Jeff Reed is a retired Gerontologist, who has owned a private travel club for senior citizens in Arizona since 1984. He has traveled more than 900,000 miles on escorted tours just in the State of Arizona. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a voice message at 480-497-2478. His web site is www.tjstravelclubforseniors.com
Spring is short lived in the Valley of the Sun and throughout our desert region. Time to start thinking about a springtime tour before the crowds hit the high country.
Last week, we found ourselves at the Fossil Creek Llama Ranch, outside of Strawberry Arizona. Joyce and John Bittner operate this unique ranch and they are so enthusiastic about their operations. The ranch is dedicated to raising llamas and educating the public about this interesting creature.
Here is the type of information that you will discover once you visit this enchanting ranch. Llamas are not riding, but they can carry a pack and will accompany you on the overnight hiking experiences offered at the Ranch. Llamas don’t spit and they are curious animals, never kicking or biting humans. They can put up quite a fuss with one another, but they are gentle with people. Makes me think they might make a nice house pet? I suggest a trip in spring because as summer approaches their wool will change. They are wooly this time of year.
Getting to the Llama Ranch, outside of Fossil Creek is half the fun. From our Valley, just find the Beeline Highway and make your way into the Rim Country. Might want to make a few stops in downtown Payson, as this area is really growing.
On Main Street “off the main drag” you will find some very interesting antique shops and thrift shops. Further down the road is a historic tavern and a relatively new “man made Lake Park”.
Actually, most folks don’t know that none of the lakes in Arizona are natural. This is another column on another day however. Next to the lake, is a wonderful museum that will really tell you the story of the area and the families who originally settled here.
From here, just continue out of town, toward Strawberry and Pine Arizona.
Take your time, pull off the road and enjoy these little communities. If you are visiting on a weekend, you just might run into a festival or two in the High Country. Always leave a little time to explore these small town festivals. Rather than throw street numbers at you, just turn left at the Strawberry Lodge and follow the signs, past the Oldest School House and into the ranch. If you left early enough this morning, you might even arrive at the Ranch before lunch.
Looking for a little more adventure, after your visit to the Llama Ranch, you can head down the canyon and into Fossil Creek and some of Arizona’s best-kept secrets. I don’t think I would recommend doing this dirt road in a sedan, but I have seen them many times throughout the area.
If you opt to take this road home, take a minute and check it out on your Arizona Map, just to make certain you have enough time for the adventure. From the Ranch to Camp Verde on the other side of the Verde Mountain Range is a three-hour drive. Along the way however, you will see some beautiful sights.
First, there is Fossil Creek Generating Power Plant and the little community. Childs Arizona and another power plant on the Verde River, and across the river is an abandoned resort that legend tells us is used today as an informal nudist colony. I am going to get someone in trouble with this knowledge!
In addition to opportunities to see the ranch operation first hand, you might want to consider taking one of their hikes in the area, or spending the night in a teepee! You can call the Bittners to make a reservation at 928-476-5178 or check out their web site at fossilcreekllama.com. Enjoy this one-day adventure, and remember to tell the Bittners that TJ referred you!
Something that I have always found interesting about travel in Arizona is that some of the most interesting places are not the places that are featured in all the travel magazines and advertisements.
For instance, Texas Canyon, just a brief break in the desert scenery as you travel on Interstate 10 between Benson and Wilcox is a place you could easily spend two days admiring and exploring. Visualize this area of Arizona.
You are in the family car and you left Tucson an hour earlier, as you make your way toward New Mexico. Along the side of the road, you see these signs telling you to stop at the Dairy Queen in Texas Canyon and pay a little fee to see “The Thing”. “The Thing” is on display at the rest stop in the desert. Needless to say, you really have to see “The Thing” for yourself, but while you are enjoying your ice cream cone, take a long hard look around you. You are not in a desert, but rather a Juniper Playa, with conglomerate granite outcroppings of giant boulders and rocks. Once river bottom, these odd formations are all around you.
Your adventure has just begun! Take one of the off ramps into Texas Canyon and you will find some extremely interesting sights to behold. First, there is the Triangle T Ranch, with guest rooms and some great grub to enjoy. Sit around the ranch and just watch the variety of birds that call Texas Canyon home.
Your adventure is just starting however, because right down the road is the Amerind Foundation. This first class Native American Museum and Southwest Art Gallery is beyond explanation. Right in the middle of this canyon, sits one of the most fabulous collections of Native American artifacts and art that is breathtaking. Once again, you will find yourself in a setting that has to be taken in to really appreciate. Sit quietly under one of the Juniper Pine Trees and listen carefully to nature.
If it is early enough, why not stay on the road and find yourself in the little towns of Kansas Settlement or Cochise. You will find plenty of interesting buildings, including an old historic hotel to check out. Remember a day gone by, when the train would stop right in front of the Cochise Hotel and passengers would board and depart twice a day. You will also find some of the vineyards that are used by the Southern Arizona Wineries to produce those award-winning vintages.
If you really have time, take the road into Cochise’s Stronghold. It is a mountainous road, but I have seen sedans in the area. Once into this park, you will find campsites, group sites and picnic sites for everyone to enjoy. This is one of the best destinations for those of us who marvel at bird watching. There are plenty of birds to see this time of year, throughout Cochise’s Stronghold.
As the day unfolds, you might learn that you are just a little too far away from Tucson to make it home. Continue on to Wilcox, spend the night and let the adventure continue. This too, is another column.
When is the last time you spent a little quality time in Safford Arizona? It can be done, and should be done, especially this time of year. What does Safford have to offer you might ask? After all, I don’t recall seeing Safford on the Arizona’s Visitor’s Brochure as a “must see” while visiting our great State?
First, you are going to ask just how far is Safford from our Valley. Have you noticed that Arizonans rarely answer this question in relationship to miles? Rather, we always answer in relation to time. Rather than answer “Safford is about 140 miles southeast of us” we will say, “Safford is two and half hours away!” I have never really understood why Arizonans talk this way, but it is something I grew up with.
Outside of Safford is the largest Mountain in Arizona. Mt. Graham, home of the famed Mt. Graham Observatory and the Mt. Graham’s own Red Squirrel. The mountain is a sacred site for many of the Native American people in our state, especially the San Carlos Apache Nation. It is also one of those places where you can travel through all seven of the temperate zones.
You start at the base of this mountain, and you are in a desert playa, and you can take the paved roads to the top, going through all of the temperate zones to the Alpine Zone at the very peak. In addition to the mountain cabins, the observatory and some of the best scenic views in the State, you will also find Riggs Lake. Bring a picnic, as this is one of those mountain lakes you just have to experience.
Your adventure isn’t over however, just because you have conquered Mt. Graham by driving from the base to the apex, rather your next stop is even more interesting. AT the base of the Mountain, you will find Discovery Park. You can easily spend a couple of days exploring this outstanding park. The mission of the park is to bring astronomy into your life, and exploring the importance of this science, both to the world population, but also to the great state of Arizona.
Arizona’s dark skies have long contributed to our ability to peer into outer space, and the University of Arizona is on the leading edge of this science. (Look for another column on the Flandreau Planetarium at U.of A. but that is column fodder for another day)
At Discovery Park, you can peer through a telescope trained on the surface of the moon (if you visit at night) or on the surface of the Sun (if you happen to visit during the day), and you can’t leave without experiencing the simulated flight modules into outer space. If you have time, take the train ride into the marshland, or come back the next morning to finish your explorations. The wetlands are so interesting, and during spring, you will find an assortment of waterfowl and other animals that call this area home.
Getting to Safford can also be half the fun. Head east into Globe and the Pinal Parkway, that follows along Queen Creek. From Globe, just stay the course, and you will find yourself traveling through some of the best cotton fields in Arizona.
The Pima cotton that is grown here is touted to be the second best cotton in the world, but folks in the know. You will see Mt. Graham from quite a distance. Before heading up the mountain, take a little reconnoiter around Safford. Plenty to do and see right in town! If it is still early, and you didn’t bring a picnic, stop at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken for some original recipe before heading to the top of Mt. Graham.
I recently received an email from a fellow traveler who had just returned from one of the cruises where everything that could happen must have. Every once in a while, I find myself on a tour that just seems doomed from beginning to end. Everywhere we turn, something is happening to throw a monkey wrench into the works. You really have to keep your sense of humor when you travel, or else you will not have the enjoyable experience you longed for. For me, after the fact, most of the “things that can go awry do” scenarios make for some of the best memories. Now I can laugh about the night the bus driver quit his job, leaving us in a hotel outside a swamp in Florida, while he drove the bus home to spend Thanksgiving with his family. I can laugh because the next day, a nicer bus and a better driver showed up and we had the time of our lives.
Once, I picked up a club member for a cruise out of Barbados. She lived in an upscale housing project for seniors. Folks who lived in this community put their garbage in those white plastic bags with the red handles and placed them on the sidewalk every Tuesday and Friday.
This particular Tuesday, my friend set her luggage next to her garbage, and I tagged it all and put it in my car. In those days, you didn’t have to stay with your luggage, so we just sent it all to the cruise ship in Barbados. Imagine her surprise when she arrive on board a day later to find her suitcase and her garbage waiting for her on the foot of the bed.
Of course, there is the time I accidentally left someone at the Moqui Lookout outside of the Grand Canyon. When I went back to get her, she was furious. I apologized and apologized and she just stayed mad. Finally, I told her that I was really sorry, but I didn’t understand why she was so mad at me, since it was all a mistake? She told me that she wasn’t mad at me at all. I asked her whom she was mad at then? Her answer “My husband he never said a word to you about me missing the bus!” He had allowed us to continue our tour without even telling me that his wife was still at the lookout!
Of course, I will never forget the time, twenty years ago, when I booked our entire group into a hotel in Beatty Nevada (outside of Death Valley) only to learn later that night that prostitution was then legal in Nye County and I had booked the entire group into a bordello! That is an entirely new story, for another time.
Just remember, to be a successful traveler, you really have to bring your sense of humor, your sense of adventure and your willingness to bend with the circumstances. If you can do this, you can take even a dire moment and turn into a memory. Happy and savvy traveling for all of you.
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