Road honeymoon in Arizona
A commenter on the blog last week asked if I was Temporary Bachelor Man or Temporary Honeymoon Man. Yes, I must admit that we are treating this little three-week summer visit as a series of romantic getaways. Our goal has been to just have as much fun as possible, exploring places and things that we might have skipped with a child in tow.
We began preparations some months ago, collecting ideas for travel and searching out deals on hotels and restaurants so that we could take fullest possible advantage without spending ridiculous amounts of money. Summer travel in southern Arizona and the desert portions of California, New Mexico, and Texas is a bargain if you take the time to look for the deals. Our options would have been broader with access to one of the Airstreams, but we’ve managed to do pretty well nonetheless. For example, Eleanor has completely mastered the intricacies of the Restaurants.com coupon system, to the point that we are eating out at posh restaurants three nights a week for cheap.
Tucson is great for restaurants. Within a few miles of our house we can find virtually any cuisine, and we never have taken full advantage of that just because when we are home we tend to eat in. This little “honeymoon” period is different, so now we are exploring restaurants with complete abandon. Last week we tripped over a fairly unusual find, a real Cajun restaurant (run by folks from a family that settled in Louisiana in the 1600s). Normally you can’t get good Cajun food outside of Louisiana — I don’t care what those fancy nouveau chefs in major cities think — but this place is the glorious exception. I’ll be back there for a little jambalaya after Eleanor has left, I’m sure.
Our specialty this past week has been restaurants in the resort hotels. A few days ago we tried Azul at the Westin La Paloma, which was fine, and this weekend we may go to Primo at the JW Marriott Starr Pass. These are mostly fun because we never go to the local resort hotels, and so we’ve got an excuse to dress up for dinner and check out the elite scene. (We also went up to the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain but didn’t eat there since we were just dropping off our niece who was in town for a business trip.)
Before you get concerned about the idea of me dressing up, relax. This is Tucson, so dressing up only means I wear slacks instead of shorts with cargo pockets, and I pick a silk Hawaiian shirt that has been ironed. Nobody wears a jacket and tie when it’s over 100 degrees outside, even at night. I have not worn a tie since sometime in the mid-1990s. I’m waiting for the ones I bought in 1991 to come back into style …
This time of year the thunderstorms cool things down for a few hours after the rain, but it’s still nice to get away from the heat for an extended period. Looking at my work schedule I realized I could escape on Thursday and Friday, so on Wednesday we booked a hotel up in Show Low AZ, up in the pine trees above the Mogollon Rim that divides northern and southern Arizona. It’s about a five hour trip up to there from Tucson, and even longer if you stop and enjoy the fantastic scenery along the way. The route, pictured above, brought us up and around the Santa Catalina mountain range through Oracle (past Biosphere 2), through lots of rolling desert, past the ASARCO copper mines at Winkelman, and then to the town of Globe — famous for turquoise mining (B on the map).
From there the road starts to get very interesting as it gradually gains altitude and loses it again, three or four times, finally descending through a series of hairpin turns down to the beautiful Salt River Canyon.
This route (between points B and C on the map) is passable with a travel trailer, but you need to be comfortable with long 6% grades (both up and down) and willing to take your time. There are many overlooks suitable for parking an RV or travel trailer. On Thursday the road was lightly traveled, and we rarely had company at the overlooks. We stopped at one for a big picnic lunch (our usual crazy leftover smorgasbord) and had the place to ourselves the entire time.
Eventually the road climbs for the last time and ends up at 6,300 feet in the town of Show Low. We had started the day with temperatures of 100-105 but up here it was a beautifully cool 81 degrees with scattered thunderstorms. We found our hotel and a local Italian eatery, then parked somewhere to watch the lightning bolts in the distance, as the sun set in dramatic clouds of orange and blue.
In the morning we cruised over the Fool Hollow State Park, one that we’ve heard is nice but had never seen ourselves. The park staff gave us a 30-minute pass (they held a $7 refundable deposit), which gave us time to roll through the entire park. It’s a fantastic spot, well worth a visit, and so now we are trying to figure a time to drop in this fall. If you go, book early as it probably sells out far in advance for every weekend in the summer.
Having taken hours to get up here, it seemed like a shame to drop back down the Mogollon Rim into the heat any sooner than we had to, so instead we wandered west on Rt 260 toward Heber-Overgaard, staying above 6,000 feet the entire route. We made a few stops here and there to explore, and eventually came to the point where Rt 260 begins to descend, at the edge of the Rim. It’s tough to drive away from the beautiful air up high, so we stopped off and found a secluded place to park near the General George Crook trail, and took in the view for a while.
A tip for you photographers: doing justice to the expansive views from the Mogollon Rim is difficult without a super-wide angle lens. I started with my Nikkor 18-200 but couldn’t get the shots I wanted. I pulled out the Tamron 10-24 and around 12mm I finally started getting a fair perspective. The shot above is at 10mm.
The photo above, of Saguaro Lake, is from the iPhone. Sometimes it does a decent job, especially when there’s a lot of light. We drove a few hours down the twisting Beeline Highway to near point F on the map and checked out this little lake formed from the impounding of the Lower Salt River. It’s in the Tonto National Forest, so a “Tonto Pass” is required to use any of the camping areas, overlooks, boat launches, beaches, etc. (Your $80 annual “America The Beautiful Pass” and/or “Golden Age Pass” doesn’t cover this, despite what you probably thought when you bought it!)
But no pass is required to park at the Marina and take in the view from the upper deck of the restaurant, which is what we did while sipping a couple of cold ice teas. At this point we were well back into the oven east of Phoenix, but with full shade and the outdoor misting system running at full tilt it was tolerable outside on the deck.
The photo above is another iPhone capture, entering Apache Junction and looking east toward the Superstition Mountains. Lost Dutchman State Park, another one of our list, is not far away. (Don’t be concerned about the 45 MPH speed limit — in most places the speed limit is a more-appropriate 65 MPH.)
All together, we covered close to 500 miles in two days. A roadtrip like this would be exhausting or at least boring on the Interstate, but despite lots of long lonely stretches, we rarely felt uninspired. The back roads of Arizona are vast and dramatic, with variety, color, and life nearly everywhere, and well worth exploring.