Arizona’s best birding and hiking haven you’ve never heard of.
When you write for a magazine that specializes in in-state adventuring, it can be a challenge to find new places to write about. Flagstaff, Sedona, Tucson, Bisbee, Prescott, Jerome – all remarkable, all endlessly explorable, but all in our wheelhouse of regular coverage. We’re always on the hunt for uncharted territories and unplumbed depths of discovery.
So when a friend casually mentioned Portal during a lunch date, my ears perked up and my notebook came out.
“Portal?” I asked. “Where is that? I’ve never even heard of it.”
Her eyes lit up as she told me about a magical little town – not even a town; it’s technically an “unincorporated community” with about 300 registered voters, for population context – tucked in the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, on the eastern side of the Chiricahua Mountains in Southern Arizona. “It has such stunning biodiversity as you go up the mountains – one minute you’re looking at cacti, the next you’re looking at pines, the next you see lush greenery and tropical birds. It’s a little paradise.”
With the blessing of my editors – also unfamiliar with this mysterious locale – I headed out onto the open road to find the Portal to paradise.
After a late start leaving the Valley, I paused for dinner in Tucson, an approximate midpoint on the roughly five-hour drive from my home in North Phoenix to Portal. It also provided an opportunity to get gas, something I’d recommend for all those traveling to remote locations – you never know when you’ll see the next gas station, so always fill up when you see one.
The funny thing about Portal is it’s so east you actually have to cross into New Mexico and then swing back around into Arizona to get to it. As a result, you should prepare for random U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints and have your license and registration handy.
After making a few wrong turns, cursing my failed GPS and frantically calling my sister for remote direction assistance (see sidebar for tips on how to avoid this fate, plus more Portal travel tips), I finally made it to my destination, the Portal Peak Lodge, Store and Cafe (2358 S. Rock House Rd., 520-558-2223, portalpeaklodge.com). The lodge and adjacent store/cafe look like remnants from another time – clean yet creaky wood buildings coated in brick-red paint with green signage and accents. The lodge, built circa 1928, has undergone some revamps and ownership changes over the decades. For the last 12 years, it’s been owned and operated by Mitch and Loni Webster, Phoenix transplants who settled in Portal after starting a family 20-something years ago. It was dark and wet when I arrived in early September, at the tail end of the monsoon. I scurried up a small flight of wooden stairs to a deck framed by 16 rooms, found mine and holed up for the night.
The smells of bacon and coffee perfumed the Portal Peak Cafe that morning, and as people milled in and out of the tiny dining room attached to the general store, it became clear that the lodge compound is the hub of this community. A diner teased a server about her headband while families shared bites of French toast and chatted about the big concert the lodge was putting on that night. Further exploration confirmed my suspicions: The cafe is pretty much the only place to grab a bite in Portal proper. Otherwise, the nearest restaurant is the Rodeo Tavern (209 NM-80, Rodeo, NM, 575-557-2229, rodeonewmexico.com/tavern.html), a little more than eight miles away in Rodeo, New Mexico, another tiny township that is a sister community for Portal; or you can rent a beautiful kitchen-equipped cottage at nearby Cave Creek Ranch (1396 W. Piedra Blanca Ln., 520-558-2334, cavecreekranch.com). No matter – my cheesy breakfast burrito was delicious. After breakfast I browsed the shop’s hilariously diverse wares, which ranged from gemstone trinkets to gallons of milk. You’ve gotta love a place where you can buy coconut oil and Vienna sausages.
Before I headed out for the day, I stopped a cheery woman on the deck and asked her if she had any recommendations for my itinerary. “I really want to explore,” I said. “Well, shit, honey!” she replied. “That’s all there is to do around here.”
It was then I knew I’d picked the right place.
My first stops: the Portal Post Office (2391 S. Rock House Rd., 520-558-2357) and its neighbor, the Myrtle Kraft Library (2393 S. Rock House Rd., 520-558-2468, portalrodeo.com/myrtle-kraft-library.html), located in the old Portal schoolhouse and overlooking a beautiful butterfly garden resplendent with Queen and Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies, hummingbirds and ladybugs flitting about the trees. The people inside were as charming as the old buildings themselves, and gave me the resounding advice to “Go see Ron at the visitor center.”
“Ron” turned out to be Forest Service vet Ron Kaczor, a twinkly-eyed goldmine of information about hiking and local flora and fauna, including those of the feathered variety. “The South Fork trail (#243) is the best for birding,” he said, adding that Portal and Cave Creek Canyon draw birders from around the world. Indeed, the Cave Creek Visitor Information Center (Coronado National Forest, fs.usda.gov/coronado/) has booklets and maps to help birders find their avian Holy Grails, and its guest book includes bird-chasers from as far away as Italy, Germany and Japan. Depending on the time of year, birders are apt to see a stunning variety of meadowlarks, orioles, cardinals, thrush, wrens, tanagers, finches, warblers, doves, nuthatches, grosbeaks and more. Kaczor used to live in “the other Cave Creek,” but says city development led him to flee to the Chiricahuas. “The location of these mountains is just terrific,” he said. “You’ve got the Rockies to the north, the Sierra Madres begin here. To the west you have the Sonoran Desert, and to the east the Chihuahuan Desert.” The recent deluge of the monsoon left a number of trails flooded and closed, but he recommended a couple of moderate slogs near the visitor center and a scenic drive along Forest Road 42B.
The Cathedral Vista Trail (FR 42, east side of the road between Stewart and Sunny Flat campgrounds) provided the most reward for the least effort. Less than a quarter of a mile of a winding, overgrown path led to an arresting panorama of rhyolite cliffs, including the titular Cathedral Rock, which stands sentry over the canyon like a spiritual protector. A bench and a telescope in the clearing encouraged lingering to take in the sounds of birds and the breeze whistling through Arizona sycamore, mesquite and acacia trees, which smelled fresh and herbal after the recent rain. Silver Peak Trail (FR 42, the first turn-in beyond the visitor center) is longer and definitely more difficult, but worth it. Hike just a bit of the 4.6-mile trail and you’ll see the biodiversity everyone raves about: agaves and sotol (desert spoon) one moment, juniper and pine the next. The full hike to the summit rewards with a panoramic view of the canyon and the remnants of the Silver Peak Lookout, which burned down in 1992. I didn’t spot the Elegant Trogon the birding community flocks here for, but you can find beautiful photos of rare and beloved birds (as well as mind-meltingly beautiful sunsets) on the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon Facebook page (facebook.com/friendsofcavecreekcanyon).
After a long day of hiking and exploring, I went back to the lodge to freshen up for the concert. When I emerged in my caftan and wedges, I stumbled upon the most amusing assemblage of people congregated around the lodge’s license-plate-bedecked wooden stage to hear Tucson musician Heather “Lil’ Mama” Hardy. Tattered cargo pants and Tevas mingled with Wranglers and cowboy boots in the crowd, and in the parking lot a Prius was parked next to a muddy pickup truck. I felt just a tad overdressed. “Most of the people who live here are scientists or retired professors, so we have a lot of Ph.D.s. And then there’s the ranching community,” the lodge’s owner Mitch Webster said with a wry smile. “So it’s a great mix.” Webster maintains a “day job” that keeps him on the road for months at a time – catering food for the Department of Homeland Security training program. While he’s away, his family holds down the fort. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “It’s crazy, more people in New Mexico know about us than people in Arizona. Arizona has so many attractions in Southern Arizona alone – Tucson, Bisbee, Tombstone – that it’s hard to get the word out there.”
Webster has been doing his part, at least according to Susan Mittelstadt, an itinerant carpenter and musician who puts on an annual Irish music camp at the Portal Peak Lodge (see sidebar). “Mitch has such a sense of being part of a community,” Mittelstadt said. “He’s got this vision… It’s flabbergasting, and maybe it speaks to the power of what Arizona has to offer, that this place is so unknown.”
As the smell of the lodge’s smoked meat wafted through the clearing and Hardy’s sassy, country-rock crooning filled the light-strewn courtyard where couples were dancing, I couldn’t help but agree.
“I have a little more than a quarter of a tank. Will I make it to the museum?” I asked Webster’s daughter as I checked out of the lodge.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s about seven miles from here.”
I did make it to the Chiricahua Desert Museum (and, afterward, to a gas station in San Simon, Arizona), thank goodness. The museum (4 Rattlesnake Canyon Rd., Rodeo, NM, 575-557-5757, chiricahuadesertmuseum.com) is the passion project of Bob Ashley, a renowned herpetologist who opened the facility in 2009 as an educational exhibit of reptiles and amphibians from the Southwest United States and Mexico, particularly rattlesnakes from the Sky Islands, an inland archipelago in the Chiricahua Mountains. Mitch Webster had recommended I stop by on my way home, and I’d met Ashley’s wife Sheri at the lodge concert the night before.
The museum is a snake lover’s paradise, with live species on display as well as a staggering volume of snake art, artifacts and ephemera, from snake-themed craft beer bottles to antique snake-bite kits. As a fairly phobic person, it wasn’t quite my scene, but it was a fitting end to my trip to Portal, where everyone constantly warned me, “Watch out for snakes.” After successfully dodging them during my hikes and walks, I’d finally found some. I’m just glad there was glass to separate us.
Despite being such a petite hamlet, Portal has something fun going on year-round.
Portal Rodeo Hiking Club – All year
Weekly hikes (every Thursday) with regular and rotating characters. portalrodeo.com/hiking/index.html
Sew What Club – All year
Women’s social improvement club established in 1914; hosts lectures on history, ecology and culture, and political events. portalrodeo.com/sew-what-club.html
Concerts at Portal Peak Lodge – Autumn
The lodge’s rustic wooden stage hosts traveling music acts. portalpeaklodge.com
Chiricahua-Peloncillo Heritage Days – September
Annual event celebrating community through workshops, historical presentations, crafts fairs, farmers’ markets, food, activities and more. portalrodeo.com/heritage-days.html
Portal Irish Music Week – October
A week-long instructional camp in traditional Irish music, with a free concert. portalmusicweek.com
Become a Portal Pro
Tips and tricks for adventuring, culled from locals.
• Watch out for snakes. When hiking and birding, wear long pants, socks and lace-up shoes, preferably hiking boots. Some suggest wearing gaiters, protective leg coverings that guard the calves and feet against snakes.
• Take it easy with the brights when you’re driving – locals have little patience for light pollution.
• Fuel up. The closest gas station is in Animas, New Mexico – 32 miles east – so plan accordingly. Portal people have an uncanny command of how far varying amounts of gas will get you; when in doubt, ask.
• Bring a physical map. Cell service is spotty, and your GPS will conk out just as you make a wrong turn onto a dimly lit dirt road. Trust us.
• Learn about the wildlife of the area at the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station (2003 W. Cave Creek Rd., 520-558-2396, research.amnh.org/swrs/), where you can take a birding tour, bunk in on-site cabins and load up on souvenirs at the gift shop.
• Pick up a copy of Cave Creek Canyon: Revealing the Heart of Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains (ECO Wear & Publishing, 2014), a collection of essays, photos and art from more than 40 Chiricahua locals waxing sentimental – and informative – about their region. You’ll feel like a native in no time.