A perennial favorite: Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Golden barrel cactus radiate in the morning sun

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park never fails to inspire and impress me. It’s not only one of the best places to see spring wildflowers and wildlife in Arizona, it’s an ideal spot to bring visiting out-of-state guests who want to see some native flora and fauna — no matter what the season. Plus the popular destination attracts photographers who want to catch a shot of a perfect sunrise, a rare bird or one of the garden’s amazing cactus blossoms.

What’s impressive is the number of activities, classes, guided hikes, plant sales, and other activities and events are held each year. No weekend at Boyce Thompson Arboretum is the same. Of course, you’ll walk the same paths, stop at the same viewpoints, gaze at the same gardens paths and lunch at the same picnic areas, yet it always feels like a new experience. Every time I visit the park, I almost feel like it’s my first time.

Ayer Lake attracts birds, butterflies and dragonflies

Ayer Lake attracts birds, butterflies and dragonflies

Even in the summer, visits to the park can be pleasant — especially during the early morning hours. The huge cottonwood trees in the picnic areas provide cool shady comfort. Walks along the creek and canyon are equally enjoyable.

Learn more about which wildflower varieties and cactus blooms currently are visible at one of several upcoming guided tours. Visit the arboretum’s University of Arizona website or watch the short video on the State Park website.

Historic Smith Building was the original park visitor center

Historic Smith Building was the original park visitor center

The park is open daily except Christmas Day. Park hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except during May through August when hours are 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Last admission is one hour before closing. Fees are $9 for adults/teens 13 and older, $4.50 for ages 5-12. Frequent visitors may want to consider membership options or becoming a volunteer.

Excellent views of Boyce Thompson Arboretum from the High Trail

Excellent views of Boyce Thompson Arboretum from the High Trail

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Don’t miss Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery near Payson

tonto creek fish hatchery

Visiting a fish hatchery may not sound very exciting, but a stop at the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery will add both fun and a learning experience to your next family weekend getaway in Payson’s Rim Country. All ages will enjoy a tour of the hatchery and the fish feeding demonstration

Stop at the visitor center. You’ll learn the entire process of raising trout that eventually will be stocked into Arizona’s fishing waters. Rainbow, brook, brown and native Apache trout have been produced here over the years. The site has undergone numerous upgrades since its opening in 1937. At the visitor center, storyboards, posters and scaled models explain the fascinating fish growing process.

Bring quarters for fish food. Don’t forget to carry some quarters to buy handfuls of fish pellets to drop into adult trout pond. Younger children will especially enjoy this activity.

tonto creek fish hatchery

Watch feedings by hatchery staff. During weekend afternoons visitors will have a good chance of seeing hatchery workers make their presentation about the hatchery operations while feeding the fish. Watch the “feeding frenzy” by the young trout as they splash wildly in the raceways — those long, rectangular fish tanks. Trout will spend their first 15 months at the hatchery.

tonto creek fish hatchery

Explore the grounds. Spend some time exploring the area. Take plenty of photographs. Find out about other wildlife in the area. Learn how those sturdy canopies over the raceways not only provide shade, but also keep the young trout safe from predatory birds.

rainbow trout

Make a whole day of it. Combine your hatchery visit with a three to four hour day hike on Horton Creek Trail or other nearby trail, a picnic lunch at one of several day use sites, or fishing in Tonto Creek in designated areas below the hatchery. Also worth a visit is the nearby Naco Paleo Site, located about three miles west of the hatchery turnoff, south of State Route 260. Walk up the old Jeep trail a hundred feet or so, and inspect the sloping side of the hill for fossils.

Note: As of Monday July 2, Forest Road 289, north of State Route 260 to Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, remains closed because of forest fire conditions, according to a spokesman from Arizona Game and Fish Dept. To learn when the forest roads to the hatchery will be re-opened, visit the Tonto National Forest website.

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

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Spring’s in bloom at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

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Boyce Thompson Arboretum provides center stage for a bunch of barrel cacti in a spotlight of sunshine

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Hedgehog cactus in bloom

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From wildflowers to wildlife, if you’re in Arizona in April, you must go to the Arboretum. Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, that is. Almost any spring day between mid-March to late April, depending on temperatures and rainfall, is prime time for wildflower watching.

Hedgehog, barrel, prickly pear, saguaro cacti blossoms come alive with color at various times throughout the spring season. Also look for lupine, poppies, mallow and many other wildflowers. The state park provides several wildflower walking tours this month — upcoming walks are scheduled for April 14, 22 and 28.

Ayer Lake

Rock formations reflect in Ayer Lake's still waters

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Don’t forget your camera! Even if you’re a novice at wildflower photography, just research some photo tips online: here’s one website. Or perhaps you’d like to simply stroll along the Main Loop trail and enjoy the colorful sights, knowing that you’ll find plenty of guide books, postcards, brochures and pamphlets in the park’s gift shop.

Remember to pack plenty of drinking water, and if you’re like me; also bring some tissues and Zyrtec. Wildflowers, blooming trees can also mean sneezing, wheezing and watering eyes. Although springtime visits to the arboretum bring many visitors for wildflower watching, there are additional tours, classes and exhibits happening at the park throughout the year. Check the website’s calendar for upcoming events and plan your trip accordingly.

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An old truck on the Arboretum's grounds makes an excellent background

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Not too keen about memorizing all those wildflower names? You could download an identification app such as those available from Audubon. Or obtain a copy of an Arizona field flower guide from your local library or while you’re in the Arboretum gift shop. I found this handy online identification guide from delange.org, but I found its formatting to be a bit outdated and rather tedious to view on mobile. What I did like about this site however, was its color key index for searching and cross-reference index for both scientific and common flower names.

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Pink blossoms of the fishhook cactus

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It also helps to get your head out behind the camera lens once in a while to simply “take it all in,” especially before the Arizona temperatures will reach 100 degrees. All ages will enjoy much about the park: the many species of birds, small mammals and reptiles, unique rock formations, historic park buildings, picturesque creek crossings and huge eucalyptus trees.

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Vibrant red blossoms sprout from the rocks at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

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Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is located west of Superior on U.S. Highway 60 and is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults or $4.50 for children 5-12.

Also check out the Boyce Thompson Arboretum Facebook Page.

Readers: I would love to see your comments about other spring desert wildflower locations around Arizona. What are your favorite places? Have any photography tips to share?

Random notes from Arizona wine tasting rooms

I’ve watched people at wine tasting events and wineries and remember how connoisseurs will jot down wine notes or dictate messages into their cell phones. They want to remember their wine tasting experiences, save information about the wines. They make notes about the wine’s appearance, aroma, taste and finish.

On a recent day trip to Jerome and Cottonwood, I jotted down some notes of my own — of the tasting rooms themselves. Here are some excerpts taken from my day trip travel journal about three tasting rooms I visited:

Arizona Stronghold

Appearance: Rich colors; dark sandstone red. Oak and iron. Exciting, bustling, comfortable atmosphere. Warm, friendly and inviting.

Second impressions: Oil paintings of sunsets. Bold, edgy. Surreal. Apache photos and symbols. Uninhibited.

Tasting experience: Friendly and relaxed. Smooth. Five for $9

Location: 1023 North Main Street, Cottonwood. Hours: Sunday-Thursday 12-7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday 12-9 p.m.

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Arizona Stronghold tasting room in Cottonwood

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Arizona Stronghold tasting room celebrated its 'birthday' in March with balloons and entertainment

Bitter Creek Winery

Appearance: Bright, airy. Vivid burgundy-colored walls. Welcoming, friendly.

Second impressions: Gallery of watercolors and ink. Panoramic views of Verde Valley from picture window. Artistic labels and unique names for blends. Gifts. High ceilings.

Tasting experience: Informative. Innovative. Mystical. Sultry Cellars reds: Four for $10. Bitter Creek reds and whites: Four for $8.

Location: 240 Hull Ave., Jerome. Hours: Sunday – Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open one hour later, beginning in May.

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Bitter Creek Winery

Bitter Creek Winery tasting room features sitting area to enjoy panoramic views of Verde Valley

Bitter Creek Winery

A gallery of watercolor, ink and charcoal towers over the long wine bar at Bitter Creek Winery

Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room

Appearance: Red brick. Walnut and maple wood. Steel gray wine bar with brushed chrome hardware.

Second impressions: Imaginative. Bold. Rustic-looking with modern edginess. Shop is definitely worth a browse. Apparel and wine accessories.

Tasting experience: A bit pricey. $14 per flight of four wines.

Location: 158 Main Street, Jerome. Hours: Monday-Thursday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Caduceus Cellars

A cozy, intimate atmosphere at the Jerome tasting room of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards

Caduceus Cellars

Unique wine accessories and apparel in the shop at Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards tasting room

Jerome eatery a must: 15.quince grill & cantina

quince sign

15.quince grill & cantina: highly recommended for dining in Jerome, Arizona

 

Up until a few years ago, when we’d visit an Arizona town, we’d always wonder how to find the best lunch spot. We would check all the rating-review websites and chamber of commerce listings. We soon realized, to find a really great lunch spot, you need to become a ‘stalker.’ When the local residents leave work for lunch hour, just follow them. Or, better yet, I guess you can always ask around. We asked our pourer at one of Jerome’s wine tasting rooms for his recommendation. He didn’t even need to think about it. “Quince,” he said.

Quince (or actually 15.quince grill & cantina) was without a doubt right on the mark. We had to wait for a few minutes, as 15.quince is a cozy little storefront and seating comes at a premium on one of Jerome’s sunny March Saturdays. While we waited we were captivated by a taste of the Jerome Art Walk, which occurs each first Saturday of the month. Although the art walk actually is later in the evening, a few artisans and a musician had already set up in the vacant lot next door.

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Artisans and musicans set up on a Saturday afternoon

 

 

In just a few minutes we were seated and I couldn’t help but notice the large number of painted cow skulls and carved wooden crosses on the wall. What a nice collection! Colorful examples of Mexican folk art are everywhere. The clientele is part local and part tourist, however, if you know Jerome, sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart. Think: cowboy hats, Hawaiian shirts and Harley-Davidson leathers. The atmosphere is very animated; we liked that. People smiling and laughing in a restaurant is always a positive sign. Our server was excellent: attentive, personable and efficient.

 

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Colorful cow skulls and cross adorn the walls at 15.quince grill

 

We immediately were brought our icy cold Negra Modelo beers. And it wasn’t long before our entrée was served: a very hefty looking burro with shredded beef, black beans, green rice. We ordered it “half-and-half:” one side red sauce and the other side green. Both colors were swimming along side the chipotle cream and melted cheeses. Excellent!

 

burro

Lunch is served: "Orale Vato Loco" Smothered Burro

 

The entire menu looks very appealing; enough to even make the most finicky diner drool. We also heard the margaritas are over-the-top, but those will have to wait for our next Jerome getaway. We did, however, opt for a slice of decadent cherry cheesecake. After a lunch like that, we felt a siesta was in order but we decided to instead walk off the experience by window-shopping through the streets of Jerome. If you have relatives and friends visiting this month, you will want to bring them here.

Escape from high gas prices, admission fees with a day trip to Chandler’s Veterans Oasis Park

Okay, so gasoline prices are sky-high. You’d like to take an out-of-town day trip, but don’t want to shell out the bucks for a couple of tank fill-ups. Admission charges for zoos and animal parks also run a little too steep for your budget. Here’s a suggestion: try spending the day at one of the Phoenix-area municipal parks or riparian preserves. Many of the local parks offer a variety of enjoyable ways for a family to spend the entire day.

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Inside the Environmental Education Center at Chandler's Veterans Oasis Park

 

We recently spent a few hours at our one of our local parks, Chandler’s Veterans Oasis, located at the northeast corner of Chandler Heights and Lindsay Roads. It’s one of our area’s newest parks, and it really does have a little bit of everything. The Environmental Education Center (EEC) is a standout – it houses classrooms for nature camps and classes, landscaping workshops, healthy cooking, scouting programs, fishing lessons, birding, art, even yoga. Spring Nature Camp during the two-week Chandler school spring break provides both full and half-day programs.

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Urban fishing lake at Veterans Oasis

 

But we didn’t come to the park to look at nature programs; we came to look at nature. The park sits on 113 acres with a five-acre urban fishing lake, over four miles of trails and walks, many picnic ramadas with grills, playground areas, equestrian trails, butterfly and hummingbird habitats, plus an outdoor amphitheater for outdoor concerts like the Sonoran Sunset Series. Upcoming appearances include a folk/country trio from Gilbert called “Firefly,” on March 8 and a locally known jazz singer, John Vold on April 12.

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Spring wildflowers bloom along one of the walking trails at Veterans Oasis Park

 

Municipal parks such as Veterans Oasis are the perfect getaway for a Saturday or Sunday – or any day of the week, because they provide such a different environment than you’re accustomed to. For example, the day we were there, we couldn’t believe we were still in Chandler. As we strolled around the lake, we heard some bird songs and nature sounds we certainly wouldn’t hear at our subdivision’s playground, park or retention area, or even some of the city’s other parks. And as we came around the far side of the lake, I spotted a jackrabbit about the size of my border collie, just lumbering around a few feet from us between the bushes. I couldn’t get my camera or phone out fast enough.

Veterans Oasis Park has recently been named, “Certified Wildlife Habitat” by the National Wildlife Federation. From the beginning, naturalists and park administrators have combined their efforts to plan the park so that it will attract small animals, birds, fish, butterflies and other forms of wildlife to the park and maintain the environment to protect them. Since the park’s opening in 2008, more than 135 species of wildlife have been documented.  Last year the park became the first municipally owned park to be a part of the Bird Habitat Recognition Program from the local Desert Rivers Chapter of the National Audubon Society.

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Part of a recent community art exhibit at the Environmental Education Center

 

Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler is the perfect location for the family to observe Earth Day 2012. The City of Chandler is combining Earth Day, Arbor Day and the four-year anniversary of the EEC into one event on April 20 from 4 to 7 p.m. with hands-on activities, live animal exhibits, food booths, artisans and prize giveaways.

The best thing of all about Veterans Oasis? It requires little gasoline to get there, (at least for those of us in the Southeast Valley) and it’s FREE!

Regular park hours are 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. The wildlife preserve is open 6 a.m. to sunset daily and the Environmental Education Center is open Monday and Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Readers: Where are the riparian preserves or wildlife areas near you? Have any suggestions for day trips that are close to home and free? I’d like to hear about them…

Windmill Winery is versatile venue

Windmill Winery isn’t just a winery and tasting room. It’s also a farm, market, plant nursery, wedding venue, restaurant, corporate meeting place, entertainment location and farm implement museum. It’s also a nice destination for an afternoon day trip.

Windmill Winery

The winery features a different set of wine selections monthly, making it possible for wine lovers in the San Tan Valley area to enjoy a variety of varietals from different wine regions. Plus Windmill Winery has its own private label including a sweet white wine and a robust red.

Located at the western edge of Florence, Windmill Winery is just a short half hour drive from the southeast suburbs – probably just over an hour from Phoenix. It may have started out as a nursery, but it has grown into a popular wedding and reception venue, as couples opt for a setting of country charm. When we arrived, owner Harold Christ immediately made us feel welcome and invited us to sample some of the white Hummingbird Nectar and the red Dutchman’s Bold. Although these wines are from grapes grown and processed outside Arizona, plans are in the works for grape vines to be planted onsite. In about seven years, if all goes well, Windmill Winery may be boasting not only its own label, but its own wine.

Windmill Winery burro

With wine in hand, we strolled outside to the tour the grounds. A quaint outdoor patio welcomed us at the door. The patio encompasses several tables and gas heaters for the cooler evenings. The lush setting made us forget we were in the desert – the entire property reminded us of an eastern or mid-western farmyard. And after learning the history of the big red barn, we knew why. The 45-foot high structure was dismantled in Green Bay, Wisconsin then shipped to Arizona and reconstructed on the 60-acre property.

Windmill Winery, as an entertainment venue, has all bases covered. Events such as Brews, Brats and Blind Man’s Bluff, Mardi Gras Madness, and Murder Mystery Nights are upcoming dates the winery’s calendar. Diners need to book these events in advance as they sell out early. The Valentine’s Prime Rib dinner was already sold out. These special events are for advanced purchase only. Also in February, Windmill Winery starts Friday happy hours from 4 to 7 p.m. with half price specials on house wine and light appetizers. There’s also a solid collection of craft brews and local beers available.

Poultry on parade at Windmill Winery

Catered dinners on one night a week provide visitors with a menu that would make any master chef drool.

You might choose from a gourmet burger, created with homemade garlic-mayo aioli, with horseradish cheddar served on a bed of Arugula leaves, topped with a fresh-baked Kaiser roll, including a special condiment of bacon jam or a platter of Hawaiian-style pork with sea salt herbs and spices, slow cooked in banana leaves with a coconut rice grilled pineapple and slice of Pina Colada bread. Hungry yet? Many of the ingredients were grown on Christ’s same property, known agriculturally as Florence Farms. Much of the Florence Farms harvest also finds its way to the kitchens of about a dozen local resorts and restaurants.

One of Windmill Winery's unique landscape features

Although it’s not actually a museum, there’s a collection of farm implements on display such as John Deere tractors and other implements. Harold and his wife Katie recently were featured in an installment of Massey Ferguson’s’ online magazine: MyFarmLife.com. Windmill Winery, located at 1140 West Butte Road in Florence, is open Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. and Friday noon to 10 p.m.

What are your favorite day trips around Arizona? I would welcome any ideas, suggestions or recommendations from readers. Just let me know by emailing me at azgetawaytravel@gmail.com.