NearandFarAZ

Western chic meets outdoor splendor

Think of your coolest friend. You know the one. She’s out running a desert trail in the morning, taking in a hip art festival in the afternoon, and then ready for a night out on the town in the evening.

To top it off, she always knows the trendiest spots for brunch.

Well, when it comes to towns in Arizona,  Scottsdale is your chic friend.

I had a chance to explore the many sides of Scottsdale recently, and I have to say: This community seems to have it all.

Hiking opportunities galore, beautiful open-air dining choices, a buzzing downtown, two spring-training baseball stadiums, an Old West vibe, and fantastic shopping – just to name a few.

Located on the eastern side of the huge Phoenix-area Valley of the Sun, Scottsdale manages to distinguish itself nicely from the other metro areas.

Here are a few of my favorite features of “The West’s Most Western Town.”

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Finding the Salt River Wild Horses

With all due respect to the Rolling Stones’ classic “wild horses couldn’t drag me away” lyric, it turns out that Arizona’s herd of free-roaming Salt River Wild Horses can, in fact, drag thousands of people away from modern life – and into a scene straight out of the Old West.

I was happy to be among them on a recent warm spring day, when, right on the edge of Phoenix, Arizona – one of the largest metro areas in the U.S. – the wild-and-free animals were treating visitors to a taste of western culture unlike any trip to a museum or cowboy reenactment could ever deliver.

On that Sunday morning, I had a front-row seat to a little family of three grazing along the riverbank, occasionally sticking their noses deep into the lazy waters of the Salt and rolling energetically onto their backs in the rugged river rocks.

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On the scale of “things that make me happy,” wildflowers are up there – hovering somewhere between waterfalls and golden autumn leaves.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. I saw proof of the widespread flower mania during a recent visit to Scottsdale, Arizona’s Bartlett Lake – the veritable epicenter of the state’s 2019 “super bloom.”

On that mostly-sunny Saturday, you would have been hard-pressed to find a frowning face. As I hiked the lakeside Jojoba Trail, and then drove along the North Lake Road, I was tickled by the crowds of bloom peepers – young and old – frolicking and posing for photos alongside the fields of blooms.

It turns out I wasn’t exactly a trailblazer. Photos of Bartlett Lake’s gorgeous yellow-gold Mexican poppies had been popping up on Instagram and Twitter for more than a week, and I couldn’t resist. I decided to follow the crowd. And sometimes the crowd is right!

I simply loved the explosion of colors. In every direction, it seemed, were more flowers, stretching off into the distance. I happily joined the camera-clad crowds.

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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 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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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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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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What is it about trains? I’m far from a railroad buff, but still, there’s something in the lonesome whistle of an old locomotive that speaks to me.

I was reminded of that again and again on my recent trip to Durango, Colorado. Among the activities I had planned was a daylong trip to Silverton on the historic Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Even before I got near the train depot in downtown Durango, though, there was no question that I was in a railroad town. The long whistle could be heard all over town, and the plumes of gray-and-white steam could be glimpsed over the tops of buildings and trees. It definitely served to build up anticipation for the actual train ride.

Of course, the train isn’t the only thing Durango has to offer. I also loved the historic downtown and the gorgeous Animas River Trail and Greenway. (See related blog).

But the train is the real star in this southwestern Colorado town. Nearly 200,000 passengers rode the train in 2017. And certainly, the three-and-a-half-hour ride to Silverton delivers on multiple levels. Among them: The non-stop views of the Animas River and surrounding San Juan Mountains.

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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 bursting with history. Countless old buildings have been preserved and re-purposed as cool bars, restaurants 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.

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Life in the desert. Sometimes it can seem like a hot, dry slog – especially as summer begins, with its promise of months in the 90s and 100s.

But rest assured, there is always an oasis in the distance to remind you of the joys of living amongst the cacti and the lizards.

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I had one of those moments over the weekend, when I decided to check out a new trail (well, new to me) in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix.

In recent years, my occasional hiking in the Phoenix area had focused on the urban trails – Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, North Mountain. All are great, challenging hikes, with sweeping views. But I must say, the traffic on the trails can get heavy, even on weekdays.

On this particular weekend, I was looking for something a little more remote. I had heard good things about the views along the Peralta Trail, and I decided to check it out. photo 2(17)With little more than directions in hand, I set off on Highway 60, driving on the freeway through Mesa and Apache Junction.

It’s a bit of a haul, but I hung in there, and soon came upon Peralta Road, just past Gold Canyon, Arizona. After passing through a small community, the street ends, and a sign cautions that the next seven miles would be over a winding, dirt road.

But oh, what a dirt road! On this early-June day, the desert could hardly have been more stunning.

Really – the views through this stretch of the Tonto National Forest are worth the drive. With the craggy range of Superstitions as a backdrop, the desert seems to go on endlessly, dotted with leafy mesquite, blooming cholla, and massive saguaros.

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Hiking Prescott AZ’s granite gems

Imagine a rolling sea, with nothing but waves as far as the eye can see. Instead of churning water, though, these waves are made of solid rock. And rather than blues and greens, the waves are in hues of reds and browns.

That is what you’ll find when you venture into the Granite Dells trails in Prescott, Arizona. But rest assured that you won’t be climbing aboard without a compass: A series of white dots and maps will steer you through.

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For more than a decade, Prescott’s Parks and Recreation Department and a group of intrepid volunteers have been building trails through the Dells. Because many of the routes take hikers and mountain bikers over sheer rock faces, the trails are marked with white dots to point the way.

For me, the opportunity to feel like a rock climber (sort of!) without the risk, or need for technical skills, is pure fun. I have my favorites among Prescott’s “white-dot trails.” Here are five of the best:

 

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