surmount the rim at Barlow Pass, elevation 6670 ft.
Now on the "other side", the road bends north, passing through heavy ponderosa pine forest. Somewhere along the way, it becomes designed Indian Route 5 (you won't see any signs out here --- this is all going by what the maps say). Stay on the main paved road until ou get to the locale of Point of Pines, about 50 miles since you left US-70. Point of Pines is not a town. It has a ranger's residence, a campground, at least one ranch outfit. The road will make one more bend to the north and the pavement ends. Immediately, you'll turn onto Road SC-2000, signed for B.S. Tank and Malay Gap (again, you won't see any road designation signs). Drive this road northeast a couple miles to a corral, where the main road bends left (north). Here, stay straight and ease onto SC-2010, signed here for "Willow Mtn". SC-2000 is wide hard-pack, but SC-2010 is a two-track with a mostly solid tread but with grass in the center.
Proceed northeast on SC-2010 about a mile to a ford, a small concrete bridge over Willow Creek. Cross it and proceed up a small hill. The quality of the road decreases slightly here. Virtually any vehicle an get here in dry conditions. From this point forward, how far you drive depends on your vehicle and road conditions.
About a mile past the ford, there is a slightly-steep, very rutted segment of the road near Hill 6003. If you cannot proceed past this, back off and camp somewhere in the clearings below. This is about 7 miles from the summit. This segment will require high-clearance and probably 4-wheel drive.
Once past it, the road improves and the next two or three miles is easy going. You'll come to a gate about 2.5 miles past Hill 6003. This gate is a chore to open. Past this gate, you enter into thicker forest of ponderosa and pinon-juniper, with a few good places to camp. The road then drops about 60 feet to Willow Mountain Tank. This is a wide cleared area with an earthen tank and lots of cow dung. It's not a nice place to camp. It is the limit for most stock 4-wheel drive. Here to the summit is about 3 miles.
The road to the summit curls clockwise around the tank and goes up one very ugly rocky stretch. After that, it's a long shelf road with mostly good tread until you reach the high saddles about a mile from the peak. The last mile of road gets narrower, strewn with twigs and leaves and rocks. Where you opt to park is your call.
Wherever you parked, walk to the top by following the road.
You will need a recreational permit from the San Carlos Indian Reservation. You can get one at the Recreation Office in Peridot along US-70. It's well-signed and easy to find, but they only keep 8-5 hours. If coming from Globe, you can get one at the Good-2-Go gas station on the east side of Globe or at the Circle-K, just before US-60 and 70 split. You can also get one at the Bashas supermarket in Peridot, or in Fort Thomas if coming from the east.
Permits are $10/day per adult. They go by midnight to midnight so if you show up the night before, you'll pay $20. I got mine at the Good-2-Go in Globe. The guy there about had a heart attack when I said I wasn't planning to hunt or fish. No one goes to the San Carlos to hike, which is a shame, but means you'll have the hike all to yourself. Also, if you get yours at the Good-2-Go, you'll see it printed off of the last dot-matrix printer in the United States.
Don't take your chances without a permit. The San Carlos Police can seize your belongings as collateral while you pay off any fines they impose.
When to Climb
Winter snows will shut the roads and wet weather may make some of the roads muddy. Late Spring, early Summer and mid-late Fall are dependable, with clear weather and dry conditions. Summer thunderstorms in July-September are common and intense.
There is camping in Point of Pines. Otherwise, you'll camp where ever you park your car. Keep the place clean.