NearandFarAZ

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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When I started writing this blog post, I was going to title it “Rocky Point: Arizona’s Hamptons.” But after returning from my recent trip to the small Mexican beach town just across the Arizona border, I realized that “Hamptons” was too much of a stretch – even in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Really, very little about Rocky Point screams the upscale Hamptons.

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So, in search of another comparison, I decided the vibe of the Jersey Shore more closely matches the sometimes-raucous, unabashedly touristy feel of Rocky Point (AKA, Puerto Peñasco).

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Either way, what I was trying to get across is the beach get-away aspect of Rocky Point. Like New Jersey and New York, most regions of the U.S. have their go-to spots for a day on the water – everything from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Washington’s islands, to Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.

But what about land-locked, arid Arizona? Where’s a desert dweller to go for a day at the beach? For me and thousands of other Arizonans, it’s simple: Head south of the border.

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Pond below Tonto Natural Bridge

Sometimes the backup plan can turn out better than the original. Or, at least it can seem that way when you find a hidden treasure of a destination only because your “Plan A” washed out.

That was the case when a friend and I set off for a day trip to Fossil Creek in central Arizona this past weekend. For years, I had wanted to take the steep hike down to the stunning falls at Fossil Creek. I had heard rave reviews about the place from friends, and I had seen beautiful photos online. But for some reason, I never made it to the place.

Well, I decided that that was going to change, and we planned a Sunday trip to the Camp Verde-area attraction. As luck would have it, though, I was not destined to get to Fossil Creek. As we approached the turn-off along Highway 260, we began to notice an unusual amount of traffic. Then, a large sign at Forest Road 708 announced the bad news: The Fossil Creek parking area was full, and the road  to the trail was closed.

Not to be deterred, we immediately decided to try to get to the trail from the other end – near Strawberry, Arizona. Even though it was a 30-mile detour, we decided it was worth it.

But again – no luck. That trail was also closed. When we questioned the Forest Service employees manning the road closure near Strawberry, we learned that the Camp Verde side had been closed since about 7:30 a.m., and the Strawberry side closed down at 9 a.m. Much too early for our 11 a.m. arrival.

We were forced to regroup again. Based on a recommendation from the Forest Service workers, we decided to check out the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Strawberry.

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First of all, I know that there are many, many gorgeous places that I have yet to see.

I’ve been around a bit, but I am under no illusion that I’ve seen it all!

Still, I have to wonder: Could there be any spot in the world that can top Sedona, Arizona on a hot, clear summer day?

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After a particularly stressful week at work, I needed a little diversion – something to take me to another place. What I needed, I decided, was a hike with a bit of a bite.

And I knew just the place. The Yaeger Canyon Loop Trail in the Mingus Mountain range between Prescott and Jerome has long been my go-to hike for a strenuous, quick workout in a beautiful setting. And some serious seclusion!

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Sometimes it’s about the mind-blowing terrain. Sometimes it’s about the colorful wildflowers. And sometimes it’s about the endurance – just getting it done.

Today, I’d have to say my hike was all about the clouds.

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In northern Arizona, there’s a sweet spot in hiking – that stretch in June, when the temperatures warm to the 80s and 90s, the trees are in full bloom, and the summer monsoon rains have yet to start.

I call it the “pre-monsoonal season.” For the most part, you can plan a hike or other outdoor activity without too many worries about getting caught in a violent thunderstorm. Still, as the dew point rises, and the conditions work gradually up to the monsoon, you’re sure to get some amazing clouds.

It was that kind of day today. As soon as I opened my front door and felt the slightly muggy air (for arid Arizona anyway), I knew the clouds would be cropping up – white and puffy – everywhere.

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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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Over the years, I’ve had plenty of infatuations with beautiful cities. I fell hard for Amsterdam, with its lovely canals and spirited street scene. I loved the energy and air of self-importance of New York City. Rome took me by surprise, with its awe-inspiring antiquities, bordered by narrow, shady alleys. And New Orleans – what can I say? It was like the bad boy I knew wasn’t that good for me, but couldn’t resist.

All of them were short-lived flings, though, involving quick visits. I definitely would like to return some day, but I no longer harbor dreams of living in any of them.

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San Francisco was different. Probably because I’ve been able to return again and again to visit my son, who lived there for years, I feel like I forged a bond with San Francisco and understand its rhythm and soul. So much so, in fact, that it has become my metropolitan measuring stick.

San Francisco, you’ve spoiled me for every other city! Here’s why:

 

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I know, I know – girls’ trips have become so commonplace that they’re practically clichéd.

On a recent flight to San Francisco with two of my friends, we overheard the women in the row of seats behind us tell the flight attendant they were embarking on a girls’ trip. My friends and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. We realized we weren’t all that special.

But if so many people are doing it, there must be a lot to love, right? In my experience, the answer is yes.

Over the past several years, a group of friends and I have celebrated our respective birthdays by taking short weekend trips. Along with the San Francisco trip, we’ve checked out a small mining town in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains, a resort in Phoenix, and a casino on the Navajo Reservation.

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Our hike in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, AZ

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If you like to hike, you’ve probably heard a story or two of an under-estimated trek. The one where you thought the loop would be four miles, but it turned out to be eight. Or the route that someone said was a short, easy jaunt, but ended up being a 10-mile slog. My friends and I ran into such a situation not long ago, when we headed off on a girls’ get-away to Flagstaff, Arizona. We decided to stop along the way for a scenic hike. Since it was a warm spring day, we chose a river route in the Verde Valley. I had never hiked the Bell Trail at Wet Beaver Creek, but I had heard good things about the area. One of my friends had hiked it years before, and remembered that it led to a swimming hole. We started off, with a vague sense that the swimming hole was about two miles in. photo 1

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