8 Perfect Places in Arizona

Editorial StaffSeptember 9, 2021
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Emerald Cove; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Models: Kelly Kaminski & Nick Tortajada
Emerald Cove; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Models: Kelly Kaminski & Nick Tortajada

Fall is upon us – technically, anyway. 

The beginning of autumn can be an arbitrary thing in Greater Phoenix, where the mercury persistently hits triple digits well into September. All the more reason to luxuriate in this collection of beauteous, nostalgic or otherwise magical places to visit in Arizona this “fall.” All within a few hours’ drive. All perennially perfect.

By Nikki Buchanan, Keridwen Cornelius, Jessica Dunham, Craig Outhier
Photography by Thomas Ingersoll, Kevin Kaminski, Craig Outhier, Jackie Tran

8 Perfect Places Prologue

Before we delve into our octet of awe-inspiring Arizona beauty and culture, a few words on the nature of perfection – and perfect fall travel in the Grand Canyon State.

Perfection  carries different meanings across the human experience.

• To early mathematicians, it referred to a number equal to the sum of its divisors, such as 6 (1+2+3) or 28 (1+2+4+7+14).

• To physicists and chemists, “perfect” is often a foil, referring to things that cannot exist in nature, such as a perfectly rigid, impervious body; or a perfect gas with no volume of its own.  

• To some Renaissance aesthetes, perfection was a paradox that could not be achieved without imperfection, as a perfect world could not improve and therefore could not be perfect, as perfection requires progress.

• For the purposes of our 8 Perfect Places list, we’ll go with Aristotle’s take on perfection:  something “complete,” requiring nothing to subtract or add.

• Or how about this description of desert beauty by 1930s adventurer and Southwest fabulist Everett Ruess, the subject of Into the Wild: something of “such utter and overpowering beauty as nearly kills a sensitive person by its piercing glory.”

Perfect, right? Now go find your place.

Fall Color Map

For some Arizonans, fall travel involves chasing magnificently moribund leaves. Time your autumn road trip with this color-coded leaf map.

https://www.phoenixmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/PHM1021PP03.jpg
Oak Creek, Sedona; Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Oak Creek, Sedona; Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images

Perfect Place No. 1 
The Willcox Bench

You will find wine at the Willcox Bench, a bucolic, bike-able constellation of tasting rooms and vineyards located about 15 miles southeast of Willcox in Southern Arizona. But here’s what else you might find: a herd of semi-feral horses, cantering around a bend in the lonely dirt road. Pied and purposeful, going who-knows-where without a rider in sight. All under a pregnant monsoon sky.

Now with six constituent wineries, including perennial favorite Pillsbury Wine Company and a new winery/tasting-room combo from Carlson Creek Vineyard, the Bench remains an enticing outlier among Arizona’s wine-tasting getaways – a true farm community, not a tourist trap, with a dramatic, untamed quality unique among Arizona wine regions.

The Bench is rarely lacking for coverage in PHOENIX, but we couldn’t stand the thought of doing a Perfect Places package without including it. So consider this abbreviated entry an update of its latest goings-on this fall.

Photo by Craig Outhier
Photo by Craig Outhier

• A fixture in Arizona wine since 2009, Carlson Creek Vineyard is in the process of moving its main tasting room in downtown Willcox to its 280-acre estate winery on the Bench (4574 E. Robbs Rd., 520-766-3000, carlsoncreek.com), giving the winery an integrated tasting capacity it previously lacked.

• All the stars of Willcox wine, including its many downtown tasting rooms, will participate in Harvest Wineopoly, a progressive tour and tasting inspired by the classic Monopoly board game. One question: Who gets Park Place? September 25-26. $20-$30/person. willcoxwinecountry.com

• Looking to spend the night on the Bench? Pillsbury Wine Company owner Sam Pillsbury allows visitors to park their trailers or RVs on his property, or camp, if they ask nice. Or you could go a more hospitality-focused route with Rhumb Line Vineyard, which offers stylish and well-appointed Quonset hut rentals. The huts are the handiwork of Valley transplants Todd Myers and Michelle Minta, who also grow grapes, lavender and olives on their 60-acre property. 6255 S. Bennett Pl., Willcox, 520-789-6645, rhumblinevineyard.com

IF YOU GO:

Visit willcoxwinecountry.com for visitor information.

Fall Travel Extra:
WeekendZona

In our estimation, the Devour Classic is as perfect a food festival as you’ll find in Phoenix. So it’s deeply intriguing that the nonprofit organization behind the festival, Local First Arizona, is getting into the travel game with WeekendZona, a seasonal group-travel concept. The next WeekendZona escape, dubbed Art and Zen in the Sky Islands, will guide participants though Sonoita wine country, the Sky Islands of Patagonia and nearby art colonies, spread over three days and two nights in October. The fee ($355/person; $585/two people) includes lodging, meals, activities and gratuity. Not to editorialize, but that’s a perfectly lovely deal. October 8-10. Visit localfirstaz.com for details.

Photo by Michael Scherback/Courtesy LocalFirst AZ
Photo by Michael Scherback/Courtesy LocalFirst AZ

Perfect Place No. 2 
Glen Canyon

South of Lake Powell, the Colorado River eases a gentle path. It passes through rust-red Glen Canyon, drifts around Horseshoe Bend and continues toward Marble Canyon. These natural landmarks share their genesis with the vast labyrinth of canyons that connect to the world’s greatest: the Grand Canyon.

It’s shocking how cold the Colorado River is here. So icy it can take your breath away, and startling clear, like a pane of glass has been wedged between the canyon walls and carefully placed over the water. You can peer straight down to the silt and sand and wave-rounded rocks of the riverbed. The waters don’t rage. The current moves at a glacial pace as to be almost imperceptible, which makes it perfect for a daylong float on a raft, kayak or paddleboard. As the sun arcs through the sky, watch the scene shape-shift before you. Shadows will slipcover rock faces and columns of light will both brighten and deepen the stone’s red hues.

Under Canvas Lake Powell-Grand Staircase; Photo by Bailey Made/Courtesy Under Canvas
Under Canvas Lake Powell-Grand Staircase; Photo by Bailey Made/Courtesy Under Canvas

South of Lake Powell, the Colorado River eases a gentle path. It passes through rust-red Glen Canyon, drifts around Horseshoe Bend and continues toward Marble Canyon. These natural landmarks share their genesis with the vast labyrinth of canyons that connect to the world’s greatest: the Grand Canyon.

It’s shocking how cold the Colorado River is here. So icy it can take your breath away, and startling clear, like a pane of glass has been wedged between the canyon walls and carefully placed over the water. You can peer straight down to the silt and sand and wave-rounded rocks of the riverbed. The waters don’t rage. The current moves at a glacial pace as to be almost imperceptible, which makes it perfect for a daylong float on a raft, kayak or paddleboard. As the sun arcs through the sky, watch the scene shape-shift before you. Shadows will slipcover rock faces and columns of light will both brighten and deepen the stone’s red hues.

It’s hard to believe this slow-but-steady river is the same Colorado that chiseled out canyons thousands of feet deep. Use your oars. Or don’t. The water will deposit you at your destination eventually. As these ancient canyons can attest, sometimes it just takes a little time.

Horseshoe Bend; Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Horseshoe Bend; Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images

Where to Stay

Just think: Your own private slot canyon. If you’ve visited Antelope Canyon or cruised the capillaries of Lake Powell, or seen photos of either, you know just how gorgeously surreal these desert sandstone furrows can be. Miraculously, you can explore one just a few steps from your luxury tent at Under Canvas Lake Powell-Grand Staircase ($329/night, undercanvas.com/camps/lake-powell). Located a mere 10-minute drive from Glen Canyon on a serene, picturesque plateau overlooking the jagged high desert, the encampment also provides everything that’s made Under Canvas an instant star in the world of glamping, from downy, king-size beds and en suite bathrooms to nightly s’mores cookouts and seasonal food menus. It might be nicer than your house. And it has a slot canyon. Closes for the season October 31.

Selfie Spot 

Everyone snaps a Horseshoe Bend selfie from the overlook. But not you. Your pic will capture the bend’s turquoise meander (an official science-y term) at river-level, where red-rock evidence of millions of years of erosion rises with drama.

5 Wildlife Wonders at Glen Canyon

1. When you see a California condor soar over Glen Canyon, you’ll know it. First, they’re huge. As one of the world’s largest birds –  and the largest in North America – the endangered condor weighs in at 25 pounds. Its spectacular wingspan unfolds to nearly 10 feet. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature, though, are the white feathers that form a triangle on the underside of each wing.

2. This is raptor country, so keep an eye out for eagles, too. Bald eagles like to glide over the open water while larger golden eagles hover closely to the tops of mesas and edges of cliffs.x

kayaking in Glen Canyon; Photo by Kevin Kaminski
kayaking in Glen Canyon; Photo by Kevin Kaminski

3. The native Sonoran river otter is now extinct, but you might see the northern river otter propelling its thick tail through the water. To reestablish the otter population, officials introduced these animals to the Escalante River, from where they speed-swam their way to Lake Powell.

4. The compact bodies and long legs of desert big horn sheep are perfectly adapted to the rocky escarpments of Glen Canyon, where they perch precariously on high ledges and impossibly narrow outcroppings.

5. Watch for the swift dives of the long-tailed, pointy-winged peregrine falcons as they masterfully seize prey right out of the sky. These powerful birds nest throughout Glen Canyon.

IF YOU GO:

Info: April-October is the best time to paddle Glen Canyon. You’ll need a Glen Canyon National Recreation Area pass ($30/vehicle, valid for up to seven days, recreation.gov), which you can purchase online. Since you can’t put in your vessel at Glen Canyon Dam, you’ll go to Lees Ferry first (vehicle parking available), hire a company to back-haul you upstream to the dam ($75/person, reserve ahead of time with Kayak Horseshoe Bend, 928-355-2211, kayakhorseshoebend.com), where you’ll launch your float trip 15 miles back to Lees Ferry. You can do it in one day (six-seven hours) or you can overnight at one of five campsites (free) on the river.

Driving distance from Phoenix: 273 miles (four hours, 15 minutes)

Directions: Follow I-17 North to Flagstaff. Then go east on I-40 to connect with US-89. Drive north on US-89, then turn left on US-89A. Take this to Lees Ferry Road, turn right and head to the launch.

Perfect Place No. 3 
Mt. Lemmon Hotel

Nosing the clouds at 9,100 feet, Mt. Lemmon is the highest peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson. Just below the summit sits the village of Summerhaven (population: 50ish). Tucsonans regularly pilgrimage to the community, where temperatures average 30 degrees cooler, to escape the heat in summer and indulge in snow play during winter. With such a steady stream of visitors, it’s surprising that the new Mt. Lemmon Hotel – opened in 2020, miraculously, amid the pandemic and the Bighorn Fire – is the first of its kind in Summerhaven.

As a tidy set of nine cabins lined up in a neat row, Mt. Lemmon Hotel offers everything you desire in a quaint, small-town, mountaintop refuge. Namely, porch-embellished bungalows with views, views and more views. But also: fireplaces, a stash of board games in every cabin, fenced-in yards for furry friends at the dog-friendly cabins, laid-back stroll-ability to nearby restaurants and a welcoming, we’re-so-glad-you’re-here vibe from the owners.

The coniferous trees dotting Summerhaven stay steadfast in their greenery – no fall foliage to see – but the leisurely, winding drive up the mountain on Catalina Highway offers show-stopping sightlines in every direction.

Scenic Catalina Highway on Mt. Lemmon; Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Scenic Catalina Highway on Mt. Lemmon; Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images

5 More Mountainside Getaways

1. Apropos of its name, Basecamp at Snowbowl ($76/night, 6355 US-180, Flagstaff, 928-774-0729, snowbowl.ski/basecamp) serves as your hub for four-season Humphreys Peak recreation: skiing in winter, mountain biking in spring, gondola rides in summer, hiking in autumn.

2. High in the Quinlan Mountains, at 6,883 feet, the domed telescopes of Kitt Peak National Observatory (520-318-8720, visitkittpeak.org) truly kiss the sky. Daytime vistas encompass wild desert; come dusk, stars glitter in the blackness. Though the accommodations for the observatory’s overnight stargazing package ($785/telescope plus $150/room, includes meals) are spare – a clean but small dorm room – the chance for an all-night, guided astronomy lesson more than makes up for it. Temporarily closed for COVID-19.

3. We can all agree that when it comes to iconic mountain profiles, the rugged outline of Camelback Mountain ranks high on the list. So, a stay at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa ($799-$1,299/night, 5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, 480-948-2100, sanctuaryoncamelback.com), with windows that look out over the city from the mountainside is bucket-list-worthy.

4. During your stay at Tanque Verde Ranch ($270-$590/night, 14301 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson, 520-296-6275, tanqueverderanch.com), soak up the sights of the ranch’s 60,000 acres encircled by the Rincon Mountains and Saguaro National Park while on a horseback ride or, say, in the middle of an archery lesson.

5. The stone monoliths of Monument Valley have been immortalized in film, television and photography for decades. The View Hotel ($179-$369/night plus $20/vehicle entrance to Navajo Tribal Park, Indian Route 42, Oljato-Monument Valley, 435-727-5555, monumentvalleyview.com) gives guests an up-close greeting with the famous formations.

Mt. Lemmon Must-Do: SkyCenter

Lift your gaze from the valley below to the skies above at Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory (9800 E. Ski Run Rd., Mt. Lemmon, 520-626-8122, skycenter.arizona.edu/content/visit-skycenter). Day tours and solar viewings ($15/person, $25/person with lunch, reservations required) introduce you to the wonders of the galaxies while the five-hour stargazing program ($85/person with dinner, reservations required) takes you deeper down the rabbit hole – er, wormhole?

Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory; Photo courtesy U of A Mt. Lemmon Skycenter
Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory; Photo courtesy U of A Mt. Lemmon Skycenter

Selfie Spot

About 18 miles up Mt. Lemmon on Catalina Highway, Windy Point Vista appears. On a drive rife with scenic viewpoints, Windy Vista’s backdrop bests them all: Tucson’s twinkling sprawl, the sloping wilderness of Pusch Ridge and a beaming, cloudless sky.

cabins at Mt. Lemmon Hotel; Photo courtesy Mt. Lemmon Hotel
cabins at Mt. Lemmon Hotel; Photo courtesy Mt. Lemmon Hotel

IF YOU GO:

Info: Stay at Mt. Lemmon Hotel ($145-$199/night, 12925 N. Sabino Canyon Pkwy., Tucson, text only: 520-277-2478, mtlemmonhotel.com) year-round, though be aware of the possibility of road closures due to wildfires in summer or snow in winter. All cabins sleep four-five people and are equipped with linens, towels, toiletries, paper products (toilet paper, etc.), kitchenware, dining utensils, flat-screen TV and Wi-Fi.

Driving distance from Phoenix: 152 miles (three hours)

Directions: Drive I-10 East to Grant Road (exit 256). Turn left and follow Grant Road to Tanque Verde Road. Turn left. Take Tanque Verde Road to Catalina Highway. Go left and drive Catalina Highway/Mt. Lemmon Highway to Summerhaven; the hotel is on the right side of the road.

Perfect Place No. 4 
The Palace

Photo by Thomas Ingersoll; Models: Heidi Joy & Terry Cornwell/Ford Robert Black Agency
Photo by Thomas Ingersoll; Models: Heidi Joy & Terry Cornwell/Ford Robert Black Agency

What is it about saloons? We Arizonans have plenty of present-day drinking establishments to love – rooftop bars, swanky lounges – and yet we remain fascinated by our Old West saloons. Could be the swinging doors. Or the grizzled crowd. Maybe we’re just impressed by their purity of purpose, which is simply: drinking. And who isn’t fascinated by the decades of lore baked into the copper ceilings and etched into the scuffed floors?

For your consideration: The Palace, the saloon of Arizona saloons and the dean of Prescott’s Whiskey Row. It possesses all the qualities above, including a host of wild stories, some real, some alleged. Real: Classic Westerns were filmed here, like Junior Bonner with Steve McQueen and the 1971 vigilante classic Billy Jack. Specious: the story of Doc Holliday winning $10,000 on a poker hand in the back room, or the old canard that when a fire erupted in the building, patrons saved the hand-carved bar by hauling it outside – and then kept right on drinking. Some believe the Palace, which opened in 1877, is the oldest saloon in Arizona, but this, too, can’t be proved.

And therein lies the mystique. A saloon is where fact and fiction blur, where edges soften with time and the lives of regular folk get embellished into legend with every story’s retelling.

Where to Stay

In 1917, a newspaper article described Hotel Vendome ($159/night, 230 S. Cortez St., Prescott, 928-776-0900, vendomehotel.com) as the “classiest place in town,” and we’d argue that’s still true today. Maybe more so, with modern boutique touches that enhance, not bastardize, the hotel’s historic charm. Thing to do: Sit on the street-facing veranda, coffee in hand (or whiskey highball) and watch the cars go by.

Selfie Spot

Position yourself out front next to the giant glass window where “The Palace” is emblazoned in gold, cursive font. That, or peek your head over the top of the saloon doors.

Photo courtesy Hotel Vendome
Photo courtesy Hotel Vendome

5 More Historic Saloons

1. After the serpentine drive to Crown King, reward yourself with an ice-cold beer at the Crown King Saloon (7219 Main St., Crown King, 928-632-7053, crownkingsaloon.com). Jockeying for the title of oldest bar in the state (purported opening: 1906), Crown King Saloon feels authentic enough – scruffy, friendly – as a former mining camp’s go-to spot for libations.

2. Tombstone’s Crystal Palace Saloon (436 E. Allen St., Tombstone, 520-457-3611, crystalpalacesaloon.com) is more tourist trap than hard-boiled bar, but that doesn’t negate its history as one of the first booze joints in the town too tough to die, and as the second-story offices of U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp.

3. True, the dollar bills papering the Oatman Hotel’s Dollar Bill Bar (181 Main St., Oatman, 928-768-4408) are gimmicky. But just try to keep from snapping a selfie or pinning up a buck scrawled with your name. The hotel’s claim to fame was as a 1930s waystation for Route 66 travelers and Hollywood celebs fleeing the glitz of Los Angeles.

Photo by Thomas Ingersoll; Models: Heidi Joy & Terry Cornwell/Ford Robert Black Agency
Photo by Thomas Ingersoll; Models: Heidi Joy & Terry Cornwell/Ford Robert Black Agency

4. With cavernous ceilings and raucous live music, the Spirit Room (166 Main St., Jerome, 928-634-8809, spiritroom.com) brings a dancehall energy to Jerome’s saloon scene. The 1890s tavern anchors the Connor Hotel, whose colorful history zigzags from posh digs during the mining boom to 1970s flophouse.

5. The copper mines of Bisbee are shuttered and the hard-drinking miners long gone. But you wouldn’t know it to step inside St. Elmo Bar (36 Brewery Ave., Bisbee, 520-432-5578). At the state’s longest continuously run watering hole, the pours are heavy, the staff is stoic and the drinking starts early.

IF YOU GO:

Info: The Palace (120 S. Montezuma St., Prescott, 928-541-1996, whiskeyrowpalace.com) is open year-round, daily, starting at 11 a.m. Hit up happy hour from 4-6 p.m. Mon., Wed., Thurs., and from 4-8 p.m. Tues. and Fri.

Driving distance from Phoenix: 100 miles (one hour, 45 minutes)

Directions: Drive I-17 north to AZ-69 (exit 262), then follow AZ-69 north to Prescott, where it turns into Gurley Street. Take Gurley to Montezuma Street; turn left. The Palace is on the right.

Perfect Place No. 5 
Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop

Every hiker seeks something when they march off into the woods: solitude, scenic panoramas, working up a sweat, maybe, or working through a life crisis. Entire books have been written about our wish – our very need – for nature to restore our troubled souls with a single breathtaking vista. The Abineau-Bear Jaw trail fulfills this need – along with providing slam-dunk eyefuls of dying leaves during the autumn months.

The path loops along the north slope of the San Francisco Peaks, a remote region of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness about 18 miles north of Flagstaff that bursts into color in fall. Since you’ll have the trail all to yourself, it almost feels like the leaves are changing for you, and you alone. Steep ascents pump the heart, sharpening your reflective meditations, and as you climb, epic views of Humphreys Peak break through leafy pockets. Abineau-Bear Jaw is dense with fir and spruce trees, as well as thousands of aspens. With their trunks slim and stark, the trees’ leaves glow in shades of amber and honey gold.

As you emerge from the forest, suddenly you see it. That single breathtaking vista, the salve. In the distance to the north, the gaping maw of the Grand Canyon cracks the plateau wide open. You look around for someone to show, but it’s just you.

Where to Stay

The Hotel Monte Vista ($120-$195/night, 100 N. San Francisco St., Flagstaff, 928-779-6971, hotelmontevista.com) has it all. A downtown Flagstaff location, a long list of former celebrity guests, pleasantly creaking floorboards, old-timey furniture steeped in history, haunted rooms and truly excellent coffee – a necessity if you imbibe too much the night before at the underground lounge, a favorite among locals.

Hotel Monte Vista; Photo courtesy Downtown Flagstaff.org
Hotel Monte Vista; Photo courtesy Downtown Flagstaff.org
Hiking at Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop; Photo by Kevin Kaminski
Hiking at Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop; Photo by Kevin Kaminski

Selfie Spot

If timed just after an early snowfall on the San Francisco Peaks, a picture taken at the junction of Abineau and Bear Jaw trails – weathered trail sign in the foreground, sunlit white peaks in the background – can recall the Swiss Alps.

5 More Quintessential Autumn Hikes

1. The secluded wilderness of Aravaipa Canyon (permit required, $5 per person, per day plus $6 reservation fee, 928-348-4400, recreation.gov) south of Superior is a wonderland of natural beauty. On the Aravaipa West Trail (9.6 miles round trip, moderate) near San Manuel, see striking canyon walls, the always-flowing Aravaipa Creek, and in the fall, the prismatic leaf colors of sycamore, ash and willow trees.

2. On the Bill Williams Mountain Trail (7.5 miles round trip, moderate, 928-635-5600, fs.usda.gov/kaibab) near Williams, ponderosa pines give way to thickets of copper-leafed oak trees before the landscape arranges itself into aspen groves.

3. The green canopy shading Sedona’s Fay Canyon Trail (2.2 miles round trip, easy, 928-203-2900, fs.usda.gov/coconino) morphs into yellow and red every October. The hike isn’t challenging, which allows time for admiring the foliage. About a half mile into the trek, look for the Fay Canyon Arch, a natural formation spanning 130 feet.

4. From Lockett Meadow near Flagstaff, you’ll see aspen trees flanking the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks. To find yourself crunching the leaf-strewn ground beneath them, hike the Inner Basin Trail (3.4 miles round trip, moderate, 928-526-0866 fs.usda.gov/coconino). The path ascends from the meadow into the golden-hued luminescence of aspen country.

5. It’s a steep descent from the rim of Sycamore Canyon to Parsons Trail (7.4 miles round trip, easy, 928-282-4119, fs.fed.us/r3/coconino) near Cottonwood, but once your feet plunk down on the sandy earth, the hike is flat and easy. And beautiful, especially in autumn, when Sycamore Creek feeds the forests of cottonwood and sycamore trees.

Lockett Meadow; Photo by Brandon Klever Photography/courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Lockett Meadow; Photo by Brandon Klever Photography/courtesy Adobe Stock Images

IF YOU GO:

Info: Abineau-Bear Jaw (928-526-0866, fs.usda.gov/coconino) is a moderate to difficult 6.8-mile loop, and it can be hiked in either direction. The loop comprises three legs (Abineau Trail, Bear Jaw Trail and Waterline Trail); each leg runs about 2 miles with a .5 connector trail from the trailhead. You’ll experience 1,800 feet of elevation gain. Aim for mid-September for peak color.

Driving distance from Phoenix: 169 miles (three hours)

Directions: Drive I-17 north to Flagstaff. Take I-40 east to US-89, then follow US-89 north to Forest Road 420. Turn left on FR 420 and take it to FR 552. Turn right on FR 552 and drive it to FR 418. Turn right. Drive on FR 418 to FR 9123J, then go left and continue to the trailhead.

Perfect Place No. 6 
Orchard Canyon on Oak Creek

An afternoon of leaf-peeping is all well and good, but a weekend living among the panoply of reds and yellows is way better. Time to book your stay at Orchard Canyon on the banks of Oak Creek. This colony of cottages nestles on 10 lush acres. If you’re wondering how lush, picture this: apple orchards and peach trees, flower patches blooming knee-high, vegetable gardens rich with produce, ceramic pots overflowing with herbs, grass pathways that meander to unseen nooks and footbridges that cross the creek. And everywhere, mature trees tangling their branches to forge a leafy awning over the property.

The cabins hide among the riot of nature, each with a cozy porch, some with stone fireplaces. Oak Creek gurgles past Cabin No. 4 – a prime location – and Cabin No. 1 claims a former life as a forest service cabin that was dismantled, moved and put back together. Look closely at one of the logs that form the side of the structure and you’ll notice an official U.S. stamp notched into the end. For a red-rock canyon tableau out your front door, it’s Cabin Amanda all the way.

Elsewhere on the property, chickens lay eggs and apples are pressed for cider. As autumn woodland retreats go, Orchard Canyon is pretty perfect.

cabin overlook; Photo courtesy Orchard Canyon On Oak Creek
cabin overlook; Photo courtesy Orchard Canyon On Oak Creek

Where to Eat

Here! The chef-crafted meals source food grown on-site and are delivered right to your cabin. Dine on your porch or request a picnic basket stuffed with yummy snacks – a crackly loaf of bread, thick slabs of cheese, juicy grapes, a bottle of crisp white – to enjoy under the trees, on the lawn or creekside.

Selfie Spot

What’s more autumnal than a photo of your knit-capped, scarf-clad self surrounded by gnarled apple trees laden with fruit? If you answered “Nothing!” get yourself to the hotel’s orchard pronto.

5 More Arizona Orchards

peach orchard; Photo courtesy Orchard Canyon On Oak Creek
peach orchard; Photo courtesy Orchard Canyon On Oak Creek

1. From July to October, people descend on Apple Annie’s Orchard (2081 Hardy Rd., Willcox, 520-384-2084, appleannies.com) for apples, peaches and pears. There are 10 varieties of apples, from the small, early-season akanes to the tart, late-season Pink Ladys; several varieties of Asian and Bartlett pears; and 20 types of peaches.

2. You can find the organic peaches, pears and apples from Briggs & Eggers (27197 S. Brookerson Rd., Willcox, 520-384-6099, briggs-eggers.com) at Sprouts and Whole Foods, but the laid-back operation also sells to the public if you swing by the orchards. Bring cash and a box (you’ll want to buy in bulk); if you see the “open” sign leaning against the packing shed, pull over.

3. Picking season starts in May at Fenway Park Orchards (42610 Hwy. 60-89, Morristown, 623-388-2603, fenwayparkorchards.com). That’s when you can pluck the sweet Desert Gold peaches and cobbler-ready Indian Blood peaches. Return later in the season for ripe apples.

4. Mortimer Farms (12907 E. AZ-169, Dewey-Humboldt, 928-830-1116, mortimerfarmsaz.com) grows goodies all year long, so no matter when you visit, you’ll find fresh veggies and fruit to take home. Dig up beets, slice squash, prune garlic and nab strawberries, or visit the farm’s store for more ready-to-eat treats.

5. Celebrate apple harvest with a fall festival at Slide Rock State Park (6871 N. SR-89A, Sedona, 928-282-3034, azstateparks.com/slide-rock), the site of the Pendley Homestead. Homesteading-themed activities include making a scarecrow and learning to cook and craft with lavender, plus picking apples (of course) from trees planted more than 100 years ago.

Main cabin at Orchard Creek; Photo courtesy Orchard Canyon On Oak Creek
Main cabin at Orchard Creek; Photo courtesy Orchard Canyon On Oak Creek
food at Orchard Canyon; Photo courtesy Orchard Canyon On Oak Creek
food at Orchard Canyon; Photo courtesy Orchard Canyon On Oak Creek

IF YOU GO:

Info: Orchard Canyon on Oak Creek (8067 SR-89A, Sedona, 928-239-3257, enjoyorchardcanyon.com) is open year-round and offers 17 cabins, each varying in size and sleeping two-to-six people. Small children and pets are welcome. Cabin amenities include linens, towels and toiletries, plus daily breakfast and dinner. Cocktails and wine are served on the lawn each evening from 3-5 p.m. Cabins have no televisions or telephones. The property’s peaches ripen mid-July through August, the apples are ready mid-August through October, and fresh-pressed cider is available starting mid-September. September prices range from $350/night for a two-person standard cabin to $420/night for a creekside abode.

Driving distance from Phoenix: 124 miles (two hours, 15 minutes)

Directions: Go north on I-17 to AZ-179 (exit 298). Turn left, drive north on AZ-179, then take SR-89A north to Orchard Canyon. It sits on the left side of the road.

Perfect Place No. 7 
The Cave at Emerald Cove

paddleboarding inside and around Emerald Cove; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Models: Kelly Kaminski & Nick Tortajada
paddleboarding inside and around Emerald Cove; Photo by Kevin Kaminski; Models: Kelly Kaminski & Nick Tortajada

If you’re an adventurous romantic of a certain age, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the 1984 film Romancing the Stone as you journey to Emerald Cove. After all, you’re searching for a green gem of a site, in a cave, on a river, in a remote wilderness. (Your imagination will have to supply man-eating crocs and a gun-waving Danny DeVito.) Plus, this jewel on the Colorado River is as elusive as buried treasure. At most times of day, it’s nothing but a drab hole in the rock. But arrive when sunlight shines at the right angle, and you’ll bask in an otherworldly grotto that glows neon green.

After launching from Willow Beach Marina, about 12 miles downriver from Hoover Dam, you’ll kayak a lazy stretch of the Colorado flanked by crumbly, rust- and ochre-colored mountains. If it’s sunny, at midday the water turns bottle green, thanks to light waves scattering between sky-blue reflections and warm-toned rocks.

About a mile in, you can hike a short, scenic trail to River Gauger’s House Site. In the 1920s and ’30s, this ruin housed engineers who measured the impact of Hoover Dam on the river. Each day, one of the acrophilic engineers teetered along a rickety wooden walkway hanging off the side of the cliff, then hauled himself over the river in a cable cart to take readings. Look for the cart and the so-called catwalk another mile upriver, near Emerald Cove. As you paddle into the cave, it seems unassuming. But inside, floating on phosphorescent water, you can see why it’s the stuff of Instagrammers’ dreams.

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5 Ways to Maximize Emerald Cove 

1. The cave only turns emerald from around noon to 2 p.m., and since about three kayaks can fit inside at a time, you may have to wait in line behind other boats.

2. Because there’s a stark contrast between the sun outside and the shadowy cave, it’s easy to overexpose your photo. Our photographer, Kevin Kaminski, says he captured his best shots when his sunlit subjects were just outside the cave, paddling toward the camera. He also recommends experimenting with a flash and says an advanced smartphone might achieve a more balanced exposure than an SLR.

3. Visit during months that aren’t miserably hot or monsoon-y in the afternoon. On Sundays and Mondays, this stretch of the Colorado is closed to motorboats, so the river should be calmer and quieter.

4. Emerald Cove is 2 miles upriver from Willow Beach Marina, and most people take three to four hours round trip to visit the cave and the nearby sites. If you have more time, consider paddling the 26-mile Black Canyon Water Trail, which takes in Hoover Dam, Arizona Hot Springs, Emerald Cove, Lake Mohave and bighorn sheep sightings.

5. Devoted Indian food fans know the West is dotted with Punjabi truck stops that cater to Sikh drivers. One such eatery, Punjabi Dhaba in Kingman (2650 N. Round Up Ave., 928-380-3620), is a great place to fuel up with spectacular curries on the way to or from Emerald Cove.

Where to Stay

Willow Beach Marina is about four and a half hours from Phoenix, so you’ll likely want to overnight somewhere, and Vegas is just an hour away. Virgin Hotels Las Vegas (yes, like the airline) debuted in March 2021, featuring a 60,000-square-foot casino, multiple indoor and outdoor entertainment venues, a Mykonos-themed beach club and award-winning restaurants including Nobu and Olives (4455 Paradise Rd., 702-693-5000, virginhotelslv.com).

Virgin Hotels Las Vegas; Photo courtesy Virgin Hotels Las Vegas
Virgin Hotels Las Vegas; Photo courtesy Virgin Hotels Las Vegas

Perfect Selfie Spot

The entire cave is a selfie spot.

IF YOU GO:

Info: At the Willow Beach Marina & Campground, Lake Mead Mohave Adventures rents kayaks and standup paddleboards by the hour. 25804 Willow Beach Rd., Willow Beach, 928-767-4747, willowbeachharbor.com 

Driving Distance: 255 miles (four hours)

How to Get There: From Central Phoenix, take the US-60/Grand Ave. to US-93 North past Wickenburg and Kingman to Willow Beach Rd. Drive east about a mile-and-a-half to the marina.

Perfect Place No. 8 
The Tucson 23

PHOENIX magazine dining critic Nikki Buchanan gets the skinny on the Old Pueblo’s vaunted Mexican food scene.

I love Tucson, and my affection for this rough-at-the-edges desert town and its craggy ring of mountain ranges goes back to my college days, when my U of A friends took me to Gates Pass, Sabino Canyon and Mt. Lemmon. But more than any spectacular vista or flora-filled hiking trail, I love the city’s strong sense of identity.

Unlike Phoenix, Tucson doesn’t tear down everything old to slap up something new. Its rich history is celebrated, not erased. Historic neighborhoods exude lived-in charm and yards are often desert landscaped, not transformed into grassy replicas of the Midwest. As the first U.S. city to be named a Capital of Gastronomy – recognized by UNESCO for its urban agriculture, sustainability efforts and deep multicultural food history – Tucson is progressive. But I’m just as impressed with its vibrant Mexican community, where historical barrios are honored by name, and its robust Mexican food scene – concentrated within a 23-square-mile radius dubbed the Tucson 23 – is the most exciting in the state. Food trucks dedicated to mariscos or birria or elote line 12th Avenue, and there’s an extraordinary hole-in-the-wall around every corner.

The sheer range of great Mexican food takes my breath away. I barely scratched the surface on a recent whirlwind trip there, but this list should get you started. Buen provecho!

Where to Stay

Expect modern, minimalist bedroom décor, luxurious bathrooms and dramatic public spaces at the AC Hotel by Marriott Tucson (151 E. Broadway Blvd., 520-385-7111, marriot.com). Situated downtown, the European-inspired hotel (opened in 2017) features spectacular art, a serene “library” workspace, a pretty cocktail-tapas bar and the best lobby smell in the entire world (which falls blissfully between clean towels and ocean breezes). A small, well-equipped gym and rooftop pool – also with its own bar – should keep you entertained if the nearby nightlife doesn’t do it.

Photos courtesy AC Hotel By Marriot Tucson
Photos courtesy AC Hotel By Marriot Tucson

Selfie Spot 

Strike a surreal pose with one of Tucson muralist Joe Pagac’s irresistible, Dalí-esque artworks. There’s a regal fish at Charro Steak & Del Rey that we love, or leave the comfort of your vehicle to snap this epic, bicycle-themed splash of whimsy at 514 N. Stone Avenue. joepagac.net

Joe Pagac’s Dalí-esque artworks; Photo courtesy Visit Tucson
Joe Pagac’s Dalí-esque artworks; Photo courtesy Visit Tucson
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Barrio Charro; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
Barrio Charro; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson

Barrio Charro

What happens when two culinary titans – Carlotta Flores, chef/matriarch of 99-year-old El Charro Cafe, and Don Guerra, master baker and owner of Barrio Bread – join forces? You get this rustic-chic Mexican-inflected outpost, offering signature tortamano sandwiches that pair classic recipes from El Charro restaurants with Guerra’s house-baked Azteca bread. Expect a delicious commingling of the upscale and classic here, including avocado toast, sugar-dusted empanadas and the crunchiest, most delicious tlayuda – Oaxaca’s street food-y answer to pizza – you will ever eat. Drizzle it with sharp habanero-turmeric salsa and be prepared to swoon. 3699 N. Campbell Ave., 520-372-1922, barriocharro.com

Aqui Con El Nene (Here with the Baby)

No babies in sight, but El Nene’s hearty food certainly nourishes the ravenous inner child. Go for the Yaqui Taco (a green chile stuffed with carne asada, cheese, bacon and mushrooms, set over two soft corn tortillas) or the papancha (a behemoth Ciudad Obregón-style baked spud brimming with meat, stringy melted cheese, mushrooms, bacon and sour cream). But the kicker is the chipilon, a Sonoran dog that swaps out the characteristically soft bun for a crunchy, cheese-crusted one. It’s perfect. Two locations, aquiconelnene.com

El Güero Canelo

The name, a Spanish slur that roughly means “ginger Mexican,” refers to redheaded owner/entrepreneur Daniel Contreras, who won James Beard America’s Classics award in 2018 for his Sonoran hot dog – and deservedly so. Contreras operates his own bakery in Sonora, cranking out the soft, sweet buns that cradle bacon-wrapped wienies topped with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, mayo, mustard and jalapeño salsa. Four locations (including one in Phoenix), elguerocanelo.com

El Güero Canelo; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
El Güero Canelo; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson

BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs

You know you’re in the right place for carne asada when the aroma of burning mesquite wood hits you at the door. Get a generous heap of that smoky, tender meat in a taco, then doctor it up at the elaborate salsa bar. But remember, this arch-rival to El Güero Canelo makes a mean Sonoran hot dog too – not to mention dreamy chilaquiles and famously creamy refrieds. Two locations, bktacos.com

El Taco Rustico

Hacienda Del Sol alum Juan Almanza is a master of mesquite grilling, so zero in on smoky carne asada tacos and grilled meats, keeping in mind that the menu is rich with possibilities, including excellent rojitos de camarón (chile-spiced shrimp served in cheese-crusted tortillas), gorditas, sopes, tostada-like lorenzas, even cabrito (“goat kid”). Or what about a daily special like birria pizza? 2281 N. Oracle Rd., 520-623-3478, tacorustico.com

Tacos Apson

This no-frills classic taqueria is quintessential Tucson. Don’t have the cojones to try huevo becerro criadillas (calf testicles)? You’ll be happy with costilla de res (think crispy giant beef rib on tiny tortilla), taco rasurado (that same rib meat shaved off the bone into a juicy pile) or the florid Taco Apson – carne asada with cheese, chile verde, mushroom, onion and bacon. Two locations, tacosapson.com

Anita St. Market

Set in the middle of residential Barrio Anita, this sweet Mexican market turns out fantastic burros, wrapped with thin, pliant flour tortillas made in-house. People rave about the breakfast burros and house-made chorizo, but if you only order two things, make them the spicy, savory red chile burro and the el mero mero (“big boss”), a bacon-wrapped bad boy stuffed with carne asada, cheese, green chile, avocado and tomato. 849 N. Anita Ave., 520-882-5280, facebook.com/anitastmarket

Anita St. Market; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
Anita St. Market; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
The Little One; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
The Little One; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson

The Little One

Suzana Davila’s legendary Café Poca Cosa became a COVID casualty, but Davila’s sisters – Marcela Davila-Barley and Sandra Davila – have kept its satellite location going, offering Mexican dishes so comforting they taste like your abuela made them. The spicy chicken mole with chocolatey undertones is a standout, but so is ultra-rich cochinita en crema de chipotle. Then again, you could just order the three-item Surprise Plate and let the kitchen call the shots. 151 N. Stone Ave., 520-612-9830, thelittleoneaz.com

JPS Seafood

If there’s a better mariscos spot than this clean, cozy restaurant-cum-market anywhere in the state, I’ve yet to find it: ultra-fresh seafood pulled from the Sea of Cortez and an affordable, six- page menu that fulfills your every seafood fantasy. I’m still dreaming about the chicharrón-style deep-fried fish and the embarazada tostada, piled high with shrimp, octopus, scallops and crab meat. 5550 S. 12th Ave., 520-270-3600, facebook.com/jpsseafood

JPS Seafood; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
JPS Seafood; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
El Torero; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
El Torero; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson

El Torero

This recently updated, circa 1956 old-timer recently merged menus with defunct sister restaurant Lerua’s, which has beguiled diners with its famous green corn tamales since 1922. Come for the classics (including the famously crispy cheese crisps) or try one of the crazy-delicious modern Mexican dishes dreamed up by culinary school grad Mike Hultquist Jr., the fourth generation in the family business. Don’t balk at paying $25 for tamale pie, presented as three green corn tamales laden with carnitas, beans, green chiles, cheddar, queso fresco and “truff sauce.” It’s scrumptious and easily feeds two to three people. 231 E. 26th St., 520-622-9534, eltorerotucson.com

Charro Steak & Del Rey

In the mood for something Mexican-inspired and upscale? This is the place. An offshoot of Tucson’s legendary El Charro Café, but with a seafood twist – that’s where the Del Rey comes in – the restaurant offers spicy-sweet prickly pear-glazed albondigas (meatballs, not soup), a mesquite-charred romaine wedge with pork belly chicharrón and smoked blue cheese, and a lobster-stuffed tamale with garlic-chiltepin butter. It skews a wee bit Southwestern, but who’s complaining? 188 E. Broadway Blvd, 520-485-1922, charrosteak.com

Tumerico

Guy Fieri loved chef-owner Wendy Garcia’s nopales tacos on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, but so do omnivores who show up in droves for her fresh, Latin-inflected vegetarian and vegan food. Ropa vieja, made from jackfruit, is a sweet, juicy knockout, as are moist, zippy tamales – made with GMO-free corn, jackfruit carnitas, potatoes, green olives, jalapeño, cashew crema and amor. Two locations, tumerico.com

Rollies Mexican Patio

Chef-owner Mateo Otero has won a slew of awards for his fanciful takes on Mexican food, so you’ll wait a while at this wildly popular spot for “rollies” (taquitos filled with chicken or shrimp) and enchilada flats, thick sope-like masa patties, topped with birria if you ask for it (and you should), pickled red onion, cabbage, green olives, crema and cotija. For dessert: the conchas ice cream sandwich with caramel and nuts. 4573 S. 12th Ave., 520-300-6289, rolliestucson.com

Rollies Mexican Patio; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
Rollies Mexican Patio; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
Seis Kitchen; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
Seis Kitchen; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson

Seis Kitchen

Famous for its award-winning poc chuc (achiote-marinated chicken from the Yucatán) and pastor (chile-marinated pork from Mexico City, great in a torta at the Mercado San Agustín location), this upscale spot is named for the six culinary regions of Mexico represented on the menu – all of it tasty and beautifully presented. Doctor it all up with house chipotle salsa. Three locations, seiskitchen.com

Taqueria Pico de Gallo

From this bright yellow house, a 30-year-old Tucson institution, come a slew of simple, homey dishes you’ll want to eat every day of the week: tender tongue tacos, crispy fish tacos, and the shockingly good house-made corn tortillas, supple and earthy, that enfold them. Order a glass of cold, sweet horchata – also exemplary – to wash it all down. 2618 S. Sixth Ave., 520-623-8775

Taqueria Pico de Gallo; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
Taqueria Pico de Gallo; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
Oasis Fruit Cones; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson
Oasis Fruit Cones; Photo by Jackie Tran/Courtesy Visit Tucson

Oasis Fruit Cones

Shops selling fruit-flavored snow cones (raspados) and a dizzying array of other variations on the cold-treat theme are dotted throughout the city, but this friendly multiple award winner (2015-2020, Tucson Weekly) is easily the most popular. Try a slushy Mangoyada if you dare. 4126 S. 12th Ave., 520-741-7106

Boca Tacos y Tequila

Chef-owner Maria Mazon, Bravo Top Chef contestant and 2020 James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef Southwest brings the sass to this lively modern Mexican joint, specializing in elevated tacos (think curried cauliflower), creative riffs like the banh mi quesadilla and Mexican spirits (29 tequilas, 12 mezcals, 4 four bacanoras). I’ll be blunt: I thought the spirits were the best part. A sign proclaims the four house salsas are “hotter than your wife,” which means your wife may not be all that hot. 533 N. Fourth Ave., 520-777-8134, bocatacos.com

IF YOU GO:

Info: The Tucson 23 encompasses 23 square miles of South Tucson (an island municipality landlocked within Tucson city borders), downtown and lower midtown, where the lion’s share – or la parte del lion – of the city’s Mexican restaurants are located.

Driving Distance: 116 miles (one hour, 45 minutes)

Directions: Take the I-10 south to Tucson. Exit on S. Sixth Ave. to find yourself in South Tucson and the southern end of the Tucson 23.

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