NearandFarAZ

If it’s a hiking challenge and a fitting reward you’re after, the trails in Prescott, Arizona’s Granite Mountain Wilderness Area – and the nearby Iron Springs Cafe – might just be made to order.

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.

And located conveniently along the way is the old 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.

Mormon Trail

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Every now and then, you visit a place that seems to have it all: Jaw-droppingly gorgeous surroundings, charming city streets, a fun vibe, and uniquely entertaining activities.

Durango, Colorado is just that kind of town. At a population of only about 17,000, it’s not a large city, but it IS big in so many other ways. Take the San Juan Mountains. The rugged peaks rise all around, making for stunning views in virtually every direction.

And the downtown, which lies at the base of the mountains, is busting with history. Countless old buildings have been preserved and re-purposed as cool bars, restauntants and shops.

Then there’s the “river runs through it” thing. The lovely Animas River really is the heart of Durango. The rush of its chilly blue-green waters can be heard and seen from patios, trails, and city sidewalks all over town.

And who could forget the feature that is perhaps Durango’s main claim to fame – the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad? With its multiple daily trips to the mountain town of Silverton, the train is ubiquitous in Durango. Its whistle and smoky-steam plume are true symbols of the region.

But more on the train later (See related blog).

On my recent trip to southwestern Colorado, I also had another objective: To see Durango from river level. So, for the introductory blog on my “A Hike and a Bite” series, I give you the Animas River Trail.

 

Durango Rocks

What can I say? I love trails. It doesn’t matter if they’re rough single-track passages through the mountains or wide pathways in the prairie, I can’t seem to resist a scenic recreational route.

And Durango makes it easy. The Animas River Trail is about nine miles of mostly concrete path that hugs the winding route of river. It’s never hard to find, and because the route is mostly flat, it makes for a leisurely walk.

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When it comes to life’s simple pleasures, I believe there are few things that can top a walk through beautiful scenery, capped off with a bite to eat or a frosty brew (or both!) in an out-of-the-way café or brewery.

With that in mind, I am kicking off two new blog series, “A Hike and a Bite” and “A Hike and a Brew.”

Along the way, I plan to feature treks through the stunning, rugged terrain so common in the U.S. Southwest, as well as strolls through the fascinating city centers that I love to explore all over the U.S. and around the world.

Every now and then, the two converge for an extra-special adventure of gorgeous hiking and charming city sidewalks. (Sedona, AZ; Durango, CO; and San Francisco, CA come to mind).

For my introductory “A Hike and a Brew,” I am heading to a city that is virtually synonymous with beer – Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Brew Town

Although Milwaukee has a number of nicknames – MKE, Cream City, City of Festivals – I like the simple “Brew Town.” After all, it WAS beer that made Milwaukee famous all those years ago.

These days, the city has transformed from the heyday of its massive beer industry into a hub of fun craft breweries and scenic riverside trails.

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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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You know that feeling you get when you return to a place you love? You know exactly what you want to do, and you’re excited to get started? That’s how I felt on my most recent trip to San Francisco.

I arrived on the day before my birthday, and I couldn’t wait to hit the streets. Just one little problem, however: Rain. The online forecast for the weekend was all clouds, umbrellas, and raindrops.

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View from under the umbrella

Still, as I checked into my hotel on that slightly dreary Friday morning, I was encouraged by the attitude of the hotel concierge. “We’ve had worse,” he said when I asked him about the weather. With that, I tucked an umbrella into my tote and headed off.

Although I’ve visited San Francisco a number of times over the past eight years and experienced all types of weather, this trip was unique in one way: It was the first time I was completely on my own. When none of my friends or family members could get away to join me, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to come up a personalized agenda of favorites.

So here goes – my very own list of San Francisco treats:

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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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For the past decade or so, it seems, each time I’ve mentioned my home state of North Dakota, I’ve gotten the same response, “Ah, oilfield country.”

An improvement, perhaps, over the previous “Oh, don’t you just love that movie, ‘Fargo?’” but still. It made me wonder if oil activity is what truly characterizes western North Dakota these days.

So, as I was planning my recent road trip to North Dakota, I decided to find out for myself. I hadn’t been back to the western half of the state in years, and I was curious about whether the oil industry had taken a toll on the spectacular scenery I remembered.

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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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Canada was never part of the plan. As I was plotting my summer 2016 road trip, I had one major destination in mind: Glacier National Park in Montana. I spent the winter and spring dreaming of hiking the Iceberg Lake and Highline trails and taking a boat ride on the dazzling Swiftcurrent Lake.

But, as I tend to do while planning a big trip, I began researching online for top things to do in the Glacier region.

What can I say? Canada had me at my first glimpse of the Prince of Wales Hotel.

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