NearandFarAZ

The scene I awoke to Sunday morning, Jan. 13, 2019, was anything but the sunny hiking weather I had been expecting. The weather forecast the day before had been predicting rain for Saturday night, followed by a partly cloudy day on Sunday. But in Northern Arizona – at more than 5,300 feet elevation – you never know.

Magically, that light rain had morphed into several inches of fluffy white snow.

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From trudging through snowy-white sand in New Mexico’s 90-degree autumn weather to venturing deep into the shady woods of central Czech Republic, my hikes of 2018 were varied, to say the least.

Also unique this year was my participation in the 52 Hike Challenge – a movement that encourages people to get out onto the trails at least once a week for the entire year.

It was fairly casual participation on my part, because I didn’t fully document every single hike I took on social media, and some of my hikes were repeats on local favorites. Even so, I had plenty of ‘first times’ too – from the beaches of Southern California, to the mountains of Utah, to the depths of the Grand Canyon.

So, as 2018 comes to an end, and as I close in on my 52nd hike of the year, I am taking a look back at the top 10 – my personal ‘greatest-hit hikes’ of 2018:

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When I moved from the upper plains of North Dakota to the desert southwest of Arizona years ago, one of the questions I frequently got from friends back home went something like this: “How do you get into the holiday spirit with no snow?”

True, it took some getting used to. In place of the frigid moonlight toboggan parties I was used to around Christmastime were balmy days at the barbecue grill. And rather than a landscape that was almost guaranteed to feature glistening snowy hills were towering saguaro cacti backlit by golden sunlight.

Of course, living in Northern Arizona, I still occasionally get a white Christmas. But they are few and far between. More likely is a holiday season featuring vivid blue skies, a few fluffy clouds, and mild 50- and 60-degree weather.

After a few decades of Southwestern life, though, I’ll have to say that the desert Christmas has grown on me. In fact, a lit-up palm tree can get me a little misty-eyed. I’ve come to appreciate the joys of wandering through the lit-up plazas, courtyards, and hotel grounds of the Christmas-y towns of Arizona.

Here are a few of my favorite Arizona spots to take in a delightful desert Christmas.

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For a true western experience that combines rugged high-desert terrain with refreshments in an authentic historic train-depot setting, Prescott, Arizona offers a classic duo: A strenuous hike in the Granite Mountain Wilderness Area, capped off with a fitting reward at the nearby Iron Springs Cafe.

Located west of the city, the wilderness area features a network of trails that zigzag through the granite boulders that make up the foothills of the massive Granite Mountain, Prescott’s largest and most prominent promontory.

And located conveniently along the way is the historic Hillside Depot building, which was moved to the spot decades ago, and now serves as the popular Iron Springs Cafe.

Among the most popular of the wilderness area’s routes is the Little Granite Mountain Trail, which begins from a trailhead located about eight miles from downtown Prescott along Iron Springs Road.

The trek is rugged and the climb is steep, but the payoffs are rich. Alligator junipers, agave cacti, and massive rock formations crowd the first mile or so of the trail.

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Mention hiking in Phoenix, and a few prominent spots likely come to mind – Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, Peralta Trail in the Superstitions.

Each is amazing in its own way – offering variations on stunning desert terrain and sweeping views. But they all come with another, less attractive feature as well – throngs of hikers.

On the other hand, mention South Mountain, and many people, even Arizonans, will draw a blank. Even though it’s the largest of Phoenix’s parks, the 16,000-acre South Mountain Preserve usually isn’t included in the same category as the other popular hiking areas.

And that’s good news for those who do venture to the South Phoenix park. The day I visited, I encountered only a few other hikers on the trail, and I had the trail’s summit views all to myself.

Another major plus of the South Mountain area? The Farm at South Mountain, a charming pecan grove-cum-eatery that features, among other restaurants, the picnic-friendly and rustic Farm Kitchen.

Because of its proximity to the hiking and mountain biking trails of the South Mountain Preserve, The Farm makes for a perfect “Hike and a Bite” adventure – another in my blog series of beautiful trails and the delicious refreshments often available nearby.

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Whenever I hike the Peavine Trail in Prescott, Arizona, two questions come to mind: How can so many amazing features be packed into 5.5 miles? And why aren’t more people using it?

As my hometown trail, the Peavine has been on my radar for a long time. I’ve hiked it in every season, and I’ve checked out all of the “white-dot trails” that lead off of the main trail into the spectacular Granite Dells.

Certainly, the trail has grown in popularity through the years. It is a staple for locals out for a stroll and an increasing draw for tourists. Still, on a recent Sunday afternoon – under partly cloudy skies, with temps in the high 60s – I saw no more than a dozen other hikers and bikers as I slowly ambled along an eight-mile round trip.

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I have to say – this trail has something for everyone: A lively history as one of Arizona’s first rail routes; a smooth, wide surface with a gentle grade; a great location just a few miles from downtown Prescott; and stunning views of not just the orange-hued granite formations of the Dells, but also of the blue waters of Watson Lake.

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Water – it’s precious anywhere, but in Arizona, it takes on a value that I think only desert dwellers can understand. Think 115-degree summertime temps and near-zero-percent humidity, and you get the picture.

So, when there’s a spot where sparkling, blue-green water is gushing through a rugged desert canyon, it gets people’s attention.

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“I had no idea Arizona got any snow!” – It’s a comment I see often when I post snowy photos on Instagram.

And yes, it can be confusing.

Towering saguaro cacti, 115-degree temps, and sunny poolside scenes: These are the images that likely come to mind when most people think of Arizona. But snow? I’ll admit it’s a little counter-intuitive.

But the state is split by elevation. For most parts of the lower-altitude Phoenix and Tucson, snow is almost unheard of. Northern Arizona is a whole different story though. I like to think of it as a hybrid – part desert, part mountain.

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The third Monday of January – it’s that blue time of the year when I come to terms with a few things: the Christmas tree MUST come down; the sun doesn’t ALWAYS shine in Arizona; and I NEED to plan some adventures.

Last year at this time, I took advantage of mid-January – officially the bluest time of the year – to set some travel goals. Not only did it get me through my least favorite month, but it served as a springboard for some truly awesome trips.

At the time, I was about eight months into my travel and hiking blog, and I had some big plans for the coming year.

Now, it’s time to see how I did on my list of travel resolutions of 2016, and to set some new ones for 2017.

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With an evening hike in my sights, I surveyed the sky. Arizona’s monsoon thunderstorms had been wreaking havoc on my plans to get outdoors recently, and I was hoping for a small window of sunshine to hit the trail.

What I saw was encouraging: An afternoon of intermittent thunder and lighting had given way to mostly sunny skies. And not a lighting strike in sight. A perfect evening to chase some clouds, I thought.

I quickly considered my options, and decided to head for Prescott’s northern Peavine Trail, where I knew I would have unobstructed views of the puffy clouds to the north.

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Think of a flamboyantly colorful landscape.

What just came to mind? The Caribbean? The Greek Islands? Hawaii’s North Shore? The California coast?

Well, prepare yourself to add a new landscape to that colorful image – the Arizona desert!

I know, hearing “colorful” and “desert” in the same sentence is probably an oxymoron for most people. But trust me, visiting the Arizona desert in the springtime is sure to expand your horizons and open your mind.

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Having a playground of the world in your own backyard is pretty epic.

I’m sure anyone who lives within an hour or two of places like Yosemite National Park, Oahu’s North Shore, or the Swiss Alps can relate: People flock to these attractions from the world over. If you’re one of the lucky ones who live nearby, though, a short drive will have you hiking the trails, snowboarding the slopes, or surfing the waves.

For me, that local treasure is the Grand Canyon. Less than a two-hour drive away from my home in northern Arizona is one of the premier tourist attractions of the U.S., if not the world. Millions have crossed oceans and continents to gaze into the canyon’s dreamy depths.

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