February 19-March 12
Over the next week or so, Jamie Charley and I spent most of our time working (or going to daycare) and doing local things in the valley. We did a couple evening hikes, both in the Superstitions and at South Mountain, checked out a gym offering a free month membership to healthcare workers, ran the nearby trails and roads, and grabbed dinner with our friends Maggie and Brandon. We kept busy, but didn’t make any trips out of town.
We’d picked out a camping spot near Roosevelt Lake for Monday the 27th, about a 2 hour’s drive northeast of Phoenix. Taking an off-road route about 30 miles through the Four Peaks Wilderness, we passed countless mounds of crumbled rock, hundreds of feet high, and broken saguaros, ripped apart by the aridity and baking in the relentless sunshine. We skirted the trailhead for Brown’s Peak, the tallest of the Four Peaks that make up the Valley’s eastern horizon.
Theodore Roosevelt Lake sits on the northeast side of Four Peaks, and is one of several lakes created by damming the Salt River. The end of our off-road adventure brought us down to around 2000 feet above sea-level, and along the shoreline of the lake. After stopping for a quick picnic at a day-use area, we traveled the length of the lake eastward, crossed the Salt River (not much more than a stream before it reaches the lake), and continued up 4200 feet above sea level to our camp spot.
Jamie had found the boondocking site while searching online, and we hoped no one would be there, considering it was Monday and the area was quite remote. We were pleased to find the camp spots empty, and the weather to our liking, about 60F with a light breeze and plenty of sun.
The spot was perched on a cliffside, about a thousand feet straight down, and offered sightlines of the surrounding mountains, disorganized and scattered about the rugged landscape. Four Peaks sat in the distance behind the lake.
We broke out the camp kitchen and Jamie started in on the prep of the HelloFresh meal we brought along from home, Fajitas and Rice with Crema. The silence was deafening in a way, as we enjoyed our dinner during the golden hour. We decided some Mandolin Orange would be a fitting soundtrack to the evening.
After dinner I built a fire, careful not to let it grow too large, as there’s constant concern of errant sparks floating over to any nearby brush. We enjoyed the heat from the flames, as the winds started to pick up with the setting of the sun.
And the wind remained until the morning. Dealing with 30mph wind gusts, our tent shuttered and flattened with each heavy blow. It held up through the night, but Jamie and I probably got about 2 hours of sleep, as we were fearful of the rainfly taking off and flying over the cliffs.
The morning was cold, and windy. It made the repacking of our camp particularly difficult, as each stake removed from the ground meant the tent was more likely to catch a gust and float off. But we managed, and within 20 minutes or so our gear was packed up and loaded into the car, and we were ready for our return trip to civilization, and a hot shower.
Canyon Lake, in the Superstition Wilderness, is another man-made watering hole created by a dam of the Salt River. On Friday afternoon, we met out pals Maggie and Brandon (with their dogs Donald and Gurley) up at the lake for some kayaking. We rented a couple kayaks and a canoe, loaded in, and paddled around the marina and up Boulder Creek, a tributary to the lake that weaves through Boulder Canyon. At the right time of year, it’s possible to make it a good distance upstream. The water level seemed pretty good, and we paddled a bit less than an hour from our starting point up the creek. It was neat to have the dogs, but afterward I think we’d all agree that it was more hassle than it was worth. But the pictures came out pretty cute, and that’s all that matters, right?
The following day, we had no real plans as we woke to a lazy Saturday morning. I texted brother Kaivan, to see if he wanted to get together for a hike.
“What do you think about Payson?”
Payson is about 1.5 hours northeast of Phoenix, in Mogollon Rim country. The Rim makes up the southern escarpment of the Colorado Plateau, and is characterized by around 6000+ foot elevation, tall ponderosa Pines, running streams, and greenery not known to the areas south of the Plateau.
So, on a whim, we made the afternoon drive up to Payson to hike at Washington Park, beneath the rim, and grab dinner. It was good to see Kaivan and little Lulu. We’re off of work on random days throughout the week, and his free time is on the weekend, so when our schedules line up we try to get together.
We hiked up to a railway tunnel that was never completed. Eery and abandoned, there are some stone structures at the mouth of the cave that look like a great spot for an overnight backpacking trip. We did 4 miles or so, enjoying the sound of running water and the vegetation that gave us vibes of the woods back in the northeast. We grabbed dinner at El Rancho in Payson before driving back down to the valley along winding highway roads after dark.
We worked a shift on Sunday and made our way, with Charley, up to Prescott, northwest of the Valley, on Monday for an overnight trip. Prescott is the original rodeo destination, and its a quintessential western town, with its saloons and nearby mining history. To get acquainted, we did the obligatory hike up Thumb Butte, a prominent rock formation that offers views in every direction along its loop trail.
Afterward, we settled in at our cabin and unpacked, only to climb back in the car an hour or so later to head over to Watson Lake. The artificial lake sits in the granite dells, exposed bedrock and boulders strewn about in haphazard fashion but providing a beautiful contrast to the surrounding landscape. We slowed our pace a bit, sitting on the boulders and watching the mallards and geese enjoy their evening float.
The sky turned from a pale to bold blue, then pink and purple showed up in the eastern sky, slowly progressing westward with each passing minute. The granite slabs lost their sun-glow, but the sky intensified with its cotton-candy palette. It was a beautiful evening, and we stayed as long as we could handle the cold. When the temps dipped lower in the 40’s, it was time to head out. Jamie had made reservations at El Gato Azul, a tapas restaurant in Prescott.
Everything was delicious at dinner, and tapas places always have abundant options, each with their own twist or uniqueness. We were famished but had to remind ourselves to eat slowly, so as to enjoy each item for its different taste profile.
We love our breweries and wineries, but neither of us had been to a meadery before. Superstition Meadery is an underground meadery in Prescott, and the spot where we got our first sip of honey wine. It did not disappoint, as we sampled a flight of 12 different meads and ciders, picking out our favorites to buy before leaving.
The next morning, it was time to leave Prescott and check out some other nearby spots. We were unsure if we’d ever be back in the area, so we drove over to Jerome and Cottonwood, about 45 minutes away via the Mingus Mountain Scenic Road of Route 89A.
Jerome is a mountainside ghost town, revitalized through tourism as of late but with impressive preservation of its roots. A booming mining area, Jerome churned out ore containing copper, silver, and gold, among other precious materials. We visited an old mineshaft entrance near the historic museum, and stood above a void of about 2000ft straight into the earth beneath us. Pretty trippy stuff.
The shops and eateries in the Main Street area offer enough to keep you busy for days, but we had hours, so we bopped around in some stores, walked the streets for a bit, and made our way down from the hillside toward Cottonwood. Cottonwood lies at a much lower elevation along the Verde River, and earns its name from the massive cottonwoods lining the waterway, considered to be Arizona’s largest trees.
We walked along the banks of the Verde for a bit, and returned to the town shortly after for lunch, before making the drive back home to Phoenix.
We enjoyed a lot of mini trips in this post, and were fortunate to see different landscapes, climates, and vegetation along the way. When each day off feels like the opportunity for adventure, it’s tough to sit still.