In no more than an hour, we had climbed from the hot desert flats of Phoenix into the Arizona High Country, a refreshing mountain realm of strange and startling beauty. Huge pink-colored rocks tower above forests of evergreens in as jumbled a terrain as I have ever explored. Frequently, our car seemed pointed to the sky as we ascended yet another steep pass. And more than once we nosed down a canyon wall so precipitous I felt as if we might be caught in a spiraling plunge to the center of the earth.

Hardly knowing what to expect, I had mapped out a four-day, 1,000-mile drive into the legendary landscape of the Tonto Rim, made famous by author Zane Grey, and beyond to Fort Apache, the Painted Desert and the wonderfully bizarre Petrified Forest. One day, we tackled the tortuous 123-mile Coronado Trail, the presumed alpine path of the 16th-century Spanish conquistador in his search for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. On another, we descended deep into the Salt River Canyon, an awesome gorge that might be the wonder of the state if it weren't so close to the Grand Canyon.

Our roller-coaster route took us northeast from Phoenix in a wide loop over mostly lightly traveled roads through a vast expanse of national forest and park lands. Our primary goal was spectacular vistas, the chief reward of any mountain drive. But almost into this century Arizona was still a wild and perilous frontier state, and the sad tale of bloody conflict between the Apaches who had hunted the land for generations and the invading settlers is detailed along the way.

Well into the trip, we detoured off the main highway intending to visit famed Fort Apache in the heart of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, home today of the White Mountain Apaches. The narrow road twisted over Geronimo Pass, named for one of the most famous Apache leaders in the Apache Wars, and carried us on to Whiteriver, the principal community on the reservation. Suddenly, a crowd loomed ahead, and tribal police officers waved us from the road. What was going on?

We had chanced upon an Apache festival, and most of the reservation had gathered beside the road to wait for the big parade, which was on its way. A noisy, colorful affair, the procession was a curious mix of modern Americana and tribal traditions. At its head, the ceremonial queen rode in a fine new convertible that was draped in handwoven Indian blankets. Behind her followed bare-chested male dancers adorned with elaborate feathered headdresses, large bells jangling about their ankles. And after them came the lively and much-applauded Apache Spirit -- a hard rock band.

The four-day drive was long, but I found it more refreshing than tiring because of the constantly changing scenery. At the northernmost point of our loop, we stood on a high ledge peering across the Painted Desert, a vast and empty wasteland redeemed by broad bands of color -- crimson and orange and pink -- splashed across the scrambled rocks. A few hours later, we had climbed above 9,000 feet on the Coronado Trail -- U.S. 666 south through Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest -- to verdant alpine meadows ablaze in wildflowers.

The Coronado Trail ranks as just one of the most beautiful stretches of road we covered, but it definitely was the most exciting. We hurried along as best we could, but it still took us a full four hours to negotiate its 123 miles because of the many cliff-clinging twists and turns. Several times the maximum posted speed limit dropped to 10 miles an hour, and I had no inclination to exceed it. The reward for this little test of nerves was picture-postcard panoramas of pine-draped ridges leap-frogging across the horizon.

Mostly we stuck to back roads, which took us into a part of Arizona not yet much discovered by tourists. On a late summer day, we drove the Coronado Trail for miles at a time without seeing another car. Once we were stopped for 15 to 20 minutes because of road work, and when the time came to move on not another vehicle waited in line behind us. We ate lunch in the village of Alpine, the gateway to the scenic route, and appeared to be the only outsiders. It really wasn't hard to tell. I wore bright blue shorts, a pink knit pullover shirt and white sneakers. Every other male in the place sported scuffed boots, faded jeans and a large cowboy hat.

The trip's big surprise turned out to be the Petrified Forest National Park, a relatively small park protecting a fallen forest of giant trees turned to stone over the ages. It is the most dramatic display of petrified wood anywhere. In my planning, however, I had allotted it only an afternoon. But we became so fascinated by the colorful rock formations we spent the night in a motel in nearby Holbrook and returned the next morning to hike more of its unusual trails.

One of them, the mile-long Blue Mesa Trail, drops quickly down a rocky slope into a desolate valley of hard-packed gray clay. Into this bleak badlands has tumbled an array of fossilized logs and segments. They lay scattered across the valley, their slick, polished surfaces displaying a rainbow of colors like field flowers on a moonscape. In the distance, I saw a pronghorn antelope who, I suspect, found little but rock to nibble on.

The Arizona we toured is rugged outdoor country, dotted with clear lakes, cut by countless tumbling trout-fishing streams and traced by miles of marked hiking trails. Along the way, we passed many woodland campgrounds, some of them maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and others operated by the White Mountain Apaches. I had hoped to see and do it all in four days, but that was a foolish thought. A week or two might have been more realistic.

We got an early start the first morning of our drive to avoid the desert heat. Summer temperatures can be fierce in Phoenix, and we had arrived in the midst of a particularly oppressive heat wave. But very rapidly we began to gain altitude, and as we climbed the temperatures moderated. Until we arrived back in Phoenix again, the heat was never a problem and nights in the mountains proved comfortably cool.

We headed northeast on Arizona Highway 87, bound for the Petrified Forest -- about a three-hour drive away. On the outskirts of Phoenix, we passed through a forest of saguaro, the stately cactus that stand at stiff attention alongside the road like a formal honor guard. They are a friendly presence, I think, and I'm always waiting for one of them to wave an upraised arm in welcome or farewell.

Our route took us over a series of mountain ridges past soaring pinnacles and huge pink boulders shaped like giant scoops of ice cream. The saguaro soon gave way to manzanita and juniper, which in turn yielded to the cedars and other evergreens of the Tonto National Forest. Ahead was the sheer face of the 7,000-foot-high Mogollon Rim, a scenic escarpment known locally as the Tonto Rim.

Between 1915 and 1925, author Zane Grey often worked in a small cabin in the shadow of the rim, and several of his more than 50 western novels are set in the Tonto Basin. Indeed, one of the best known of his works is "Under the Tonto Rim." Unfortunately, the cabin, a few miles northeast of the town of Payson, was destroyed recently in a forest fire.

Mel Counseller, the former curator of the cabin, and his wife continue to operate a small gift shop at Kohl's Ranch Resort, a large, comfortable-looking motel and restaurant about five miles from the cabin site. Avid Grey fans, the couple stocks most of Grey's books. I picked up "30,000 on the Hoof" to read as I toured the Tonto region, sharing Grey's obvious delight in the beauty of the countryside.

From Payson, we ascended the Tonto Rim in a zig-zag climb and then dropped back into the sparse, heavily eroded desert surrounding the Petrified Forest to the northeast. Initially, the landscape looks flat, but it is far more complex. Rocky mesas give way to rolling hillocks that plunge into hidden valleys and dry canyon beds. On a high knoll above the Rainbow Forest Museum, just inside the southern entrance to the park, we took in a view that seemed to stretch forever in every direction. To the south, dark rain clouds swept the horizon, although overhead the sun was shining brightly.

The park is a slender strip of land running from north to south. At the northern end is a section of the Painted Desert, which extends beyond the park borders. To the south are several large deposits of petrified wood, which can easily be seen in the recognizable form of massive logs strewn like matchsticks across the ground or as shattered pieces. A 27-mile scenic drive linking the major attractions runs the length of the park. The Visitor Center is at the northern end, just off I-40 east of Holbrook.

Petrified wood is a geological curiosity found in most countries of the world and most U.S states but nowhere else in such profusion and color. More than 200 million years ago this part of Arizona was a swamp. Old trees toppled or were washed into it from higher ground and in time were buried beneath soils deposited by flooding streams. The flood water carried silica, a glassy mineral found in volcanic ash, that impregnated the logs. Ultimately the silica crystalized into quartz, replacing the very fibers of the wood cell by cell. The result was solid stone infused with agate, jasper and other semiprecious gems.

In the ages that followed, a gradual uplift of the land snapped many of the logs, accounting for the broken segments. Since then, rain and wind have worked to uncover the stone forest that is now on display in the park. The petrified deposits were discovered in the mid-1800s, and for many years sightseers often carried off huge chunks of the mineralized wood as souvenirs. For awhile, total loss was threatened.

To preserve what remained, the Petrified Forest National Monument was created in 1906 to include the most spectacular deposits. During the succeeding years, more of the surrounding land was acquired, and in 1962 the area became a full-fledged national park. Petrified wood is still collected outside the park, where it is carved into fancy book ends and other souvenirs sold in curio shops -- including the park's shops. But park visitors are warned repeatedly not to carry away any pieces of petrified wood they find along park trails, and rangers check departing cars on a regular basis.

The best way to examine the logs is up close so you can see their polished colors -- the reds, yellows, browns, blues and purples. Paved trails of a mile or less lead to the largest and most interesting displays. Just inside the park's southern entrance is the Long Logs Trail, a wide mile-long loop on a high, sunny ridge. It winds through a rare concentration of 100-foot-long logs, among the largest in the park. To me, the scarred exterior of the logs resembled bark, but information signs informed that the rough surface really represents ancient scars acquired when the fallen trees were washed down rocky stream beds. At the same time, branches and roots were stripped away.

We hiked three of the park's trails in the next couple of hours, and might have gone on except an afternoon thunderstorm that we could see coming for miles chased us back to the car. In a matter of minutes, the falling rain seem to refresh the landscape. The pink rocks took on a gleam, and the desert grasses seemed greener. The next morning when we returned, the road and trails were lined with tiny wildflowers we hadn't spotted the day before.

We spent our first night in a Best Western motel in Holbrook, a small highway town with a sort of dusty Old West flavor that appealed to me. Just to the north are the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations, which weren't on our current itinerary. But we took the opportunity to shop in Holbrook for an authentic hand-carved Hopi kachina doll, discovering that the best of them cost many hundreds of dollars.

Two of the best meals of our drive were served up in Holbrook. Lunch was an excellent Tex-Mex plate at Mr. Maestas, an eatery for locals that is Spartan in decor but full of desert country atmosphere. We ate a lot of Tex-Mex on this trip because it was always good and always inexpensive. For dinner, we chose a rustic, barn-like restaurant called the Butterfield Stage Company, named for the old transcontinental stage line that once crossed Arizona. Lots of old western artifacts hang from its walls. I ordered a filet mignon, which turned out to be as tasty a steak as I can recall eating. The modest price of $13.95 for a complete meal also seemed like something out of the Old West.

The next day we headed south over the Coronado Trail to Clifton, a copper-mining center at its southern end, and west again through melon-growing country to the historic old town of Globe. It was a long day's drive, and a white-knuckle one. Certainly, we were forewarned. Big road signs outside Alpine advised: "No services next 70 miles." Trailers longer than 40 feet are banned because they probably wouldn't make it.

The trail, an official Forest Service scenic byway, climbs and keeps climbing to 9,400 feet, yielding splendid views of the White Mountains. For much of the way, the road wiggles through green meadows, darting in and out of evergreen forests and rounding any number of chilling curves. This is prelude to the grand descent, where for much of an hour the road drops in brake-pumping twists and turns. If, meanwhile, you can take your eyes off the road, the view takes in what seems like most of southern Arizona spread far below.

We arrived late in Globe, so I didn't see much of the town. I do remember quite vividly that we had booked a room at the Best Western Copper Hills Inn & Resort. I had pictured a burnished setting of rocks and pines. Instead, the copper hills, just across the highway, turned out to be the heaped residue from a big copper mine. We hurried away the next morning soon after dawn.

From Globe, we headed north again via U.S. 60 to the Salt River Canyon, the Apache reservation and Show Low, a mountain resort town with lots of motels, an odd name (a poker term) and no appeal. The landscape is relatively flat at first, until with little warning you find yourself at the brink of the deep canyon of the Salt River, which divides the Fort Apache and San Carlos Indian reservations. The guidebooks call it Arizona's "mini-Grand Canyon," and it is impressive. But you can drive to the bottom of this canyon.

From above, the river 2,000 feet below is no more than a reddish-colored thread twisting through steep cliffs dusted in shades of orange and brown. The road skitters down one side of the canyon and back up the other, and you can see much of its pathway before you even point your car downhill. You descend in five miles of swooping switchbacks and climb back out again in five more miles of cliff-side curves.

To reach Fort Apache, we detoured east over Highway 73, a narrow paved lane that rises and dips through expansive open grasslands that I found a relief after two days of hard mountain driving. Established in 1870, Fort Apache was a major cavalry post in the fight against Geronimo. It in no way resembles the barricaded forts of early American history. Rather, it looks like the school campus it became in 1924.

The main attraction is the tribal museum, at least according to the guidebooks. Unfortunately, it was closed for the festival and parade three miles down the road in Whiteriver. A small town with a busy shopping center, Whiteriver is the hub of the 1.5-million-acre reservation, reputed to be one of the most popular outdoor recreational areas in the state. The tribe profits from fishing, hunting and camping permits. We had time only for a huge Apache taco at Hon-Dah, the tribe's restaurant and motel at the northern gateway to the reservation.

One more thrill awaited as we retraced our path through Payson to Phoenix. At the outset of the trip, we had sped past the sign pointing to Tonto Natural Bridge, a commercial attraction just north of Payson. But we had become so steeped in Tonto legends and lore we decided we shouldn't miss it.

The limestone bridge, soaring 183 feet above a stream-washed canyon, is a geological curiosity well worth seeing. And you can stretch your legs scrambling into canyon. But I found the road getting to the bridge much more interesting -- a narrow gravel path that treated us to one more long and harrowing descent. In the jumbled landscape of Arizona's High Country, I should have expected it. The views are unendingly gorgeous, but you work for them.


GETTING THERE: Phoenix was the gateway to our High Country drive in Arizona. Almost all the major airlines have flights from Washington to Phoenix. USAir currently is quoting a round-trip fare of $393, based on a 14-day advance purchase. The ticket is nonrefundable.

WHERE TO STAY: For convenience, we picked Best Western motels in Holbrook near the Petrified Forest National Park, in Globe just south of the Salt River Canyon and in Show Low to the north of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. All three towns have a variety of motel accommodations. A room for two ranged from $53 to $58 a night.

In hindsight, I would refigure my itinerary to take in lodgings with more local character. Three places along the way that qualify are pine-shaded Kohl's Ranch Lodge outside Payson, 602-478-4211; the neat but very modest Hon-Dah Resort on the edge of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, 602-369-4311; and the nicely appointed bed-and-breakfast inn at Tonto Natural Bridge, 602-476-3440.

INFORMATION: Arizona Office of Tourism, 1100 W. Washington, Phoenix, Ariz. 85007, 602-542-8687 (TOUR).

Insights into the Apache Wars are provided in "The Conquest of Apacheria" by Dan L. Thrapp, published in 1967 by the University of Oklahoma Press. The paperback edition of the book is available in bookstores in Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside, just north of the Fort Apache reservation.

-- James T. Yenckel