Relaxing getaway at Roper Lake State Park

Natural hot springs tub makes Roper Lake unique

Remember Roper Lake State Park if you’re considering a peaceful Arizona weekend getaway. When we visited in early September, the place seemed almost empty. Except for a group of scouts loading up canoes, there were only a few several travel trailers plus a couple of tents scattered throughout the park — hardly any activity, granted it was a rather rain-soaked Sunday morning. But I have a feeling when the weather’s better, Roper Lake State Park, located 171 miles southeast of Phoenix, is probably buzzing with action. Roper Lake lures visitors for a variety of reasons. Here are a few:

Canoeing, kayaking. Add to that: paddleboarding, sail boarding and inflatable rafting. Exploring Roper Lake’s shores for wildlife sightings is one way to unwind. This quiet lake would be a great place for beginners to sharpen their skills on a non-motorized watercraft. Practice kayaking; try out stand-up paddleboarding. Rest assured: No jet skis or high-powered outboards will go whizzing by.

Mount Graham capped with clouds is a backdrop to Roper Lake's beach

Swimming. Roper Lake is one of 12 Arizona state parks with a designated swimming area and it also has a few hundred feet of “beach.” Although we didn’t see any people in the water on this rainy day — the only swimmers were ducks. I guess I could imagine children wading in the sandy shallows as a possibility, but the water looks to be more like a murky pond: muddy, sandy, with plenty of cattails.

Mariah Mesa Trail walkway starts from the hot tub area

Hiking. A short nature trail appears to be the only marked path. The Mariah Mesa Trail is about .75 mile and takes one up to a short ridge, but hikers are rewarded with closer views of views of Mount Graham and Pinaleno Mountains as well as blankets of Graham County farm fields. Walking around other sections of the park, such as along the lake’s edge and campground paths will measure about five miles. Otherwise serious hikers will be drawn to Mount Graham for numerous possibilities.

Picnicking. There’s a large picnic ramada on Roper Lake’s “island.” This location would be an excellent place for the family reunion, church or company picnic. Better bring the rolling cooler and wagon, because no vehicles are allowed in this area; it’s a bit of a toting distance from the parking lot. However, the grassy lawn area is ample enough to start up a game of touch football – just be alert that those long passes don’t get too long, or you’d be swimming out in the reeds for the reception.

Quaint camp cabins have porch swings

Camping. Cute little cabins have bunk beds, heat and a/c inside, and picnic tables, fire pits and porch swings outside. I’m imagining a perfect weekend retreat for relaxation: sitting on the porch swing finally finishing that novel and ‘cozying up’ around the campfire during the evening chill.

Fishing.  Small, quiet and calm, Roper Lake would be ideal waters for teaching children or beginners how to fish. There’s a fully accessible fishing dock, and 30 acres of surface area. Largemouth bass and rainbow trout are the popular catches. The park store has fishing supplies and bait.

Soaking.  Roper Lake State Park comes equipped with its own natural hot springs! It’s actually just one of many in this part of Arizona. But others are either on private land or difficult to reach. I’m estimating the waters in this park tub are about 95-100 degrees — perfect for a short “ah” moment. Imagine relaxing here after a day of fishing, paddleboarding or hiking.

A snowy egret tests the Roper Lake waters

Wildlife watching. As we strolled along the beach, we saw a number of different waterfowl and wading birds, including a snowy egret. Killdeer piercing high notes split the light breezy quiet of our morning. The high country desert scrub geography nestled at the foot of Mount Graham brings many other kinds of wildlife to view during the dusk and dawn.

Stargazing. Of course, you could venture up to the top of Mount Graham for a close-up view of stars, moons and planets or just relax in front of your cabin or in the hot tub and stare at the night sky. Because you’re far from Tucson or Phoenix city illumination, you’ll have a better view of constellations or the over-passing International Space Station.

Only major negative about Roper Lake State Park? It badly needs TLC. We noticed facilities were fair condition at best. Structures, signs and benches need repair and paint; day use areas need cleaning and clearing. We hope — if not the state parks department — maybe the Friends of Roper Lake will act soon to help with upkeep. Unfortunately, at this writing the group’s website was removed.

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Pros outweigh cons at Ashurst Lake

Arizona visitors to Arizona’s Ashurst Lake likely will conclude the pros slightly outweigh the cons. Ashurst Lake, located about 20 miles south of Flagstaff, has several strong points to its favor, but it does have a few minuses. However, those negatives shouldn’t be enough to keep most people away.

Plus: Ashurst Lake is usually filled. Water from rainfall, snowmelt and a few springs keeps the lake as a recreation attraction, even during dry early summer months. While Mormon Lake and Lake Mary are reduced to large puddles, fishermen could catch their yield at Ashurst Lake. Stocked rainbow trout is the common sight on stringers. Also, shoreline is easily accessible for the most part. From the road, several parking lots or two campgrounds, it’s an easy walk to the water’s edge.

Minus: Sadly, as you walk along the water’s edge you’ll see the large amounts of garbage. I understand some fisherman may unintentionally leave behind a broken bobber or two, but the bags of trash, cartons of empty beer cans, disposable diapers, broken lawn chairs, etc. make me discouraged. Ugh. A major peeve of mine: Some campers or day users are simply too lazy to carry their garbage back to the trash cans or their cars.

Plus: At Ashurst Lake you can see forever… well, at least for miles. You’ll be able lose any claustrophobia you picked up from the dense Ponderosa pines in nearby Coconino National Forest. You can inhale deep breaths of big sky before you realize you’re still in Arizona, not Montana. Late summer afternoons will consolidate those big cumulus clouds overhead. At Ashurst Lake, you’ll have full view of the monsoon storm cells mounting over the San Francisco Peaks.

Minus: Your views and images both from your mind’s eye and on digital media can’t help but include those high voltage electric transmission lines, Yes, I suppose a more ambitious photographer would “photoshop them out” of the photos, but then you’d have to question: Is the scenery around the electric poles really worth the photo editing effort? No: It’s a reality — Ashurst Lake just isn’t that beautiful. It’s more “ruggedly handsome.”

Plus: If you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of metro Phoenix, Tucson or Flagstaff (is it okay to use the word, “metro” before Flagstaff?), you can find peace and tranquility at Ashurst Lake. The only screams heard will be those of joy when a youngster catches his first rainbow trout or when a group of teenage girls pretend to rock their canoe to and fro as if to tip it over. Or you may hear a call from shoreline to parking lot to bring down another beer or sandwich from the cooler. You may hear the calls from a huge variety of birds coming from the south end of the lake in the reedy, marshy areas. Great blue herons, ducks and many other shorebirds congregate at Ashurst Lake. Bring your scopes, zoom lenses and binoculars to get a closer view.

Minus: After you’ve spent a nice afternoon walking the lake, fishing offshore or from a small boat you may need to the restroom facilities. Please be warned: You may want to hold it until you get back to your camper, trailer or Mormon Lake Lodge. The restrooms we saw were pretty disgusting.

Plus: Ashurst Lake is great for boating. When we visited, we saw cartoppers, canoes, kayaks and a small, motorized pontoon boat (10HP limit). Most operators had their lines dropped to fish, but I think these boaters were really out on the lake for some of other “plusses.” What’s more, the boat ramp at Ashurst Lake makes launching a breeze.

Power towers, trashy shoreline and stinky outhouses might keep some people away from Ashurst Lake, but I believe most visitors will decide the pros will outnumber the cons. Camping is nearby; the shoreline is walkable; fishing is consistently good; wildlife – especially birds of all sizes and species – is plentiful. And Ashurst Lake is a short half hour drive from Flagstaff.

Note: While I was looking up info about Ashurst Lake, I landed on Arizona Game and Fish Department’s HabiMap. I didn’t even know this existed! If you like mapping and playing with layers, images and attributes like I do, you may want to play around with it. Plus, AGFD is always putting out more data and updates, so if you haven’t been to this mapping website lately, you may want to check it out again.

High country hiking tips

A short, four-mile hike this past weekend in the Flagstaff area reminded me of all those high altitude tips and warnings I often read about on hiking websites and blogs. I just wish I had been reminded before I started hiking. I basically did everything opposite of the recommended precautions. I didn’t become actually afflicted with acute mountain sickness (AMS), but I did feel over-exerted; I was short of breath, dizzy, flushed; plus I was becoming a bit disoriented. I started to write this week’s blog post about the hike itself, but I thought Arizona visitors (and some of my readers) might benefit from these tips I found:

Preparation:

Altitude acclimatization. It’s a good idea to stay at the higher base altitude for at least 24 hours before you start hiking. Health and outdoor recreation websites recommend one to three days. We drove up to Flagstaff on Friday afternoon and began hiking Saturday morning; I may not have given myself enough time to become accustomed to the higher altitudes. Take short walks on level ground at 7000 or 7500 feet (in my case: just walking around the campground would have been a good idea). Because I live in the Valley throughout the year at 1200 feet and I planned to start a hike at 7200 feet, my body needed to adjust to a change of 6000 feet. Naturally, if I lived in Payson or Prescott, at about 5000 feet, the process of altitude acclimatization would happen more quickly and easily.

Hydration. Drink plenty of water during the day or days before your outing to keep your body hydrated. Cooler Flagstaff temperatures and rainy Arizona monsoon evenings may cause you to not feel as thirsty, so you may have to ‘force’ yourself to drink water regularly on the day before your hike. (Something else I may have neglected.) Drinks with electrolytes such as Gatorade, Powerade or Propel Fitness Water may help too, according to outdoor recreation websites.

Eat well. As with any fitness activity, eating high carbohydrate meals before the hike will increase stamina and ward off high altitude problems. Oatmeal, whole grain breads, granola snacks, trail mixes and energy bars may be recommended for the day before and morning of the hike. (Chips, salsa, hot dogs and beer: probably not so much.)

On the hike:

Slow down. Okay, this was my first mistake. Because I immediately stopped to snap some wildflower photos and adjust my backpack; I fell behind others in my group. I thought I needed to catch up so I began walking faster. Although I was just starting out the trail; I already felt out of breath. So I listened to my body (it gave me little choice) and slowed my pace.

Walking pace. Walking uphill for someone who is ‘height challenged’ usually means taking smaller, quicker steps to keep up the pace. I remembered this so I tried to lengthen my gait – taking a bit longer, but slower and more rhythmic stride. By doing this simple task, I was able to keep a regular walking rhythm, and my breaths and heartbeat slowed to a more easy, relaxed pace. (At least, I remembered this tip.)

Take breaks. Climbing 1000 feet in two miles even in the lower elevations can be a challenge. In Arizona’s high country — as you can imagine – it’s more stressful. Short, five-minute breaks every 15-30 minutes to hydrate and rest when I first felt distress allowed me to continue hiking longer. Ideally, slowing down and walking at a regular pace initially would have prevented the need for too many stops along the way.

Wear sunscreen… (Some of these tips belong in the ‘no-brainer’ department but I include them anyway.) At higher altitudes, the sun’s UV rays are more intense. Because it’s so much cooler in Arizona’s high country than the Phoenix metro area, and those huge pine trees seem to provide a lot of shade, the tendency is to not feel you need sun protection. But remember: There’s less atmosphere at these higher elevations to absorb the harmful UV rays. Always wear plenty of sunscreen and a hat.

…and sunglasses. Wearing sunglasses will help minimize some of the headaches associated with high altitudes and the sun’s intensity. A wide-brimmed hat will add extra protection for both skin and eyes.

More info:

http://www.abc-of-hiking.com/hiking-preparations/high-altitudes.asp

http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/altitude.html

http://www.hikingdude.com/hiking-high-altitude.php

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Woods Canyon Lake: Not just for fishing

Arizona has arrived at the ‘dog days of summer.’ Most Arizona metro streets are almost desolate on weekends. Every Arizona city-dweller with an RV, trailer, tent, cabin or hotel reservation escapes the heat, and heads out of town for cooler temps in northern and east-central Arizona (or any elevation over 6000 feet). Many campers will likely be on their way to Woods Canyon Lake.

Woods Canyon Lake is so popular during the summer for many obvious reasons. It has a beautiful location. It’s an easy two-hour drive from the Valley. You don’t need a monster mud truck to get to the site. It has great fishing, camping, hiking — and yes — it’s at least 15 degrees cooler. But there’s much more to Woods Canyon Lake than most people realize.

For instance, not everyone knows that Woods Canyon Lake has day-use facilities for lakeside picnicking. Don’t let the “campground full” sign deter you. You can still get in a day of fishing and picnicking. Rocky Point Picnic Area is located immediately adjacent to the lake, just northwest of the marina and store area. For a $5 day use fee, picnickers can enjoy a meal while watching trout fisherman float around the coves and inlets or gazing overhead for a chance sighting of one of Woods Canyon Lake’s large bird species, such as osprey or bald eagle. Just beyond the picnic area, you may spot one of the eagle nests high in the treetops.

Another popular attraction for visitors to Woods Canyon Lake are several hiking trails and nature paths in the vicinity. The main Woods Canyon Lake Trail makes a 5.5-mile circumference of the lake. It’s an easy walk of 2-3 hours. During summer months, you’ll see a variety of lush ferns and grasses growing from the forest floor under a canopy of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and oak. Watch for green meadows speckled with bright yellow wildflowers and steep, rocky ravines. If you start your hike southeast (to the right) of the lake’s marina, you’ll walk past people fishing offshore and over the earthen spillway. Soon you’ll be in a dense woods. Careful, now: Arizonans from mid-western and eastern states could get sentimental.  An easier walking option is the Meadow Trail, a paved path that short cuts through the campgrounds to a string of three Mogollon Rim overlooks along FR 300. Check the HikeArizona.com site and Woods Canyon Lake facility map for other nearby hikes.

Don’t forget to bring your bikes with you to Woods Canyon Lake. Many of the hiking trails nearby are also rated for mountain biking. These include the Rim Vista Trail 622 and FR 235. Just be alert for lightning as well as fast moving trucks zipping around the curves. Some people may think they’re still on the four-lane sections of State Route 260. Log on to everytrail.com to see more bike trails.

On summer Saturday evenings, families will have the opportunity to sit around the Woods Canyon Lake amphitheater and listen to one of Ranger Bob’s nature programs. This season the focus is wildfires – how they start, prevention and tools firefighters use to extinguish the fires. It’s both education and entertainment for the entire family. Programs start at 7:30 p.m. Don’t forget the snacks, hot chocolate and a blanket – for those chilly Rim country evenings.

Only non-motorized boats are permitted on Woods Canyon Lake and as you would guess, most are fishing boats. But that doesn’t stop other outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy the lake for kayaking, canoeing or floating in an inflatable raft. You may even seen a small pontoon boat floating around the lake perimeter and coves, fishing, watching for wildlife — just enjoying those cool, mountain breezes and blue skies. Take a look at the Desert Mountain Paddlers meetup site to watch a fascinating slide show from the group’s adventures at Woods Canyon Lake last October.

If you’re going to Woods Canyon Lake to camp during summer months, know that these sites are scooped up quickly. Sites can be reserved online, and also, there are a few that are available on a “first-come, first served” basis.  Obviously on non-holiday weekends after the school year starts, sites become more available.

Handy links:

Woods Canyon Lake camping

WoodsCanyonLake.com

Woods Canyon Lake facility map

Apache – Sitgreaves National Forest

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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.

Six reasons to visit Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

opening

For several years now, we’ve been extending our Arizona getaways to farther corners of the state and we often had sidestepped the communities closer to the Phoenix. We would stop only for refueling or quick restroom and snack breaks. But on recent visits to Pine, Strawberry and Payson, we rediscovered Rim Country. And Tonto Natural Bridge is the area’s best attraction! Here are six reasons to add it to your itinerary:

 

lodge

Now a visitor center, park office and gift shop, the main building was once a pioneer home and guest lodge

1. Easy access

It’s approximately two hours from the Phoenix area, just 14 miles north of Payson, Arizona, off state route 87. Paved roads all the way make for an easy drive, although the last few miles are on a steep driveway down to the park’s main parking lot and visitor center. Plan to spend at least four to six hours at the state park. There are trails to hike, boulders to scramble upon, cool breezes to inhale. Pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it. The park currently is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the visitor center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And easy access doesn’t mean it’s pricey. For a $5 adult entrance fee, the park is really the best deal for an Arizona day trip getaway!

 

springs

Be prepared to take a natural springs "shower" under the bridge

2. Hiking trails

These hikes aren’t long, but they are steep and some many have uneven steps. Others are very slippery and narrow and require boulder hopping or ledge hugging along Pine Creek. Prepare to get wet: if not from an accidental dip in the creek, you’ll feel the constant spray from the natural springs showering down from atop the bridge. You may want to bring some head gear or you can simply enjoy the drops. Sturdy hiking boots are recommended. Also, allow plenty time to climb up and down these trails. On weekends, the trails will be busy. When we visited in May, there was a constant stream of visitors. Bring along patience and common courtesy on the trail. If you’re not up to hiking down to under the bridge or along the creek, you can still enjoy the bridge sights from one of several lookout points.

 

garden

The garden setting near the main lodge building makes a great location for a picnic lunch

3. Picnicking

After a couple of these hikes, you’ll probably want a bite to eat and a cold drink. Remember: even in Payson, summer days are warm. It’s best to hike in the cool of the mornings and reward yourself with a picnic lunch. Some picnic areas have ramadas, but there are plenty of uncovered tables under the shade trees for your family picnic. Use this handy map to plan your visit. Restrooms and drinking water stations are located nearby. Please visit the park website for updates about fire restrictions before you light up one of the grills.

 

lodge

Main lodge building contains many historical items and a gift shop

4. Pine Creek

Of course, during early spring after rains or snow melt, or during late summer after monsoon rains, the Pine Creek’s flows are much higher. And conversely, during late spring and early summer the creek flows will be less. But natural springs surrounding all points of the bridge keep the creek fed. This constant spring water flow produces an array of graduated shades of green from layers of moss, mint, watercress and ferns at the creek bed. We spotted one of two designated swimming areas, but they look a bit on the stagnant side for my liking. Unless you want to step out of the water looking like Hollywood’s “Swamp Thing,” you may want to refrain from creek wading.

 

creek

Pine Creek flows under the Tonto Natural Bridge

5. Wildlife

It’s possible to spot many varieties of birds and small mammals around Tonto Natural Bridge and Pine Creek. Bats, swallows, owls, woodpeckers, vultures, squirrels, javelina and gray fox are among the common species making their home in the area. Take a look at the park website to learn more about the wildlife in the area as well as the geological facts and figures about the bridge.

 

squirrel

Watch for wildlife along the trails. You may see this photogenic Arizona gray squirrel

6. To support the park

Arizonans’ visits will help keep state parks like Tonto Natural Bridge remain open and operating. Private groups also have been successful in meeting the financial needs of the parks through fundraising efforts. For more information, see the website of the “Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.” The group has an event planned for this summer. Save the date of Saturday Aug. 4 on your calendar for “Taste at the Bridge,” a fundraising event put on by the Friends and the Arizona State Parks Foundation.

Readers: What’s your favorite Arizona State Park and why? How many of you have been to all of them? Some have closed; others are moving to 5-day schedules. What are your thoughts?

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

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?

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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.

Boulder Canyon Trail climbs high above Canyon Lake

We wanted to view the Superstitions from a different angle. Phoenix area hikers, especially those from the East Valley, can appreciate this: spring is prime time for desert hiking and you’re thinking about taking advantage of the Arizona weekend sunshine. You would like to hike some Superstition trails, but heavy use at the Lost Dutchman Park and Peralta trailheads leaves you feeling less than enthusiastic. That’s what we were thinking too, until we remembered the First Water and Canyon Lake trailheads. (There are several other minor trailheads, but these are the most popular, with more opportunities for loop and shuttle-type hikes.)

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Sun rises on the bluffs above Mormon Flat Dam and Canyon Lake Marina

Note: Although it’s not the prettiest website, we like the hikearizona.com site for its user-based data, images and general info. If you select any Superstition hike, you can scroll down to see the dynamic trail finder. Hover over the trails to see the description and various loop possibilities. We especially like the “live” elevation graph and topography map index to see exactly how much of a climb we can expect.

 

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Top of the hill view above Canyon Lake on Trail #103

So we opted to start from the Canyon Lake trailhead on a recent Sunday morning. The trailhead is well marked across from the Canyon Lake Marina. Just park in the designated hiker spaces at the south end of the marina, closest to the highway. The Boulder Canyon Hike #103 which climbs up quickly along a hillside and soon you’ll have panoramic views looking north at the lake, the canyon below and the bluffs rising over Tortilla Creek to the northeast. After the highest point, we continued around a ridge to the northeast, which opened up to excellent, but distant views of Four Peaks, the Superstition Mountains’ Flat Iron and Weaver’s Needle.

 

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Tarantula takes a hike along Boulder Canyon Trail #103

Although the trail continues for another mile or two before heading down the hill into La Barge Canyon, we turned around at approximately the 2.5-mile point. We found an excellent grouping of big rocks to stop for a quick snack before our return trip. This made for a pleasant 5-mile, 3-hour hike. Plus, it’s a nice way to work up an appetite for lunch at the marina’s Lakeside Restaurant. (Tip: the Friday Fish Fry is worth the beautiful drive).

Boulder Canyon 103 heading back

Heading back to Canyon Lake Marina, along Boulder Canyon Trail #103