A Drive to Remember
Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography Courtesy of Friends of the Scenic Drive
If you have ever driven along Scottsdale Road between Happy Valley Road and Carefree Highway, you are likely to have seen the work of Friends of the Scenic Drive — if not some of the nonprofit organization’s members themselves.
Founder Les Conklin explains that members are very active in and passionate about their efforts to maintain the beautiful vistas of our great Sonoran Desert.
“You have seen us picking up the trash along this road,” Conklin says. “You may have stopped and walked along the path at the Scenic Drive monument to learn more about the desert. You have seen some of the birds and other wildlife we have fought to preserve. And we hope you enjoyed the absolute solace this landscape brings to all who live or travel in the area.”
Friends of the Scenic Drive’s extraordinary efforts honor the work of what was once a tiny desert community that came together 60 years ago to create a special road — endearingly referred to as the Scenic Drive — and to protect roadside vegetation and vistas. It also carries on a tradition of fighting to preserve the area’s heritage, demonstrated by a number of other determined individuals over the past six decades.
However, over time, interest in the Scenic Drive has waned and participation in the nonprofit organization has declined dramatically — contributing to the roadway’s state of disrepair. Funding, too, is at an all-time low.
Therefore, Friends of the Scenic Drive is calling on the help of the community, noting the nonprofit organization’s need for additional funding as well as volunteers to assist with its road clean-up and communication projects.
“The funding goes to various initiatives such as the maintenance of signage along Scottsdale Road, the monument areas, contributions to our wildlife preservation partners and numerous organizations with like-minded missions as ours,” Conklin says. “We are an all-volunteer organization with no salaries or financial support for our time and effort, so 100% of all the monies we raise goes into the environment and the efforts to preserve our quality of life.”
The Creation of a Special Road
Sixty years ago, the only way into Cave Creek was via Cave Creek Road — a narrow two-lane road through open desert. Houses were few and far between throughout the foothills area, which was very much the definition of a quaint desert community. That started to change in 1963 when Scottsdale Road was paved up to the new town of Carefree.
As neon lights from motels and gas stations began to crowd other communities across Arizona, residents throughout the Cave Creek-Carefree area feared the same would happen to their beloved slice of the state. They established the Scenic Drive to create a special road and to protect roadside vegetation and vistas.
The 6-1/2-mile stretch of roadway — located on Scottsdale Road between Happy Valley Road and Carefree Highway — now stands as a landmark on the frontline in the effort to reduce creeping normalcy.
Large stucco entry monuments mark the southern and northern entries to the Scenic Drive, which boasts small redwood signs that identify more than 20 species of native plants thereby making it easy for visitors to learn the names of the uniquely beautiful area’s various cacti and trees.
Meanwhile, a small outdoor exhibit area less than one mile north of Happy Valley Road provides a quiet place where visitors can park and walk a short distance to view desert flora. Monuments with plaques also provide information about the history of the Scenic Drive as well as the Sonoran climate, flora and fauna.
After six decades, the Scenic Drive’s route now passes by equestrian properties, small neighborhoods and planned communities with golf, swimming, tennis and fitness centers as well as a few retail centers. Numerous parks, preserves and upscale resorts are also nearby.
The Preservation of Our Area’s Heritage
Driven by a decline of the Scenic Drive during the mid-1980s following annexations by the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale, an informal group of residents known as the Foothills Drive Homeowners Coalition in 1994 organized to oppose a proposed commercial development at the intersection of Scottsdale and Dynamite roads.
Conklin, a member of the Foothills Drive Homeowners Coalition, also organized an effort to restore and promote the Scenic Drive, seeking to preserve the area’s heritage and have a positive impact on future development.
In 1996, the group incorporated as Friends of the Scenic Drive, a division of volunteers now within the Greater Pinnacle Peak Association — a nonprofit organization, founded in 1977, dedicated to the preservation of the natural environment and the enhancement of quality of life in the North Scottsdale Sonoran Desert.
Friends of the Scenic Drive began working to preserve and enhance the drive by conducting regular litter pickup programs and maintaining its plant exhibits and monuments. The group has also led a number of successful initiatives to maintain the “scenic” qualities of the Scenic Drive — including the undergrounding of utility lines; the painting of utility boxes, railings and traffic signals to blend into the natural environment; and the banning of all political signposting along the drive.
“The more recent impactful environmental actions we have spearheaded have been the relocation of a massive commercial storage unit — originally slated to be constructed at the Lone Mountain/Scottsdale Road intersection — to a commercial tract of land near Cave Creek Road,” Conklin says. “Also, we were very instrumental in the community action that prevented the transfer of 40 acres of commercial zoning to the east side of Scottsdale Road, between Happy Valley and Jomax roads.”
Conklin adds that the latest city planning that will affect the Scenic Drive is the establishment of planted medians on Scottsdale Road between Jomax Road to Dixileta Drive and a feasibility study regarding the creation of a roundabout at Scottsdale Road and Dynamite Boulevard.
“We will actively work with the city to balance all their plans with the intent that the result will look like the beautiful improvements made last year a little farther north near the Summit retail complex,” Conklin says.
The Reinvigoration of a Community’s Caring
It is abundantly obvious by their devotion to the roadway that the members of Friends of the Scenic Drive are a very caring bunch. In fact, many of them are involved in copious causes across the Valley — a quality that is a double-edged sword as it spreads resources thin, with the aging Scenic Drive tending to get the short end of the stick.
Greater Pinnacle Peak Association board member Jake Kulp says that, as a result, the Scenic Drive is in somewhat disrepair.
“Some of the signs are broken or missing, many of the plants have died and there are a lot of weeds that need to be cleared,” says Kulp, noting his desire to reinvigorate the roadway’s brand as a landmark of our cherished community that has managed to escape the fate suffered by more southern areas of the state.
“I have been out here since 1979 and I just love this area. I spend a lot of time outdoors. I relish hiking through the washes and the mountains and even just driving up the road. I have seen the encroachment of suburbia in other areas and, while that is inevitable, we want to work with the correct kind of growth and protect the area that we have come to love.”
Kulp looks back at Friends of the Scenic Drive’s heyday and mourns a number of programs and activities that safeguarded the Scenic Drive’s beauty, generated funds and fortified a characteristic of caring across the community — all of which sustained the nonprofit organization’s visibility.
Years ago, Friends of the Scenic Drive published a magazine, held photo contests, awarded grants to students who hoped to pursue degrees and careers in environmental areas and even hosted community events featuring food, entertainment and a silent auction. However, without sufficient funds and volunteers, those things and others have all fallen by the wayside.
Kulp is calling on the community to lend a hand as he aspires to see those programs and activities make a triumphant return thereby revitalizing Friends of the Scenic Drive and, most importantly, the Scenic Drive itself. Those who wish to make a donation or volunteer may call Conklin at 480-585-0630.
Kulp believes that the key to achieving that goal is awareness — especially among the many people who have made this area their home in recent years and find their lives brightened on a daily basis by peaceful commutes along the uniquely picturesque stretch of roadway known as the Scenic Drive.
“We need help in so many ways and feel the brand is basically unknown as our visibility and participation has faded over the years,” Kulp says. “But our efforts remain steadfast to preserve the North Scottsdale corridor where we all live and work.”