NearandFarAZ

I freely and unabashedly admit: I enjoy being a tourist.

On my first trip to Seattle a year ago, I happily joined the throngs taking the elevator ride up the iconic Space Needle, and I braved the cold wind to take in the views of the city from the outdoor observation area. Afterward, I roamed the adjoining Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit, completely absorbed in the graceful glass art. It didn’t bother me one bit that the attractions are considered by some to be tourist attractions. I thought they were fabulous.

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Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit

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I’ve also been known to go a little crazy over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, the Panama Canal in Panama City, and the Grand Canyon in my home state of Arizona. All tourist attractions, to be sure, but still amazing sights.

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Prescott AZ’s rails-to-trails routes

There’s something about the gradual grade and snaking curves of an old railroad bed that gets my imagination going. Anyone who has childhood memories of hopping from tie to tie on a remote country railroad track can probably relate.

Maybe it’s the fact that in my community in Arizona, there aren’t many intact railroad tracks left – a combination of nostalgia for those faraway train whistles, and regret over the loss of a great resource.

Or maybe it’s the “damn the terrain; we’re going through” attitude that routed local train tracks through thick pine forests and granite mountains. Really, the perseverance required for some of the routes is awe-inspiring.

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What I know for sure is that I simply love walking along old rail beds that have been converted into hiking and biking trails.

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As the hiking saying goes, “My eyes were in my feet.” But in this case, I would have to say that my eyes were in my feet AND my hands.

IMG_3200-1On the final section of my climb to the summit of Angels Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park, I opted to put my virtual ‘blinders’ on. My focus was squarely on my feet as they navigated the ever-steeper rock steps, and on my hands, as they slid along the chain support cables bordering much of the trail.

I knew that on both sides of the narrow path was a sheer drop. Yes, I knew it, but I chose to tune it out for much of the hike. It worked for me. I made it to the top, and, finally, I had a chance to take in the sweeping views.

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“Makes you feel kind of small, doesn’t it?” I asked my friend and frequent hiking companion as we topped a ridge with sweeping views of the Granite Mountain basin.

It wasn’t just the breadth of the view that caused us to catch our collective breaths, however. Spread before us along the Upper Pasture Loop Trail was stark evidence of the devastating Doce Fire that had swept through the area near Prescott, Arizona in June 2013.

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I don’t really have a bucket list; I find it a little morbid. But if I DID have a list of things to do in my lifetime, hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park would have been near the top for the past decade or so.

Ever since I first spotted images of the soaring rock walls bracketing the rushing waters of the Virgin River, I was hooked.

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My obsession only intensified after I started following hiking enthusiasts on Instagram. Every time I saw a photo of The Narrows’ radiant slot canyons, I would mutter “damn,” and wonder why I hadn’t yet made the six-hour trip to Zion National Park.

So, when I recently had a chance to join a group of friends for a long weekend in Hurricane, Utah – just miles from Zion – I was in. Finally, The Narrows hike was within reach.

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Flagstaff, Arizona, and autumn – could there be two any more perfect companions?

For the past several years, I’ve taken an annul trip to Flagstaff in October to get a glimpse of the changing fall colors. I have a thing for the aspens (I know, I’m not the only one!). There’s just something magical, as the glossy leaves turn to a tawny yellow – the white trunks glowing and leaves shimmering in the breeze.

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IMG_2873Over the years, I’ve done hikes at the popular Lockett Meadow, Humphreys Peak Trail, and the Kachina Trail – each stunning in its own way. This year, my friend and I decided to check out the Weatherford Trail – a winding wilderness trail that follows the route of a 1920s-era road that had once carried tourists in Model T Fords to near the top of Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks.

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While researching my recent road trip to Yosemite, I came across a famous quote from Yosemite naturalist Carl Sharsmith. You know – the one about Sharsmith being asked how best to spend your time if you have only one day in Yosemite? And Sharsmith’s response about how he would “sit by the Merced River and cry” if one day was all he had?

Well, I was feeling pretty good about myself after reading this, because I had allotted TWO whole days in Yosemite – as a part of my whirlwind drive from my home in Arizona to Sonoma, California, via Yosemite.

Of course, I also read numerous online accounts from travelers who had spent some serious time – a week, a month, years! – exploring Yosemite, and felt they had barely scratched the surface.

So, I went in knowing I wouldn’t be able to see everything. Still, I wanted to take in the major sites: Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Tuolumne Meadow. I also wanted to do some hiking along the way.

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I recently entered the wonderful, wandering world of travel blogging. Over the past six months, I’ve immersed myself in hundreds of travel blogs – many of them authored by adventurous young people who have thrown in the towel on their conventional American lives, and hit the road.

I applaud them! I love to read about their travels and their enthusiastic attitudes. There’s really nothing like traveling when you’re young. That feeling of invincibility! That sense of awe on your first international trip. That youthful stamina that allows you to sleep on a train overnight and then hit the ground running the next morning in Rome, Athens, Lisbon …

Still, I sometimes wonder about the blogs’ subtle message that you must travel in your 20s, or you’ll become so bogged down in the grind that you’ll never have the opportunity again. I know from experience that it just isn’t so.

As a 50-something who has loved to travel all of my life, I know that you can fit travel into your life, regardless of age, income, or circumstance.

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If variety is, indeed, the spice of life, then my recent accommodations on a road trip through Arizona, Nevada, and California were as “spicy” as an order of jerk-chicken wings and a side of flash-fried shishito peppers (I really did have these tasty appetizers at Bartlett Hall in San Francisco’s Union Square, but that’s another blog!).

As I was planning the road trip that would take me to such diverse stops as Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Sonoma wine country, and Big Sur, I decided that I didn’t want my overnight stays to be a string of homogeneous chain hotels. Rather, I wanted the places to reflect their surroundings.

The result: An eclectic collection of charming/luxurious/quirky abodes that were all delightful in their own ways.

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Indecisive? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as spontaneous. As I was planning my road trip from Arizona to Sonoma, California, via Yosemite, I changed my mind about the route numerous times.

Allotting myself about five days to get to San Francisco, and then on to my son’s wedding in Sonoma, I knew that my road-tripping time would be limited. I needed to be strategic! Still, I would be traversing some of the world’s most beautiful territory. Could I really skirt it?

Finally, practicality won out, and I settled on a route that would take me to Las Vegas via I-40 and Highway 93, then north on Highway 95 to Tonopah, Nevada, and west to Yosemite. It was the quickest route, and one that came up consistently as the first alternative on the major mapping sites. I screen-shotted it, and texted it to my son. Done deal.

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As a long-time resident of Arizona, I know that these are the dog days of summer. As August rolls along, it seems that Phoenix is in a continuous heated battle with Palm Springs, Calif. for the dubious honor: Hottest spot in the country.

In recent days, Phoenix has logged in at 117 degrees Fahrenheit. For those who’ve never experienced it, 117 is an oven-like, oppressive heat that melts asphalt, turns steering wheels into blistering rings of fire, and gives the streets of Arizona’s largest city the feel of an abandoned movie set. Northern Arizona is marginally cooler, but still sweltering.

Still, with the heat comes SOME perks. Everyone in the state seems to know a few secrets for beating the heat, and most of them involve water (in addition to the obvious – air conditioning!).

For me, the hot season typically conjures up two retreat options: a Phoenix resort (preferably with an awesome pool), or a Mexican beach. For those willing to brave the heat, Phoenix’s high-end hotels are usually a super bargain from Memorial Day in May through Labor Day in September, making out-of-reach resorts suddenly affordable. As for Mexican beaches, the locale of choice for much of Arizona is Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), just an hour across the Arizona/Sonora border.

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This summer, I combined both in one trip, and it was wonderful. It also allowed me to do a side-by-side comparison of the two summer-retreat options. Here’s how the two experiences, including the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and Princesa de Peñasco, stacked up:

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I had heard the stories, of course. Scary accounts of trumped up traffic tickets, nights spent in Mexican jails, and requests for bribes. Fortunately, though, I had never had a run-in with a Mexican policeman. Over the past 25 years or so, I have driven south of the border dozens of times – sometimes with kids, dogs, and camping gear in tow. And although we often got the once-over at the border, I had never been stopped alongside the road.

I wasn’t so lucky this time, however. As I drove into Sonoyta (Sonoita), the Mexican town just across the border from Lukeville, Arizona, on my way home from a short stay in the beach town of Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Sonora, Mexico, I noticed a pick-up truck behind me, headlights flashing. I pulled over, and as the officer approached my car, he was shaking his head.

The upshot was that I was speeding (the actual speeds and speed limits were somewhat confusing – what with the conversion from kilometers to miles, as well as the Spanish-to-English translation). What the officer did get across to me, though, was that he wanted money – cash – or he was going to take me to “the station.”

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