Beat the heat with a rejuvenating getaway to these high-country sister towns.

Pine-Strawberry

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Travel Issue: June 2017
Group Free

It’s a terrible thing to kvetch about, I know, but I’ve been traveling a lot lately. In the past six months alone I’ve been to Tucson, Prescott, Cottonwood, Jerome, Sedona, Yuma, Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii, Amsterdam, Paris and all over California, for work, family and fun. Wanderlust continues to stoke my soul, but sometimes you just want to stay put – if not in your own house, at least in your own state. So when the opportunity arose for a simpler, slower-paced trip to Pine-Strawberry, two adorable high-country hamlets conjoined by Highway 87 near the Tonto National Forest north of Payson, I jumped. All the beautiful trees we Phoenicians fetishize and cooler weather without the elbow-to-elbow crowds that besiege Flagstaff this time of year, plus it’s only an hour and a half from home? Sold.     

Pizza in the Pines
A Q&A with Chef Michael Dahling
He’s a classically trained New York City chef who has cooked in fine restaurants from coast to coast and was most recently a corporate chef for Shamrock Farms. What is Michael Dahling doing in Pine? “It reminds me of upstate New York,” he says. “It’s one of the last towns that hasn’t been overdeveloped. The people here still want to maintain that old-school, small-town feel.” We chatted over his skillet-baked pizza cookie on the pine-wrapped patio of Old County Inn, which celebrated its first anniversary in May.

Why pizza?
“Everyone loves pizza, right? I got a great deal on an oven from M.J. Coe of M.J. Bread. Pizza is affordable. Families love it. I felt like I sold my soul for a while [during his corporate chef years] and I would always say, ‘Once I get my own place, I’ll do everything from scratch.’ We do that here – everything is used four or five ways. We smoke pork butt and the whole neighborhood smells like pork… We make craft cocktails with fresh juice.”

You built a taproom and a stage/dance floor for live music. You also play, right?
“Yeah, I play guitar. I’ll jump in when the bands play. We have live music every Wednesday night.”

What are your must-visits in Pine-Strawberry?
• Tonto Natural Bridge
• Goat cheese at Fossil Creek Creamery
• Fossil Creek
“There’s a couple that planted lavender fields just up the road, so those should be blooming by summer. It’s just a beautiful area.”

Stay
There are plenty of cute and quirky accommodations in the Pine-Strawberry area, from newly renovated The Strawberry Inn (5073 Hwy. 87, Strawberry, 928-202-7790, thestrawberryinn.com), which styles itself as an “Arizona Rim Country Luxury Getaway,” to the rustic bed-and-breakfast Beeline Guest House (4042 N. Hwy. 87, Pine, 928-476-6515, beelineguesthouse.com).

Our woodland fantasies were piqued by the bonny A-frame cabins of Rick and Jason Finkler’s Cabins on Strawberry Hill (5306 N. Hwy. 87, Strawberry, 928-476-4252, azcabins.com), a collection of 14 fairy-tale cabins perched atop little Strawberry Hill. The Finkler brothers are Michiganders who came out west more than 20 years ago, fell under the spell of the Mogollon Rim’s ponderosa forests and ample outdoor pursuits and bought the cabins – extreme “fixer-uppers” at the time – to provide other people with the mountaintop sojourns they found so nourishing.

“I didn’t buy a business, I bought a lifestyle,” Rick Finkler says as he gives us an exhilarating off-road, back-country tour of the area’s hills, valleys and creeks on his Polaris Ranger recreational vehicle. Finkler has lived many lives – United States Air Force airman, globe-trotting hospitality consultant, representative for Fort McDowell Casino in its infancy – but this one clearly suits him best. The cabins are rustic yet well-appointed, with one to two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchenette, front and back decks, grills and access to a communal fire pit, garden, basketball hoop, tetherball court, hiking trails and birding spots (and free Wi-Fi, because let’s be honest – we don’t want to go that far off the grid). Finkler’s wife Natalie is also a licensed massage therapist and aesthetician, so you can get treatments in the comfort of your cabin.

Play
Finkler recommends we hike Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (928-476-4202, azstateparks.com/tonto/) in Pine Canyon, a tributary of the east Verde River. The travertine bridge is 183 feet tall, 150 feet wide and 393 feet long, with the charming occasional cacti poking obstinately out from moss- and lichen-covered cracks. The four trails – Pine Creek, Waterfall, Gowan and Anna Mae – are all strenuous, rocky and slippery, but reward with stunning views of the bridge from various angles. If you’re not up for the hike, four viewing areas are easy jaunts from the trailhead parking lot. Park entrance costs $7 for adults, $4 for children ages 7-13, and is free for children 6 and younger.
Fossil Creek (fs.usda.gov.recarea/coconino/recarea) draws thousands of visitors every year – so much so that permits are now required and its Pine-Strawberry access point has been closed. Finkler says it’s worth planning ahead to get a permit and venture down to its springs-loaded waterfall, which gushes 20,000 gallons of cool, pleasant water (70 degrees year-round) a minute at the bottom of a 1,600-foot canyon. Just plan to drive to the other end of Fossil Creek for entry along State Route 260 near Camp Verde.
We did not plan ahead, so instead of ferreting for waterfalls in Fossil Creek we forage for goat cheese and fudge at Fossil Creek Creamery (10379 W. Fossil Creek Rd., Strawberry, 928-476-5178, ranchatfossilcreek.com), a goat and llama farm run by John and Joyce Bittner. The Bittners have garnered statewide foodie love for their delicious flavored chèvre (we love the plain and lavender-pepper) and goat milk fudge (chocolate and peanut butter are to die for). Alas, the ranch and creamery are now up for sale, so we recommend getting there quickly to stock up just in case.

Chef Michael Dahling tends his chickens at Old County Inn
Dahling’s “Pancho” pizza
 

Tonto Natural Bridge

Eat
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Pine-Strawberry is its hidden food gems. Most visitors to the area have popped into THAT Brewery & Pub (3270 Hwy. 87, Pine, 928-476-3349, thatbrewery.com) a time or 10, and there are a handful of passable places slinging old-school American food that’ll hit the spot when you’re famished after a day of hiking. But a couple of no-frills places and one hip new spot put our foodie senses on high alert.

The Early Bird Café (3618 Hwy. 87, Pine, 928-476-4092) is, as the name suggests, beloved by locals for its huge breakfasts, from stacks of biscuits drenched with sausage gravy to golden brown pancakes careening off the sides of plates. We dodge the crowds and stop in for lunch, a finger-licking-good chili cheese dog for my partner and a pastrami burger – tender, juicy pastrami free of gristle and piled generously on an equally juicy patty of griddled Arizona-raised beef between two slices of fresh rye bread – for me. We sagely spring an extra $1.50 for the garlic fries, one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, the fries are doused with real garlic butter bearing enough fresh minced garlic to stock an Italian kitchen for a week. It is simply too much, which, for a garlic fiend like me, means it is perfection. Pine Deli (6240 Hardscrabble Mesa Rd., Pine, 928-476-3536) offers similarly simple excess: meatball subs swimming with extra marinara, a brisket special ladled with gravy, fresh and tasty macaroni and potato salads, and one of the best versions of Italian wedding soup I’ve ever had. This place knows its meatballs.

I’ve been dying to try the new kid on the block, Old County Inn (3502 N. Hwy. 87, 928-476-6560, oldcountyinn.com), since a friend posted a drool-inducing photo of its signature Meat Pie on Instagram months ago. Scattered with house-made sausage, bacon and pepperoni, the hefty pie is supported by pillowy, bready crust with a hint of smoke from Chef Michael Dahling’s (see sidebar) wood-fire oven. The Pancho pizza encapsulates the Southwest onto one disk of dough: fire-roasted pork, green chiles, cheddar, cilantro-serrano pesto, green onion and hot “Pancho Sauce.” It’s a wee bit spicy for this gringa, but I power through because it’s so delicious. Starters also sing, including the green chile beer cheese with house-made breadsticks and the Fried Chix + Pix, hand-breaded chicken tenders with house-made pickles and ranch dressing gussied up with zingy lemon zest. Old County Inn is destination dining at its most fun and laid-back.

Back at the Cabins on Strawberry Hill, we bust out marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers to make s’mores under the stars. After months of eating crème brûlée, sorbet and vacherin in far-flung hotels and restaurants, this humble s’more beneath my beloved Arizona sky is just what I need.

PM