NearandFarAZ
img_9103“Over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.”
                                                      “The Grapes of Wrath”

For me, any mention of Route 66 always conjures up images of John Steinbeck’s epic novel “The Grapes of Wrath” and the fictional Joad family’s arduous journey from Oklahoma to California.

Over the years, I’ve taken in bits and pieces of the historic highway, always marveling at the narrow two-lane road and its status for decades as America’s main east-west route between Chicago and Santa Monica, California.

A recent re-reading of “The Grapes of Wrath” set me to wondering about Arizona’s remaining sections of the original roadway. And, since I live within a few hours of all of the Arizona towns along the route, I decided to spend the coming winter weekends retracing the Joads’ route through the state.

Starting with Holbrook in the east, my goal is to head west, like the Joads – taking in Winslow, Two Guns, Flagstaff, Williams, Hackberry, Kingman, and Topock – all the way to the Colorado River on the California border. Of course, along the way, I’ll be stopping at some of the cool roadside attractions and epic hikes as well.

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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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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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Before my road trip to Hatch, New Mexico, in early October, I wasn’t even aware that “Hatch-heads” existed. Now, after spending a few days exploring the area, I have to admit that I’ve joined the ranks of those somewhat obsessed fans of the chile peppers native to the Hatch Valley.

Admittedly, I’ve always loved green chiles. I can never resist the rich fragrance of roasting chiles at my local farmers’ market. And I always have a supply of canned diced chiles in my cupboard, or whole-roasted chiles in my freezer. I use them in everything from tortilla soup to refried beans to chile rellenos.

But I had never before experienced the chile bonanza that is harvest time in Hatch. From the minute you leave Interstate 25 about 185 miles south of Albuquerque (exit 41 onto New Mexico Route 543) and cross the tree-lined Rio Grande, you are transported to a virtual chile wonderland.

Shop after shop in the small farming village of Hatch features bright-colored signs and rows upon rows of ropes bursting with drying red chiles.

As I drove down Hatch’s main street, the Grajeda Farms Hatch Chile Market caught my attention, with its six-foot-long strings of glossy red chiles. I spent more than an hour wandering through the outdoor curtains of pepper strings and exploring the indoor market with its shelves of chile powder and Mexican-style pottery.

Permeating everything was the rich scent of chile peppers.

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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 charming 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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Growing up in North Dakota, I can’t say that I truly appreciated the beauty of the prairie.

Oh, I loved being outdoors, and I regularly explored the acreage of my family’s farm. But to say it was beautiful? I’m afraid I didn’t go there. “So flat.” “No forests.” “Hardly any rivers.” “How far is the nearest beach?” – These were among the laments of my growing-up years.

As I matured, of course, I came to realize the truth of that old adage: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And when it comes to the prairie, I can now say that I – the beholder – find a wealth of things to appreciate.

It’s been 30 years since I have lived in North Dakota, and although I’ve visited from time to time, those trips were usually more about seeing family than exploring the countryside.

So, as my 40th high school reunion was approaching this summer, I decided to make my return a road trip, with plenty of time to revel in the things I so blithely overlooked as a child and young adult.

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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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