NearandFarAZ

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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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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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.

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“Well I know what’s right, I got just one life

in a world that keeps on pushing me around

But I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down”

As we belted out the words to Tom Petty’s feisty anthem, fists pumping along with the rest of the crowd at the Frank Erwin Center on the University of Texas campus, the decades seemed to melt away

All of a sudden, it was just me, a 31-year-old newly single mom, sitting at the steering wheel beside a four-year-old tow-headed boy, cruising the south-of-the-border roads to the seaside resort town of San Carlos, Mexico.

The year was 1989, and we were on our first official road trip. Technically, there were just the two of us in the pickup truck. But it turned out our friend Tom was there the whole way as well. Time and time again on that long, hot drive, we popped a tape of Petty’s recent hit album, “Full Moon Fever” into the cassette player.

A good 20 years before “The Walking Dead” would make zombies all the rage, my son  gravitated to “Zombie Zoo.” I had a soft spot for “Alright for Now.” We both loved “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “I Won’t Back Down.”

Little did I know at the time that road trips – and really, travel of all kinds – would become a lifelong thing for my son and me. Or that, from that week forward, whenever I heard the opening chords to “Free Fallin,’” I would be back in my old truck, feeling the warm breezes and the sweet bonds of motherhood.

So, when my son – the same age now as I was that long-ago summer – bought tickets for a Tom Petty concert as an early Mother’s Day gift to me while I was visiting in his new hometown of Austin, Texas, it couldn’t have been more apropos.

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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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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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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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It’s not exactly a well-kept secret. Hundreds of thousands of baseball spring-training fans already know it. Winter-weary residents of Northern Arizona know it. And sun-seeking spring-breakers from throughout the Midwest know it: Phoenix, Arizona in the springtime is hard to beat.

Unlike other parts of the country, where March and April can be a slushy, windy slog, Phoenix is at its best in the spring (in my opinion), with its warm breezes, sunny skies, and blooming wildflowers.

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So, it was with anticipation that I looked ahead to a Saturday trip to the Valley of the Sun in early March. To take full advantage of the season, I decided to put together a little itinerary of some of my favorite activities – hiking, sightseeing, eating, and shopping. In my mind, the perfect Phoenix day!

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