Unless you need the space afforded by the two-bedroom Farmhouse ($459/night, 6 people), ask for the Tree House ($259/night, 3 people), a spacious and handsome casita that was our favorite of the seven lodging options.
Discover a majestic corner of the Arizona outback at Aravaipa Farms Orchard and Inn.
You’re driving on a fidgety dirt road, seemingly to nowhere. Miles of sun-beaten chaparral and dusty embankments amble by, until you round a corner and – whoa Nelly! – find a lush desert sanctuary splayed before you. Orderly rows of fruit trees. Grassy meadows. Cozy casitas. Even a swimming pool, wonderfully.
In the 105-degree late summer heat, Aravaipa Farms Orchard and Inn (aravaipafarms.com) appears almost as a port in a storm, with that singular, surreal loveliness celebrated by desert voyagers from Morrison to Scheherazade.
It’s also a total “Arizona thing.” I remember taking the barely passable dirt road north of Lake Pleasant to Castle Hot Springs Resort last season and experiencing a similar thrill of relief and discovery. Same with my first visit to Page Springs Cellars in Cornville, and Havasupai Falls. It’s the oasis effect, and our vast, sparsely populated outback has it everywhere.
In the case of this trip, the oasis is not just the family-owned, all-inclusive eco-resort where I’m about to spend the weekend, but the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness itself. Located in a part of the state that doesn’t see a lot of human traffic – eastern Pinal County, about 90 miles southeast of Phoenix near the mining micro-bergs of Hayden and Winkelman – it’s arguably Arizona’s most under-appreciated natural treasure: a riparian river valley lush with shady maple trees and sycamores, nourished by a creek that flows all year long. Visitors can explore the federally administered 15-mile canyon over the course of multiple days, camping on the banks of the creek at night, or hike a limited day-trip segment, and return to firmer lodgings to rest and dry their water shoes.
Such is one of the ways Aravaipa Farms Orchard and Inn might appeal to you during fall travel season.
The 46-acre property has a colorful history. Long a working Arabian horse ranch and fruit farm, it was purchased in 1995 by Valley caterer and slow-food trailblazer Carol Steele, who dreamed of turning it into a bed and breakfast. Unloading her Scottsdale gourmet goods store, C. Steele and Co., the entrepreneurial foodie moved to Pinal County and went to work improving the property, enlisting the services of a handy cowboy mystic named Lazaro Cervantes to build casitas, install flagstone patios and dig out the swimming pool.
Naturally, they became lovers.
Steele ran the property for 20 years until deciding – at the ripe age of 80 – that she’d had enough. In 2016, she dangled word that the B&B was on the market, and the place was swiftly snapped up by Tucson media executive Kevin Madden and his wife, Jill, former guests who harbored a soft spot for the property. (Steele ended up keeping an adjacent lot, where she and Cervantes currently live.)
First order of business for the Maddens: freshening up the casitas and getting the pear and peach orchard – by then yielding very little fruit after years of disuse – into proper working shape. Today, Aravaipa Farms makes for a terrific little piece of agritourism.
“Pears tolerate heat better than apples, which need a more extreme temperature shift than what we usually get in Arizona,” the owners’ daughter and general manager, Kari, tells me during the farm’s first harvest session in late August. She goes on to explain the difference between the typical Western pears and the farm’s Japanese Hosui pears – firmer, less mealy, less cloying. More apple-like, in short.
Tended by orchard manager Scott Bailey – whose wife and fellow Wisconsinite, Laura, runs the hospitality portion of Aravaipa Farms – the pears and peaches will ultimately find their way into the inn’s culinary program, and some will make the journey to the Valley, where the Maddens sell them at the Gilbert Farmers Market.
Kari tells me the Maddens have additional ambitions for their farm operation, beyond the current retinue of fruit trees, and the coop of extremely robust-looking hens she shows me near the front office, which she gladly opens up to curious youngsters. There’s also an emerging vegetable garden on the east side of the property, which the staff uses for the kitchen, and approximately 15 acres of fallow farmland awaiting use.
“We’ve got the water, but we want to do something meaningful with it,” she says. “Have any ideas?”
ARAVAIPA FARMS DAY PASS
Non-guests are welcome to peruse the farm and even take a dip in the pool. $5 per person, or free with a lunch or fruit purchase.
Like most – all? – inns, hotels and guesthouses in Arizona, Aravaipa Farms has had to pivot amid the pandemic. With seven free-standing casitas ($185-$459/night), distancing is not a problem – you could discreetly slip in and out of your room and barely glimpse another soul the whole time, if you so choose.
But social-distancing guidelines did force the Maddens to reconceive their three-squares-a-day culinary program. Before March, meals were held communally in the spacious foyer of the converted Arabian horse barn that currently serves as the front desk and administrative building. “[The meals were] a nice way for guests to get to know each other, mingle a little,” Kari says wistfully, adding that the inn will return to that format when it’s safe and feasible.
In the meantime, the current model is not bad either: Meals are delivered to each casita encased in picnic baskets, glass Tupperware and reusable canvas pouches.
You’ll most likely enjoy what you find in them. Dinner on our first night starts with a Hosui pear salad, dabbed with creamy, honey-whipped goat cheese and sprinkled with mint and almonds over bitter greens dressed with an herbal Four Thieves vinaigrette. The main course of seared orange roughy with fried rice, charred broccoli and agrodolce – a tart-sweet Italian relish – vanishes from our plates with alarming ease.
The next evening’s meal – headlined by chicken mole amarillo (a green, faintly sweet, less intense version of the classic Mexican chocolate sauce) with masa spaetzle – is a charmer, too. (Full disclosure: I’m defenseless against “masa spaetzle,” being the father of two Mexican-German boys.)
This time, the Hosui pear makes an appearance in the dessert, resting under a chocolate mousse crowned with a buttered mesquite crumble. Super tasty.
Between the dinners, Laura set us up with ethereal cheddar cheese omelets – not a toasted or overcooked mark on them; how do chefs do that? – and turkey sandwiches to go, for us to take on our hike… along with a few Hosui pears. Who would have guessed?
The Maddens have added all the wholesome outdoor time-killers you might expect at a rustic Arizona inn – horseshoe pit, cornhole, etc. – but the marquee outdoor attractions remain the hikes, wanders and rugged natural endowments of the Aravaipa wilderness. Just outside the gate of the resort, warm up for your Aravaipa main hike with a saunter toward Holy Joe Canyon. It requires a short, 15-minute walk through the creek, so wear proper, closed-toe water shoes, or light tennis shoes you don’t mind screwing up. You’ll be rewarded with a light canyon hike to a saddle with nice views.
Another nearby hike is Brandenburg Mountain, which Kari recommends for terrific, commanding views of Aravaipa Canyon, but preferably undertaken when the weather cools a bit. “It’s an exposed hike,” she says. “No shade.”
The main event, of course, is Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness (see sidebar below). Arriving too late to secure one of the 30 daily hiking passes distributed by the Bureau of Land Management, we wildcat it from the ranger station to the canyon floor and spend an hour or so splashing in the water and drinking in the pretty foliage. It looks and feels like nothing else I’ve seen in Arizona – broadening my understanding of this interesting part of America, stretching the spectrum.
Back at Aravaipa Farms, we wash off the flush of our summer hike in the swimming pool and marvel at the kettle of vultures perched high on the property’s most massive oak tree, setting in after a day of carrion hunting. We’re soon joined by another group of guests, and chat amiably at a respectful pandemic distance.
The pool turns out to be one of our favorite parts of the trip – one of those familiar, usually-not-terribly-exciting amenities elevated by the isolation. Another total Arizona thing.
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Hacks
• Reserve your spot early; the BLM allows only 30 entries per day from the more easily accessible west trailhead, and weekend spots tend to fill up soon after they open to the public 13 weeks in advance of the date in question.
• The highest-use times are the so-called shoulder seasons: March-May and October-November.
• Proper footwear is key. Much of the hike takes place in ankle- and shin-deep water. In addition to water shoes (closed-toe, to prevent small rocks from entering and torturing your feet), experienced Aravaipa-ers recommend neoprene wading socks.
• Animal-sighting checklist: bighorn sheep (in the cliffs over the canyon), javelina, mule deer, coyote, mountain lion, ringtail cat and coatimundi.