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?

palm canyon

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.

Hike to Hanakapi’ai Beach shows Kauai’s beauty

The formidable and intimidating Kalalau Trail. Just the thought of considering a hike along this very challenging trail on Kauai’s Na Pali Coast was overwhelming. On a recent trip to Kauai, we had thought about making the long hike, but without overnight permits, camping equipment or the ‘moxie,’ we decided to hike only the first two miles of the 11-mile Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi’ai Beach.

View of Na Pali Coast from Kalalau Trail

Most hikers in fairly good physical condition will find the first, short piece of this 11-mile hike is an easy to moderate hike. It may be muddy, with some rocky creeks to plow through, and crowded, with the occasional traffic jam while some hiker ahead lingers to gaze out over Ke’e Beach or snap some photos of the coastline. Oh, wait — that was me. However, all the slippery mud, knee-skinning boulders, high density traffic conditions are far surpassed by the spectacular coastline and majestic mountains of Na Pali Coast, and beautiful Hanakapi’ai Beach and Valley.

Spectacular views along the trail

Before our party of four started out, we packed up our gear. Although hikers will travel this short piece of Kalalau in about 3-4 hours round-trip, we thought we’d spend more time at the beach. So we packed some fruit and sandwiches and filled up our 100-ounce Camelbak MULE packs. (This isn’t really an endorsement, but we’ve had these well-used packs for about 14 years now and they’re still in very good shape.) We were also equipped with our Keen sandals, which we found gripped the mud-slippery boulders well, and one walking pole each, to add that “third leg” of stability and balance.

Hanakapi'ai Beach

Ke'e Beach seen from first half mile of Kalalau Trail

We arrived at the trailhead early in the morning before the Ke’e Beach parking lot overflowing. If we had waited until late morning, we would have been driving around in circles until someone left. Hikers may find additional spaces in the overflow parking by the caves, which is just a five-minute walk from the trailhead.

Sand, surf, sky at Hanakapi'ai Beach

After the first half mile on the trail, we stopped and looked back to see we were far above the coast. We could almost see the full-length sandy expanse of Ke’e Beach, until it curves around to the northeast. We then marched onward, following the trail and the single rank and file of hikers up and down through stream beds, over ridge lines and around hillsides. On the final descent to Hanakapi’ai Beach we could hear the crowd who had already arrived, plus the crash of breaking waves.

Spend some time at Hanakapi'ai Beach relaxing in the shallow pools

Hanakapi’ai Beach is a small spread of white sand with the creek from the mountains spilling in to the Pacific. Upon arrival, we immediately kicked off our sandals to soothe our feet and ankles in the fine sand and warm pools. (We visited during June.) We staked out several large boulders to set up lunch and watch the skilled surfers in the waves. It’s safer to stay out of the open ocean here, since the rip currents can be treacherous. Hikers have been reminded many times, online, at the trailhead and with signs along the trail. We decided not to add a few more hours to our trip by venturing upstream to Hanakapi’ai Falls. That side trip, plus the next nine miles of the Kalalau Trail will have to be added to a future Kauai vacation itinerary.

Hawaii State Parks’ website has the official information plus a detailed, downloadable brochure.

Keep fitness resolutions on track with Fat Man’s Pass hike

South Mountain's Hidden Valley is a garden of boulders and rocky ledges

 

Thinking about trimming down for the New Year? Start by hiking one of many Phoenix urban trails. We began our annual fitness to-do list with a hike at City of Phoenix’s South Mountain Park.

It was New Year’s Day Monday – a perfect Arizona day, with lots of sunshine, cool morning and midday warmth. We drove to the Pima Canyon Trailhead near 48th Street and Pima Canyon Road. The parking lot and access road were already packed with cars. As we approached the parking lot loop, we lucked out to find a recently vacated parallel parking spot, no doubt left for us by an “early bird” hiker.

Walking up along the National Trail, we noticed how December rains transformed the desert floor into a green carpet

The dirt road, which runs parallel to Pima Canyon and the Pima Wash Trail, is a gradual climb to the intersection of the National Trail. We continued up National Trail another 1.4 miles to the turn off to Hidden Valley. Hidden Valley is a nice garden of boulders and rock ledges planted upon a soft floor of sand and gravel. Friends and co-workers have told me of this area before, recommending it as a site plentiful with wildlife in the early morning. I could imagine this area at sunrise, with coyotes and javelina running through the brush. Also, watch for Hohokam petroglyphs in Hidden Valley.

Slippery rocks make Fat Man's Pass more like Slide Rock

We scrambled  through a natural tunnel, then walked a short distance over to the two boulders that together form what’s known as Fat Man’s Pass. We actually decided to climb up around the narrow opening, and continued our hike back to the National Trail and returned to the intersection of the Mormon Trail and stopped upon a good lookout point for a snack, and hiked down to the parking lot via Mormon Trail, Mormon Loop Trail and Pima Wash Trail. We figured the mileage by sections, and it summed up to about seven miles – for a good morning hike — just over three hours.

Fat Man's Pass: an obvious misnomer since only the skinny can squeeze through

For a shorter, steeper hike, next time we’ll try the Mormon Trail from the 24th Street parking area to the National Trail and Hidden Valley to Fat Man’s Pass covers approximately 1.7 miles and about 900 feet. There are several loop sections on South Mountain, creating greater possibilities for your own ‘custom’ day hike. As usual, please practice good hiking sense: wear sturdy shoes, stay on trails, carry plenty of water and always use sun protection. For more information: South Mountain Park website; HikeArizona.com.

Readers: What are your favorite urban hikes? What kind of desert hiker are you? Do you run trails for fitness and calorie burn? Or do you prefer to take your time, enjoy the views and stop and smell the creosote bush?

 

Dead Horse Ranch packing list: what to bring to a state park that has ‘it all’

The Verde River provides a lush setting for Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Dead Horse Ranch State Park could be called the “ultimate” state park. It’s everything anyone could ever want in a state park. I mean, when you consider its location, events, history, attractions, beauty, activities — did I say location? — it has got to be up there near the top of the list.

I opted to make up a little packing list in case you want make a visit to Dead Horse Ranch State Park, located just outside of Cottonwood, Ariz.

 

1. Tent, RV or Sleeping bag and toothbrush

That’s right, you have your choice of accommodations. Some like tent camping; others prefer RV’s and the park has plenty of room for both. Or if you think Motel 6 is your idea of “roughing it,” perhaps you could try out one of the camp cabins. In that case, all you need is your sleeping bag and toothbrush (okay, maybe a few extras). Make your camping reservations online.

Two of the camping cabins at Dead Horse Ranch State Park

 

 

2. Soap-on-a-rope

… for your hot shower of course! Dead Horse Ranch campgrounds are equipped with clean restrooms and hot water showers, so naturally you’ll want to bring your towel, shampoo, conditioner and your soap-on-a-rope (shower gel works too.) And judging from the review sites, the facilities are  very well maintained.

 

3. Picnic basket or equivalent

I’m not sure if people still use these, but if you don’t have a picnic basket then just bring the ice chest stuffed with all your favorite goodies. The park has plenty of tables and ramadas in the day use areas, available on a first-come first serve basis, unless prior reservations are made.

 

4. Paddles

…for the kayak or canoe you’ll want to bring! Picture yourself venturing out on the lagoon or exploring the Verde River.  Please leave behind the Hobie Cats, Jet Skis and 90hp Johnson outboard. These waterways are oar-power only.

 

5. Tackle box

You will need a variety of lures, rods and reels in case you want to try all out the fishing possibilities. Arizona Game and Fish recently stocked rainbow trout for the winter months. Lagoons are favorite spots but river provides good places to try your hand at fly-fishing. Don’t forget your fishing license, but if you do, you can always pick up one at the local Walmart, just four miles away in Cottonwood.

 

 

6. Footwear

You’ll need to bring a variety of footwear from your closet: hiking boots for hiking; riding boots for horseback riding and cycling shoes for mountain biking. There are lots of trails: short nature trails, perfect for strolling along the river or longer ones, such as the three trails that make up the 7.8-mile Dead Horse Trail System. And now that the 15-mile stretch of Lime Kiln Trail is complete, you can ride (or bike) all the way to Red Rock State Park. Almost every trail at Dead Horse Ranch State Park is shared use, so remember to follow trail etiquette.

Horseback riding is just one of many activities at Dead Horse Ranch State Park

 

7. Camera, binoculars and nature guidebooks

According to the Park website, common mammals are grey fox, jackrabbit, deer, bobcat, mountain lion, javelina, skunk, and as we were told by the campground host, even the occasional river otters make their home along the Verde. The Park also hosts the “Birdy Verde,” a short name for the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival each April and the Verde River Days, held each September. Both events are not only great family fun, but they promote awareness about outdoor recreation and wildlife. The main reason for the plentiful wildlife is the vast number of cottonwood trees — not to be taken for granted!

Cottonwood trees are 'huge' -- in every aspect of the word

 

8. Credit card or cash

Okay, if you’re still not convinced Dead Horse Ranch could be the perfect Arizona getaway, just remember to bring money. You can always go shopping — at the gift shop in the visitor’s center where you’ll not only find bait, water and incidentals but also souvenirs and t-shirts. Or while your spouse and kids are fishing, paddling, riding, biking or hiking, you can take a two-minute drive into Old Town Cottonwood for a latte or a little lunch, followed by Arizona wine-tasting and window shopping along Main Street  — dotted with quaint gift shops, antique stores and art galleries. And later, If you’re in the mood for some ‘old West’ entertainment, take the family to the Blazin’ M Ranch for dinner and a show. It’s literally just across the street from the park. You’d better add cowboy boots to the list of footwear!

 

 

Try a new Arizona fall foliage tour this year

Yep, fall is here. The days are shorter. The nights are cooler. It’s time for football games and freak shows (Halloween). It’s one of the best times to travel and explore around Arizona. And about this time every year, the local news media fill their time and space with suggestions for high country trips to see the wide array of autumn colors. Photos of yellow and gold leaves plastered against a backdrop of Arizona blue skies make for great front page color as well as pleasant road trip memories.

I'm hoping in the next couple of weeks, I can travel beyond the MS clipart site for a closer look at red maple leaves

Having spent my childhood in Ohio, I would always enjoy a variety of autumn colors: reds, oranges, yellows, golds, browns. Some leaves had splashes of many colors. Without sounding too trite, now these sights really give me and other transplant-desert dwellers a sense of changing seasons, which is necessary when our Phoenix-area daytime high temps continue to hover around 100 degrees in late September.

But sometimes I feel the need to see some variety beyond the typical cottonwoods, aspen and oak. Sometimes I would like to drive or hike beyond Oak Creek Canyon and Hart Prairie. Maybe, for one October Saturday or Sunday, I’d like to explore a little farther — to see more of the elusive thick clusters of the less common reds and oranges. This year I’d like to seek out the bright red maple leaves.

Tree leaves don’t really turn red; rather the leaves just lose their green color with the loss of chlorophyll. Maples “turn” various shades of red and orange, depending on how much glucose remains stored in the leaves after photosynthesis stops.

The best time to catch fall colors around Arizona is late-September to mid-October. After doing a little checking around online, I found some destinations which I think are worth considering as possibilities for seeing the “reds.” As always, please first check local road and trail conditions online before starting your fall foliage tour. Start on these websites for road conditions and fire restrictions: ADOT, state fire information, national forests, plus check your destination’s local county and municipal websites. These locations may require off-road or higher clearance vehicles. If you want to see maples in a more accessible environment, visit a nearby Arizona arboretum: The Arboretum at Flagstaff or Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Here’s my suggestions, kind of a fall foliage “bucket list,” with their respective links:

Madera Canyon

Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Wilderness

Boynton Canyon

Barbershop Trail

Coronado Trail

For general Arizona fall foliage exploring:

Payson Rim Country

Coconino National Forest

About.com

Finally, I found this newly-launched Forest Service site to see fall color opportunities nationwide.

Seven Falls Hike — April 2011

I had an old friend that used to joke, “you know, I think I’ve lost my speaking ability — between eating my words and biting my tongue… I don’t have much left to say.” That’s what I remembered when we finished our hike to Seven Falls, just outside of Tucson at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

I had suggested to my hiking friends hours earlier that I thought this Bear Canyon Trail hike was a “fairly easy” one and that sometime we should combine with a loop around Sabino Canyon by connecting to the East Fork/Sycamore Reservoir trails.  Afterwards, I wanted to eat my words. And half way up the trail, as my lungs were heaving and my heart was pounding, I wanted to bite my tongue, but the words just fell out: “Is it very much farther?” I asked some returning hikers. But they reassured me: “It’s just a bit, but it’s well worth it.” That was enough for me!

The hike is only about four miles from the trailhead, if you take the shuttle from the Sabino Canyon visitors center, otherwise it’s about eight miles round trip. My advice: save your money and walk along the road to the trailhead.  By the time you wait for the shuttle bus, you could have walked that far — it’s about a 15-20 minute walk from the center to the trailhead. And when we came back we raced down the trail back just to catch the bus, but missed it anyway.

The trail for the most part, is a combination of seven creek crossings and gradual climbing, up to the Seven Falls. The hike indeed, is moderately easy for most, but I would rate it more “moderate” and less “easy.” Especially the last mile or so, on the southern side of the creek, takes the hiker up at least half of the 800 feet total elevation change. It took us about one and a half hours to the falls, and about 45 minutes back. I would recommend taking more time to enjoy the trail. It’s “well worth it.”

Water from the creek flowing at Seven Falls

Pools of water provide cool dips; Large rocks are perfect for sunbathing

Trees provide some shade for a lunch break

The road to and from the visitors center is an easy access to the trailhead.

 

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Butcher Jones Hike — March 2011

I thought our 11 a.m. start on the Butcher Jones trail may be too late and we would encounter more of a crowd. But on this particular March Friday morning, the part-year residents and spring break stragglers weren’t out and about, and we had the popular Saguaro Lake hiking trail almost to ourselves.

A few research checks on two popular Arizona hiking websites hikearizona.com and arizonahikingtrails.com alerted us about the Tonto Pass, a $6.00 recreational parking permit — necessary if one plans to park their vehicle in the Butcher Jones parking lot. This day permit is available at the Tonto N.F. Mesa district ranger office, as well as many retail locations, and there’s a listing on the Tonto National Forest website. As we pulled up to the parking/picnic area at Butcher Jones, it’s evident not many improvements have been made in the last 5-10 years. The picnic area is overgrown and tables are neglected, the parking lot pavement looks cracked and potholed.

We started out at the trail head, located at the southeast corner of the parking lot. The trail begins as asphalt trail and looks like it once could have been set up as an ADA accessible trail for a floating fishing pier which is now closed, because of extensive high water or storm damage.

Looking back toward Butcher Jones "beach"

Previous reports made for this trail on other sites described a path laden with trash. While the trail isn’t exactly pristine, it is relatively clean, with only some paper cups washed in to Peregrine Cove from boaters. Overall, the hike is fairly easy. There’s a few ups and downs but accessible for most hikers. I would recommend sturdy shoes as the trail can be rocky with some jagged-edged protrusions — so I’d leave the flip flops at home. This is one of those trails that often requires concentration so allow yourself stopping break time for wildlife sightings, photo ops and scenic viewing.

Start early on the trail for the best opportunity for solace and wildlife sightings

Orange desert mallow along the trail

Late March and early to mid-April are the best times to see the desert in bloom. Many varieties of wildflowers and cacti are in bloom.

Hedgehog cactus in bloom

The “in-and-out” hike takes about three hours round trip for most leisure hikers. There’s little reason to remind people to bring plenty of water. We use our 100-ounce Camelbaks. And don’t forget to pack some snacks or a light lunch. Besides the end of the trail, there are two short side trips down to water’s edge of the lake that make nice picnic locations.

View of Four Peaks from Burro Cove overlook

Grassy area of Burro Cove

Without all the speed boats, Saguaro Lake can be tranquil

The coves of Saguaro Lake are perfect fishing spots

The low, grassy cove areas were once favorite watering spots for range cattle

With great views, Butcher Jones hike is easy, accessible -- a great place to take out-of-state visitors

Although we didn’t get to see any bighorn sheep that day, they have been spotted before — usually at dawn or dusk on the bluffs overlooking the narrow inlets.  We did however, sight a bald eagle soaring overhead, scouting the fishing possibilities. It’s always good to watch the trail for flowers, footing and snakes during the spring, but try to take enough breaks to look up once in a while.

Doug came from Ohio for a week: a little spring training baseball, outdoor recreation, visiting friends and family: a perfect Arizona Getaway

 

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Hieroglyphics Springs – February 2011

My first post describes my hike along the Hieroglyphics Springs Trail in the Superstition Mountains on Feb. 13. I haven’t made this hike in about a decade. Lots of improvements have been made such as directional signs to the trail head at each turn along the weaving roads of Gold Canyon, and a fully functional parking lot at the trail head. Plus there are many more hikers, of course!

Chuck, Molly and I in front of the forest service sign

Not always do you see a clear, warm winter’s view from the Superstition’s foot; we got lucky that day — very clear and sunny!

Getting to the hieroglyphs at the end of the trail early, we avoided much of the crowd who visit most Sundays. Many of the rock-writings are still in tact, but some more recent scribblings have been added, unfortunately.

A few wildlife sights along the way:

Small rock overhang near the end of this trail:

Even horse and rider make it up the trail, which can be very rocky in places, but for the most part, it’s an easy, gradual climb to the hieroglyphs.

I’d recommend this short day hike for both kids and seniors, and anyone vacation in the Phoenix area. For more details about the hike, please visit hikearizona.com

 

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