Escape desert heat on Oak Spring Trail

chuck on trail

Hiking in close proximity to urban or residential areas, I have become very accustomed to encountering ‘fitness hikers.’ They rarely stop and smell wildflowers, gaze out over a panoramic lookout point or fumble around with an uncooperative camera case. And they surely don’t spread out a picnic lunch over a flat rock. But on this particular May Saturday morning, my husband and I found the “Oak Spring Trail via Hardscrabble Road” completely devoid of hikers.

The trailhead is fairly easy to find and because it’s within a mile of cabins and vacation homes in nearby Pine, we thought we’d see somebody — fitness hikers, nature hikers, maybe even a couple of backpackers. Nope! No one!

After driving west for 1.5 miles on Hardscrabble Road from state route 87 in Pine, we spotted the two-way trail crossing sign and the two-car pullout, just the way our favorite hiking website described it. This must be the place! Hardscrabble Road is a well-traveled, well-graded dirt road. So I was a bit surprised to see no other parked cars. The trailhead is on the left (south) side of the road.

wide trail at beginning

Oak Spring Trail starts out as a wide, easily visible trail

As you start out, the trail appears wide and well used. We thought because of its location and condition at the beginning, it would also be maintained, but as we continued to hike south, we realized the easy-walking, shaded path was becoming increasingly overgrown with oak, Ponderosa pine, juniper and manzanita. We followed the trail to a small creek bed, which at least on this trip was dry – not even a puddle or two. Then the light bulb went on: no creek water, no hikers.

Here, the trail location was a bit fuzzy. We zigzagged the creek several times, believing we had seen the last of several rock cairns.  We finally picked up the trail again on the right (west) side of the creek and it led us uphill away from the gulch, to a clearing. In a hundred feet or so, we spotted the trail intersection marker of Oak Spring Trail, Walnut Trail No. 251 and Oak Spring Trail No. 16. The latter is a three-mile trek east, ending at the Pine Trailhead, located just east of SR 87, 12 miles north of Payson. If we do this trip again, it would be nice to make a shuttle hike, parking a second vehicle at the Pine Trailhead. At the meadow, we searched for the spring — or any kind of water — without success, but I think we may have not hiked far enough past the trail intersection.

 

sign

Trail marker identifies three-way intersection. Note the small Arizona Trail system marker at the bottom.

Although many sections of the short Oak Spring Trail are nondescript, I recommend this trail to hikers looking for a short, easy hike into the Mogollon Rim country. Since it’s close to Pine and Strawberry, it could be combined with additional trails, or other family activities and attractions.  An ideal time of year for this hike would be March or April when the creek would be flowing.

century plant

Century plant's new sprout seen on the Oak Spring Trail

Randall House Restaurant and Gift Shop in Pine, Ariz.

Randall House sign

If this Memorial Day weekend is typical of almost any other three-day weekend, Arizonans will take to the freeways, streets and back roads en route to high country campgrounds and resorts, in search of cooler temperatures. Motorists planning a drive through Pine, Arizona will want to stop for breakfast or lunch at the historic Randall House Restaurant and Gift Shop.

Randall House certainly isn’t new. The restaurant has been in operation since 1998. But not all visitors realize that this pioneer home was once a popular community gathering place. Some may not know how pioneer homeowner Mary Ellen Randall would invite nearby residents for pastries and coffee on their way to and from the post office. During the early 1900s, Mrs. Randall was not only famous for her homemade breads, muffins, cookies and pies, but she was also known for her generous hospitality. She had a knack for making everyone feel at home. On their way home from school, children would stop by the Randall’s home for freshly baked cookies. Current restaurateurs Barbara and Patrick O’Connor are continuing Mary Ellen Randall’s tradition of warmth and hospitality — and homemade cooking.

The restaurant, located at the original Randall home site and serves breakfast and lunch Wednesdays through Sundays, is a historic point of interest. Visitors can peer through glass openings in the walls to see a log and adobe section of the original cabin. The first dwelling was constructed by Alfred Jason Randall in 1881. Alfred’s grandson George Randall with his wife Mary Ellen lived at this home for much of the 20th century. George passed away in 1987. In 1998, following Mary Ellen’s death, the building was restored and remodeled by the O’Connors, who then transformed it into a restaurant. Mrs. Randall would be pleased.

 

 

kitchen

Randall House dining room resembles a farmhouse kitchen

On a recent visit, our server invited us to have a tour the restaurant and grounds. While waiting for our meal, I strolled around the back of the home to see the backyard and outbuildings, as well as the tiny library, picnic tables, walking paths and gardens that compose the adjoining Randall Park. While walking through each of the interior dining rooms at Randall House, I realized that this more than just a casual breakfast and lunch spot. It’s also a gift shop. Wooden corner cupboards support unique toys, crafts and goodies ‘to go.’ After your meal, I recommend browsing for kitchen gifts such as colorful aprons, trivet holders, counter canisters, cutting boards or specialty toys like hobbyhorses, crafts kits and wooden puzzles.

About the food and service: I had no complaints, but after all, it was just our first visit. However, our service wasn’t nearly as slow as the consensus from the reviews sites describes. After I spent a few minutes walking through the restaurant and around the grounds, snapping a few photos and I came back to my table, lunch was served. Since it was Cinco de Mayo, I had ordered the featured lunch special of fish tacos  — a set of nicely grilled tilapia with a side of tasty slaw. My husband had a taco salad, which he said was very tasty and filling.

 

meal

Lunch special: Tilapia fish tacos with cole slaw

As I walked through the dining rooms, I saw a large group of women who had just finished their meals and were preparing to leave. As I waited for them to walk out so I take a photo, I noticed their plates, still on the table. They were empty! All of these gals had completely cleaned their plates! Whatever they ordered must have been well worth every crumb!

Randall House is known for its quaint, country style dining, homemade, made-to-order breakfasts of quiche, pancakes, French toast, omelets, muffins and scones. The same is true for its lunches: hearty sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads. But don’t think this place is just for ladies’ luncheons. The portions appear ample enough to fill up the hungriest of ‘he-men.’ This I know first hand — it’s one advantage to sitting on the front patio: you can witness the satisfied expressions on well-fed, departing patrons.

patio

Randall House: historic home, pleasant patio, gift shop and restaurant

Readers: What are your favorite eateries in Mogollon Rim Country?

 

 

Family favorite: The Ranch at Fossil Creek in Strawberry, Ariz.

goat crossing

Welcome committee: Ranch at Fossil Creek goats greet visitors

 

There’s a good reason the Ranch at Fossil Creek was featured in the current issue of Arizona Highways magazine. It’s no doubt the same reason the Strawberry, Ariz. attraction was one of last week’s highlights for The Weekly Yelp for Phoenix. The Ranch at Fossil Creek is quickly becoming well-known as one of the Mogollon Rim country’s favorite family “things to do.”

nubian

This friendly floppy-eared creature is a nubian goat

 

Yep, make it a point to bring the kids to see the kids. There, I wrote it, let’s move on. The ranch, on the western outskirts of Strawberry, is a pleasant little side trip when combined with any vacation, whether it’s a day of hiking or fishing around the Mogollon Rim, a weekend of camping at Tonto National Forest or a week-long trek across Arizona.

Most will just want to stop, see and pet the goats, shop at the ranch store, and enjoy a cold beverage on the adjoining patio. Other visitors who want a full sense of the ranch can pay $5 for a guided tour. Or a $3 general entrance fee will pay for a self-guided tour and samples of goat’s milk fudge and goat cheese. But the Fossil Creek Creamery store is open to visitors with no admission charge. Visit the ranch’s website for all the details.

The goats are in the forefront at the ranch. Even when you pull into the driveway entrance, the goats are ready to greet visitors. Everyone in the family will get a kick out of them. No, not literally; figuratively. Let’s face it: cute farm animals poking their heads through a fence will garner a smile and a photo or two.

three kids

Three kids enjoy a warm afternoon at the ranch

 

Owners John and Joyce Bittner also keep llamas at the ranch and use them for guided, half-day hiking excursions, according to the website. The llamas will bring packed lunches and other necessities along the trail. The ranch also serves as a location for birthday parties, cheese making classes and children’s feeding events. Children can even “adopt” a goat by sponsoring it for a fee, which includes a photo of the child holding the kid and the opportunity to return for “visitation.”

It’s even possible to spend the night at The Ranch at Fossil Creek in a yurt, located on the property. Now how’s this for a getaway idea? Reserve the yurt for the night before your half-day llama hike. After the hike, make a guided tour of the ranch, adopt a goat kid, and top off your visit with a purchase of fudge and cheese for the ride home!

On our recent visit, creamery store clerk, Molly had allowed us to sample several kinds of cheeses before we decided on the basil and the dill. We also had the chance to taste the chocolate fudge. Why does goat’s milk fudge taste so much more creamy than other fudge?

views at the ranch

Great views from The Ranch at Fossil Creek, above Strawberry

 

Don’t forget the soap! The same goat’s milk that produces such creamy cheese and fudge makes equally creamy soap and body crème. And the soap makes a wonderful foamy lather, Molly assured us. With that endorsement, plus its delightful scent, we just had to find out for ourselves.

store

Fossil Creek Creamery store at Ranch at Fossil Creek

Readers: What are your favorite high country attractions in Arizona? Where you do go to get away from the triple digit temperatures? I would love to hear about some of your favorite day trips around the state.

Every kind of hiker will enjoy Hackberry Springs-Garden Valley Loop

First Water Creek

First Water Creek is the final leg of the Hackberry Springs-Garden Valley Loop

 

 

Once in a while I find a hike that has a little bit of everything, with enough variety to please most of the hikers in our small group of family and friends. Hackberry SpringsGarden Valley Loop is such a hike. The 5.5-mile hike, which starts at First Water Trail Head, is a combination hike. It’s a little bit of up and little bit of down; there are washes, canyon walls, flowing springs, colorful flowers, rocks for scrambling and plenty of views. Find the turn off to First Water Trail Head (FR 78) just north of Lost Dutchman State Park from SR 88.

Starting at First Water Trail Head, the first section of trail follows the old Jeep road downhill to an intersection with Dutchman’s Trail. Veer to the left, now following Second Water Trail for 1.5 miles.  At this point, the landscape is rolling hills and washes, typical of the Sonora desert. Once you pass a side trail leading to the right (Black Mesa Trail) you’ll notice a small mound of large stones. We’ve read that this may be the site of an Indian ruin. Keep walking for a couple of hundred feet past that mound and you’ll soon see another intersection. Again, stay to the left, and you’ll be heading to Garden Valley.

Garden Valley actually isn’t really a valley, more like a grassland plateau. It seems out of place in the otherwise rocky, craggy, wash-filled Sonora desert of the Superstition Wilderness. It’s a vast, wide-open misnomer. Garden Valley? There’s really not much growing here except scrappy desert broom, creosote bush and skeletal remains of a dearly departed “teddy bear” cholla. Follow the trail across this plain to the knobby hills heading northwest on the left. As the landscape opens up to an exhilarating expanse, you’ll notice a couple of structures across the valley. These are the remains of First Water Ranch, an old corral, windmill and some fence posts.

Garden Valley

At Garden Valley -- head for the hills

 

Continue along the trail around a large rocky crag. You will finally be rewarded by descending to a large creek area filled with brambles of acacia, palo verde, mesquite and hackberry, all dwarfed under a shaded canopy of cottonwood trees at the base of 200-foot cliff. When you reach a large clearing in the brush, start listening for running water of Hackberry Springs. Okay, so maybe it’s more of a trickle. It’s actually just a few drops seeping from a pipe jutting from the base of the cliff. Proceed ahead a few feet and you’ll see large shaded area of boulders  — a perfect spot for a rest stop and picnic.

springs

Molly enjoys a cold drink at Hackberry Springs

To complete the loop, continue to follow First Water Creek about 0.25 of a mile, until it veers directly south (to your left). Suddenly, you may be searching for the map in your pocket, wondering if you’re still on the trail. You should probably stop for a minute, since boulder-hopping and map-reading don’t mix. After you get your bearings, you’ll know you need to continue to persevere along the creek for another mile. Soon you come up and out of the creek bed, and you’ll see the abandoned corral and decapitated windmill that you spotted earlier from across the valley. Here you pick up a rutted-road trail, which leads you back to the horse staging and first parking area. You’ll remember you passed this in your vehicle, on your way into First Water Trail Head on FR 78.

mules

Three mules take a rest at Hackberry Springs

I found one website, Arizonesis.org, that has a good description of the area with details about flora and fauna.

If you’re still using maps, here are a couple of good ones: from 1) Superstition Search and Rescue and 2) from the trail head. We used the the latter for our hike.

Note to readers: I found several completely contradicting descriptions of the Garden Valley Loop. Plus looking at various maps, there appear to be many paths leading in to Hackberry Springs, so please use several resources when researching your hike.

Relaxing Palm Springs not just for golfers

westin mission hills

Relaxing Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas

Within four hours, it’s possible to drive from Phoenix to a popular vacation destination with world-class resorts, spas, golf, shops, attractions and outdoor recreation. And no, I wasn’t referring to a rush-hour marathon, moving at a snail’s pace to Scottsdale. Rather, I was remembering a recent road trip-vacation to Palm Springs, California.

 

fountains

Not all water features are golf course traps at Westin Mission Hills

Sometimes it’s necessary to actually leave Arizona to feel like you’re really “away from it all.” Sure, it’s nice to splurge at a Scottsdale or Phoenix resort for the occasional “staycation,” but traveling to Palm Springs and its environs gives you that “clean getaway” feel. It’s just far enough away so you feel like a tourist, but close enough so you feel like a weekender. One major downside: the drive is a bit tedious. Except for a couple of mildly interesting mountain passes and the Colorado River crossing; it’s mostly mile after mile of monotony. Bring plenty of music or audio books.

tram

Allow time to see the views from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

Before I had discovered Palm Springs as a weekend getaway destination, I’d thought there was no reason to stop between Phoenix and the Pacific coastline, except maybe a quick pullover at some place like Palm Springs or Blythe, Calif. for a gas fill-up or a Thirstbuster. As an Arizona newcomer in my 20s, Palm Springs to me was just a bunch of shopping centers, golf courses and retirement homes. Oh, wait….

So I have to confess: when we booked our week at nearby Rancho Mirage, Calif. at the Westin Mission Hills Resort and Spa, I was skeptical. But now I admit: we were impressed at check-in. Front desk and concierge staff were friendly, helpful and efficient. Our one-bedroom villa was clean and spacious. Our balcony easily accommodated a full dining patio set so we could enjoy dawn and dusk overlooking a lush garden area with meandering stream. The main resort facility boasts several open-air dining options for guests’ easygoing breakfasts and casual lunches. The Fireside Lounge bar and outdoor fireplace lures patrons to linger longer. And what better says, “Palm Springs” than to be relaxing in a warm swimming pool or waiting for your next putt while gazing at snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains?

palm canyon

Make time for side trips such as hiking in Palm Canyon

If you vacation in Palm Springs — whatever resort you choose — you may get so relaxed and comfortable, you’ll be tempted to abandon those other  activities. Be strong! You can do it all! Just allow an extra day or two for hiking into Palm Canyon, riding up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, visiting the Living Desert Zoo and touring Joshua Tree National Park. (Better make that three or four extra days.) Or you could meld into the stereotype: golf, eat, drink, shop. There’s nothing wrong with that either!

Consider spending one day for a cruise past examples of desert modernism architecture, because Palm Springs is the prime location of these post-World War II sleek, angular structural designs.  And if you’re a fan of TV’s “Mad Men,” you’re quite possibly in the best place to channel your “inner Don Draper” with a tour of 1950s and 60s-era homes, hotels and office buildings. Or course, that would mean leaving your Old Fashioned drink and your comfy spot in the cocktail lounge.

Readers: What are your favorite southern California getaways? I would love to get your comments… you can also follow me on Twitter (@azgetawaytravel) or ‘like’ me on Facebook. Read other Southwest Travel blogs at AZCVoices/Travel.