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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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.

Kohl’s Ranch: Five reasons keep us returning

Autumn is one of our favorite times to visit Kohl’s Ranch. It’s a great time to see changing leaves and feel cooler temperatures of the Ponderosa pine forest at the foot of the Mogollon Rim. Kohl’s Ranch, nestled next to Tonto Creek along State Route 260, is a rustic guest ranch and Arizona historical landmark. We keep coming back to Kohl’s Ranch for these reasons:

1. Tonto Creek

Tonto Creek runs immediately in front of the Kohl’s Ranch’s lodge rooms, cabins and suites so each morning of our stay, we awake to hear the rustling water over the rocks as it makes its way into the Tonto Basin and on to Roosevelt Lake. On the National Forest land north of State Route 260, there’s plenty of space on the banks for fishing, picnicking or just listening to the wind in the pines. Farther up Forest Service Road 289 is Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, a nice place to spend an afternoon with the kids to learn how trout are grown for stocking Arizona waterways.

Tonto Creek's occasional still waters in front of Kohl's Ranch

 

 

Feeding time at the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery

  1. Pet-Friendly

Kohl’s Ranch has recently changed their pet policy and now allows pets in selected units. There are restrictions and since only a few such units exist, it’s recommended to call well in advance to reserve a pet-friendly unit. The resort provides a pet welcome kit with treats and blanket.

 

Chuck and Molly walking the fence near pet-friendly Kohl's Ranch

  1. The Lodge

As soon as we enter the building, we’re greeted with the scent of top grain leather sofas and wood, be it from cracking logs in the fireplace or the knotty pine walls. It’s like going back in time 70 years – to when the lodge was popular lodge among hunters and anglers. During the 1950’s and 60’s, the lodge a favorite stopover for vacationing families, with its dining room, ice cream parlor, post office and grocery store.  A gallery of old photographs tells the history. The main lodge building now comprises the front desk, lobby, dining room, saloon, fitness center, kid’s club, studio suites and resort offices.

 

  1. Zane Grey Dining Room

Despite some less than glorifying comments on those always-disputable hospitality review sites, we have always found the dining room at Kohl’s Ranch to exceed our expectations. For one recent meal, we ordered the daily dinner special: Cornish game hens with orange glaze — baked to perfection, with wild rice and steamed fresh vegetables. Our lunch the following day was equally as good. My husband said his onion rings was the best he has ever had — those huge rings of onion dipped in homemade batter. At each of our meals, our servers promptly arrived to our table with menus, drinks, meals and check.

Hiking Trail access

This is probably the most important reason we keep coming back to Kohl’s Ranch – the location. It’s nice to stay in a cabin right near your trailhead. We especially like Horton Creek Trail and other trails nearby. In fact, the Horton Trail is one of our favorites, for a rather easy-to-moderate day hike. This trail has everything: lush forest, lots of wildlife, waterfalls, plus an easy, gradual climb – nothing too steep. Plan to see a lot of hikers on weekends. Check out hikearizona.com or Arizonahikingtrails.com for more information and additional hiking opportunities in the area.

 

Waterfalls along the Horton Creek hiking trail

For anyone who wants to visit some of Arizona’s historical landmarks to commemorate the Arizona Centennial, we recommend putting Kohl’s Ranch on the list. It’s one of the few guest “ranches” still operating in our state – continuing to treat visitors to some western, rustic charm and authentic Arizona hospitality.