Elevation is no trifling matter come summer in Arizona.
For Phoenicians, in fact, it’s a prized commodity, something we aspire to after a long, triple-digit workweek. Fleeing the city for the cool, rarefied air of the high country, our mood rises right along with those green ADOT “Elevation” highway signs that whiz by. From fly fishing in the White Mountains to glamping near the GC, this 11-trip tribute to highness is your escape plan.
By Jessica Dunham, Leah LeMoine, Craig Outhier, Madison Rutherford & Tom Zoellner
Before we embark on this wide-ranging exploration of high-elevation Arizona, let’s visualize our playing field.
What is the High Country?
The “high country” is a traditional nickname for the Colorado Plateau, that four-state upthrust of forest and desert that includes Flagstaff, Prescott, the White Mountains and much of Northern Arizona. For the sake of inclusion, we’re defining the term here as any part of Arizona more than 3,000 feet in elevation… which makes parts of Southern Arizona eligible, too.
High-Country Spirit Animal
The high-country habitué kept a beloved summer cabin in the Mogollon Rim from 1923-1930 and set 24 of his novels in Arizona, including The Call of the Canyon and Under the Tonto Rim.
High-Country Literal Animal
An estimated 160,000 of the big-eared ruminants live in the Arizona high country, making them the most numerous large mammal, more than elk (35K), black bears (3K) or mountain lions (3K).
Southern Arizona Vino Voyage
The undulating grasslands that permeate the Sonoita-Elgin wine region south of Tucson – about 5,000 feet above sea level – turn “technicolor green” in the late spring and early summer, according to Pavle Milic.
The esteemed FnB owner and mastermind behind Los Milics Vineyards (423 Upper Elgin Rd., Elgin, 520-221-0180, losmilicsvineyards.com) aims to “bridge the gap between food and beverage” at his 20-acre estate vineyard and tasting room nestled in this viridescent viticultural area near the Mustang Mountains. And he might lift Arizona’s still-nascent wine industry to new heights in the bargain.
Inspired by a brief stint in Napa Valley in the early aughts, Milic long harbored a vision for launching a winery in the Southwestern state where he spent his teenage years. In 2014, the by-then successful restaurateur enlisted the help of Arizona winemakers Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks in Sonoita to produce the first Los Milics vintages. However, his dream couldn’t truly come to fruition until he was harvesting his own grapes. It was around this time that he connected with Mo Garfinkle, a former lawyer and aviation consultant with vast comprehension of the wine world. Five years ago, the duo purchased the parcel of land where Los Milics now sits.
The wine production facility – located in an arched steel Quonset structure that melds handsomely with the sweeping landscape beyond – went up first. Available for tour by appointment, it’s where guests first tasted Milic’s estate wine, which has impressed aficionados with its unabashed minerality and stereophonic depth – both qualities typical of the best wines from France’s renowned Rhône region, which is sometimes cited as an analog for the loamy, brick-colored soil and distinct terroir of Southern Arizona.
Milic and Garfinkle opened their striking, state-of-the-art tasting room at the tail end of 2022. Bordered by imposing steel panels that will acquire a rusty patina with time and climate, this “cavalcade of monoliths,” as Milic puts it, will soon turn the same auburn hue as the end posts of each row of grapes and the soil that grows them. Scottsdale architectural firm Chen + Suchart Studio designed the space to serve as an area of decompression, levity and calm among the often windy and dusty chaos of the high-country wine region – while simultaneously blending in with its surroundings. Milic says his goal is to provide guests with “an iota of suspension of reality to force you to be in the present” upon entering.
This summer, the winemaker will offer “mini masterclasses” on Arizona food and wine pairings in a private conference room in the building’s back corner. At the other end of the airy space, floor-to-ceiling windows welcome natural light and a large garage door reveals a covered al fresco dining area that overlooks the sprawling vineyards and looming mountains. It’s breathtaking and sweepingly romantic.
Los Milics doesn’t have a full kitchen, yet, but that doesn’t mean guests can’t eat like royalty. A “mitigated menu,” as Milic calls it, features small, tapas-style plates like a fresh fennel, beet and Manchego salad, poached salmon pâté and croque monsieur. Spanish-born chef Ana Borrajo sources her vegetables from local farms, pickles them in-house and elevates the rustic home-cooking of her native Granada to create from-scratch specialties like a romesco vinaigrette made with little more than garden-fresh tomatoes, garlic, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Creative and uncommon components like caper berries and pear compote grace her glorious charcuterie board.
In short: Los Milics is an immediate, must-visit stop on the Sonoita-Elgin wine trail, and arguably the jewel of Arizona’s estate wineries. The only downside is you can’t spend the night there – but wouldn’t you know it? Milic has a plan for that. Right around the end of 2023, the winery will debut nine casitas on the property that will make a full-service kitchen permissible by Arizona law. The colony of Spanish Colonial casitas – dubbed The Biscuit after the nickname of a nearby domed peak – will feature one or two bedrooms, private patios and picturesque views of its namesake mountaintop.
And none of us will ever want to leave.
— Madison Rutherford
More Upper Elgin Tasting Rooms
Sonoita-Elgin was the first region in Arizona to receive AVA (American Viticulture Area) recognition and boasts the densest cluster of estate tasting rooms in the state. Most visitors gravitate to Elgin Road and its murderers’ row of wineries (Callaghan, Twisted Union, Flying Leap), but Upper Elgin is coming on strong.
If you sit with winemaker James Callahan at his outdoor tasting room along Highway 82 in Sonoita, you’ll learn that he’s full of stories. Fittingly, the label on each of his wines tells a story through a written excerpt and original artwork by Nevada-based artist Daniel Helzer. Rune specializes in Rhône varietals, such as Syrah and Grenache, fermented with wild yeast. runewines.com
Hannah’s Hill Vineyard
Named after the daughter of owners Ann and James Gardner, this family-owned vineyard is known around town for its trademark red barn and Estate Petite Sirah Nugget aged in stainless steel tanks instead of oak.
Elgin Winery and Distillery
This prolific facility has been producing wine and spirits in Sonoita since the early 1980s, specializing in sweet wines and small-batch bourbon, brandy, rum and gin – and hand sanitizer, amid the pandemic. elginwd.com
Where to Stay
Rune Wines offers two side-by-side bungalows that can be booked separately or together (runewines.com). Similarly, Twisted Union Wine Co. in Elgin (pictured) invites you to wake up with a view of the vineyards at one of two rooms on its stately property (twistedunionwinecompany.com). Finally, Dos Cabezas in Sonoita has Next Door @ Dos Cabezas, with a six-person casita or cozier studio, with outdoor pizza oven, record player and pool table (doscabezas.com).
Turning Back the Clock in Bisbee
Long before couple and former Phoenix residents Claire Harlin and Justin Luria moved to Bisbee and turned The Shady Dell Vintage Trailer Court (1 Old Douglas Rd., Bisbee, 520-432-3567, theshadydell.com) into a glamorous glamping destination, it was simply a dusty campground for weary travelers traversing Highway 80, which stretched from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego from 1926 to 1989.
The homey, tree-lined hollow emerges after a roundabout about a mile outside of Old Bisbee, which has its own storied history as a former copper mining town. A light teal and pale pink mural hand-painted by Valley-based artist Timothy Brennan beckons curious motorists to the trailer court, where more than a dozen vintage Airstreams, Spartans and a Boles Aero – plus a landlocked boat and a tiki-themed bus – serve as a transportive (and transportable) time capsule.
mural; office; dining at The Shady Dell Vintage Trailer Court; Photo by Kristin Heggli; Models: Kyra and Keenan King/Ford Robert Black Agency
You won’t find Wi-Fi, bathtubs or central air conditioning in any of The Shady Dell’s era-appropriate accommodations – but what it lacks in creature comforts, it more than makes up for in authentic vintage charm.
The Chris Craft Yacht is decked out in decades-old nautical memorabilia. A cozy queen bed tucked into the hull of the 38-foot pleasure boat comfortably sleeps one or two. The Tiki Bus comes equipped with a hand-carved outrigger bar, two twin beds and Polynesian décor galore. While away the evenings listening to 45s on the phonograph in the Hollywood Spartan or playing poker at the breakfast booth in the Royal Mansion.
On-site eatery Dot’s Diner is housed in a 1957 Valentine Diner – one of only seven in the country. Rotating breakfast, lunch and dinner specials span the globe and focus on seasonality, but burgers, sandwiches and vegetarian options are almost always on the menu. At Dashes Bar, customers are served classic cocktails, tiki drinks, beer and wine out of a 1955 Airstream.
The courtyard between the two establishments features picnic tables, benches and an outdoor stage, where a lineup of diverse acts is slated for this summer – one evening might showcase a gypsy jazz or roots rock band, the next could feature flamenco and world fusion artists or burlesque and fire dancers.
One thing’s for sure: It’s always an adventure at the Dell.
— Madison Rutherford
What’s New in Old Bisbee
Though this quirky mountain town takes travelers back in time, these newcomers add to its nostalgic appeal.
Jackie Oatman brought European flair to the streets of Southern Arizona when she opened her French-inspired bakery in a bright pink building in Bisbee in 2019. Passersby will be tempted by cases of classic butter croissants, fruit tarts and Bavarian pretzels, while a quaint patio encourages them to sit and enjoy them. patisserie-jacqui.com
The innovative proprietors of The Shady Dell are at it again. Claire Harlin and Justin Luria recently bought a historical brick building in the heart of Old Bisbee and will debut it as a four-bedroom boutique hotel early in 2024. According to Luria, the hotel will feature a mix of Art Nouveau, 1970s and Western styles and a cocktail lounge. Follow @gulchhotel on Instagram for updates.
Opened earlier this year by former Dot’s Diner chef Mike Clements – whose jovial smile and humble demeanor might greet you behind the bar – Taqueria Outlaw isn’t your run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex establishment. Reminiscent of a Wild West saloon with an upscale edge, this tiny restaurant truly offers something for every kind of customer – even teetotalers and vegans. To wit, the No Way José margarita comes in the same oversize coupe as the other cocktails but features Ritual non-alcoholic tequila. Impossible beef, fried cauliflower and mushroom adobada tacos round out a tidy menu of meat-centric nachos, burritos and Mexican pizzas, proving that even a 143-year-old mining town can be ahead of the curve. For more information, follow @taqueriaoutlaw on Instagram.
Getting Glassy-Eyed at Ambiente Sedona
When do you really start vibing with Ambiente (900 W. State Rte. 89A, Sedona, 800-405-1969, ambientesedona.com)? Well, if you’re anything like me, it’s around dinnertime on your second evening at the much-anticipated “landscape hotel” in west Sedona, when a far-off red rock mountain range captures the rays of the setting sun and reflects them back into your glass-and-steel cottage with its IMAX-like window front, flooding the whole suite with warm, tawny, hypnotic light. A forest of manzanita and juniper, splayed in front of you, completes the scene. It’s gorgeous and soulful. And you’re vibing on it.
It’s the kind of moment that sibling owners Jennifer May and Colleen TeBrake seem to have engineered into this high-concept, scratch-built, 40-room stunner located across the highway from Airport Mesa, starting with the term “landscape hotel” itself. It promises something – a closeness with the scenery, a dissolving of barriers. Also: Your room is not a “room.” They call it an “atrium” here, because the sky and land is always just a glance away.
However, smart first-time hoteliers that they are, May and TeBrake know that a luxury resort experience cannot be built on terrific views and neopaganistic nature worship alone (though that would be very Sedona). Vibe-worthy sights, sounds and amenities are everywhere.
For example: the “vibro-acoustic sound lounge” in the Velvet Spa wellness nook below the main lobby, where guests bathe their ears in soothing aural foam before getting a 90-minute rub-down from one of the resort’s exquisitely skilled massage therapists. Or the adjacent outdoor sauna, for afterward.
Wandering the footpaths between the atriums, admiring the high-desert foliage and burbling creeks that intersect the property, you’ll eventually bump into Ambiente’s pool area. Swimming pools – and the stylish basking that happens around them – have never been big in Sedona for whatever reason, but Ambiente treats its as more than an after-thought, with generously proportioned day-beds and a wide, textured Jacuzzi that hits the spot after a hike.
After years – decades? – of disrepute, Sedona’s dining scene has staged a spirited charge in recent years behind Lisa Dahl’s Mariposa, Jeff Smedstad’s Elote Café and others. Ambiente’s flagship restaurant, Forty1, is right up there with them. Led by chef Lindsey Dale, formerly of SaltRock Southwest Kitchen at Amara Resort & Spa, it’s an instant must-visit, with a farm-to-table supper menu headlined by the duck duo – a seared breast and delectably salty confit leg over Swiss chard with a sultry drizzle of blueberry gastrique with whiffs of lavender.
Breakfast at Forty1 is included with your stay ($799/night during the summer) and the menu is unfailingly terrific, from mascarpone-smeared pumpkin French toast to a charcuterie-esque smoked salmon board with heirloom tomatoes, avocado crema, crispy capers and other goodies to mix-and-match with the house-smoked fish. It’s like a Fashion Plates set that you eat, and I had a ball wolfing it down. My favorite breakfast of the year, without a doubt.
It’s meaningful to note that Ambiente – essentially a statement piece that you sleep in – purposefully lacks a gym. The idea is that you have some of the finest hiking in the world at your doorstep, so why slum it with a Peloton? Happy Jack Trail is literally – and I mean literally – in the parking lot, and the resort’s crew of friendly bellhops and valets will gladly give you a lift to any trailhead within a 10-minute drive in Ambiente’s super-sleek all-electric Audi RS e-tron GT.
Vibe on that, gym rat.
— Craig Outhier
More New Resort Stuff in Sedona
These longtime favorites got some serious spruces over the past few years
Wilde Resort & Spa
Remodeled and rebranded in 2021, the old Sedona Rouge emerged from its chrysalis as this sprawling, handsomely manicured 105-room retreat, with a new spa, new restaurant (Rascal, a steakhouse led by chef Mercer Mohr) and a new focus on encouraging “guests to embrace the natural beauty that surrounds them.” And how’s this for wild? With a two-night stay (starting at $215/night in the summer), guests will receive $250 in spa credit. thewilderesort.com
Amara Resort & Spa
With eye-watering views overlooking Oak Creek, the east Sedona resort never lacks for appeal. But on-site restaurant SaltRock remains our favorite arrow in its hospitality quiver. Chef David Duncan plates some of the most inventive, well-phrased Southwestern cooking in the state, including pork osso bucco with manchamantel mole (think: chipotle, pineapple, peanuts). Breakfast is great, too – and complimentary if you book a Bed & Breakfast package (starting at $249/night). amararesort.com
After going into hibernation during the pandemic, the Enchantment-adjacent residence spa emerged this past spring with a $40 million facelift and all-inclusive hospitality model. Expanding its footprint, Mii amo added a new sensory garden and new signature restaurant, Hummingbird, featuring healthy Modern Mediterranean cooking. Ensconced in magical Boynton Canyon, it’s a Sedona getaway (starting at $1,477/night) in the truest sense. miiamo.com
Staying High & Dry in Page
Like a rocky moon in orbit around a magnificent gas giant, the city of Page, Arizona, has always been overshadowed by Lake Powell – and sustained by it, too, of course. This is what happens when you build a community in the shadow of one of the world’s great man-made wonders.
For years, city leaders have been telling anyone who’ll listen that their high desert community is more than just a place to stock up their houseboats before hitting the lake, so we finally took them up on the challenge and paid a visit – with the express purpose of not getting wet.
The Flight: Contour Airlines (contourairlines.com) offers multiple daily nonstop flights ($79 each way) from Phoenix Sky Harbor to Page Airport – a short, sweet, 45-minute hop that’s massively preferable to the 5-hour drive alternative, and not just for the time you’ll save. In a 50-seat Embraer ERJ135 about the size of a large business jet, you’ll embark on an unusual flight path over the middle of Arizona and gobble up greedy eyefuls of the high country, from Humphreys Peak in Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon itself. Put it this way: You haven’t truly seen Sedona until you’ve seen it from 30,000 feet (pictured). It’s a captivating way to start your trip.
Finding a Room: The hotel industry has a system for categorizing itself. Most affordable chain hotels fall into the “comfort” category: hair-dryer in the bathroom, extra pillow, maybe a continental breakfast. The Hyatt Place Page (hyatt.com) is priced in this category (starting at $294/night), but – perhaps because it’s owned by the same international hospitality group that runs the ultra-luxe Amangiri resort just over the border in Utah – performs like a “first class” hotel, with scratch-made Southwestern fare at on-site Prickly Pear Kitchen, a craft-cocktail lobby bar and – most ticklishly – an “adventure concierge” to help you plan your Page stay. And the breakfast buffet goes well beyond cereal and bagels (think: lox, omelets, etc.).
The Canyoning: Horseshoe Bend needs no introduction. As PHOENIX magazine’s art directors will tell you, the distinctive U-shaped curve in the Colorado River is one of the most photographed and published natural features in Arizona. Located five minutes outside Page just downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam, it’s also where two to three selfie-taking tourists would dependably fall to their deaths per year craning to get a shot of the 1,200-foot-deep chasm. Local officials have attempted to resolve the problem by building an observation deck and walking path from the parking lot – making it both accessible and safer. The same principle led to tourist-friendly improvements at Page’s other great canyon-centric attraction: Lower Antelope Canyon, formerly accessible only to the heartiest rappelers and climbers, now grandma-friendly and accessible via guided walk with slot-canyon specialist Ken’s Tours (lowerantelope.com).
Golfing & Biking: As Page’s economic development director, Gregg Martinez does everything from recruiting restaurants (Grand Canyon Brewing and Distillery recently opened an outpost in downtown Page) to providing taxi services to visiting journalists. And during his downtime? He hops on his bike and attacks the Rim Trail, which neatly circumnavigates the mesa on which Page sits. “You get just devastating views of the lake, the canyons, the desert – it’s amazing,” he says. Also on his Page rec list: golfing at Lake Powell National Golf Course, with its mythical, 200-foot-drop 15th hole, and hiking at The New Wave, which he describes as a closer, less hassle-y alternative to The Wave, the undulating sandstone formation across the border in Utah that metes out hiking passes via a lottery system.
Native Experiences: Though the city itself sits outside tribal land, Antelope Canyon and many other experiences and landmarks associated with Page reside within Navajo Nation borders, and the whole of Page is permeated with Native history and art. You can ingest Navajo culture – both figuratively and literally – at Red Heritage, a Native American dinner theater (red-heritage.com) showcasing local dancers and artists in a colorful on-stage powwow of dancing, flute playing, live drum music and storytelling. Plus: frybread. Scads of frybread.
Misc. Adventure: Who’s fooling who? You come to Lake Powell and you don’t get in the water? Even in its present, depleted condition, it’s bucket-list caliber. Book a boat tour out of Wahweap Marina through Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas (lakepowell.com) or kayak nearby slot canyons with Antelope Canyon Boat Tours (antelopecanyonboattours.com). Or stay higher and drier than your friends and see the lake from the air with Papillon Helicopter Tours (papillon.com). Run out of Page Airport by a friendly, suspenders-wearing German expat named Michael, the aviation company offers a narrated 20-minute fly-over of the Page-Glen Canyon-Grand Staircase area that culminates with an exhilarating landing on Tower Butte, a natural sandstone summit that lords 1,000 feet over the surrounding terrain. It makes a fitting capstone for your trip – and proof positive that Page has more going for it than that 160,00-acre water feature to the north.
— Craig Outhier
Fly Fishing in the White Mountains
I turn off SR 260 halfway between Greer and Eagar onto a county road. The blacktop undulates over grasslands and volcanic mounds before descending into a petroglyph-lined canyon. I’m peering through the windshield looking for signs of life. (Human life, that is. I’ve already locked eyes with a herd of big-horned sheep.) I’m deep in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and the seclusion is palpable.
Then I see it. Through the trees, a sign announcing The Ranch at South Fork (93 County Road 4036, Eagar, 928-333-2000, theranchatsouthfork.com). A man I assume to be ranch manager Guyton Sherill waves hello. His dog – whom I later learn is rescue pup Rez – circles his feet happily.
I’m here because I’ve been told the ranch offers some of the most impressive fly fishing in the state, if not the country. What I didn’t expect was the majestic beauty of the place.
Scottsdale-based Ty Segaline has owned The Ranch at South Fork for nearly two decades, beckoning guests to experience the serenity that once drew him in – and still does to this day. Guests can book one of six cheerfully appointed cabins (from $185/night, two- to four-bedrooms), then while away the day however they choose: hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, s’mores by the fire, volleyball in the meadow, meandering walks, epic sunsets and, of course, fly fishing.
It’s on the ranch’s 40 acres that the South Fork and Little Colorado rivers meet, uniting two bodies of water renowned for world-class trout fishing. The South Fork River is the only stream on the planet with native Apache trout; fishing for this species is often a bucket-list item for avid anglers, many of whom come to Cinda Howard for help. Cinda’s been fly fishing for 27 years and guiding for more than a decade through her company Fly Fish Arizona and Beyond (480-217-5089, flyfisharizona.com). She lives behind the ranch, in a house perched on a hill that boasts what I can only imagine are gasp-worthy views of this hidden oasis. She and Ty have known each other for years and recently partnered to offer ranch guests fly-fishing experiences, both on-property and in the area’s surrounding lakes and streams.
When it comes to fly fishing, there’s nobody better than Cinda. In 2022, Arizona Game & Fish inducted her into the Arizona Outdoor Hall of Fame, whose former inductees include senators John McCain and Barry Goldwater. Note this, dear reader: Cinda is the only fly-fishing guide ever to be inducted.
With the windows of my cabin open, I can hear the roar of the rivers. Thanks to late-spring snows, Cinda anticipates a fantastic summer for fly fishing. Ranch guests can fish the South Fork and Little Colorado without a license (as long as you stay on property), as well as the stocked 2-acre trout pond.
But you don’t have to fish. At The Ranch at South Fork, you’re invited to do nothing. As Guyton aptly puts it: “It’s so peaceful here, you can sit and watch the wind blow.”
— Jessica Dunham
Fly Fishing 101
Cinda says the two biggest challenges for newbie fly fishers are learning how to cast and figuring out the gear. So, she recommends a visit to AZ Fly Shop (3254 E. Cactus Rd., Phoenix, 602-354-8881, azflyshop.com). Owners Chris and Jill Rich have created a laid-back, fun space where you can ask questions of knowledgeable anglers, test rods, build out gear kits, buy and make flies, take casting and other beginner classes, join weekly meetups and just talk shop. From June-October, AZ Fly Shop offers monthly three-day fishing trips guided by Cinda for $1,250/person, which includes all meals and accommodations at The Ranch at South Fork.
Wrangle your own AZ-made fly kit with these neato accessories.
Fly made with Arizona Simi Seal by John Rohmer
Rohmer is a White Mountains-based master fly tier who invented the coarse black fibers known as Simi Seal in this fly. It’s considered one of the most versatile fly materials around and is known to lure just about any species of Arizona fish.
Available at AZ Fly Shop, $2.95
Grip designed with art by Tim Johnson
Mesa artist Johnson’s work on his custom Timmy Grips features fly fishing designs hand-burned onto the cork grip of a fly rod. The artworks can be colorful and playful or intricate and delicate, but they’re always one of a kind.
Available at AZ Fly Shop, $195-$245
Lanyard for fly box by Nathan Scholten
Easing into semi-retirement after 25 years as a Scottsdale veterinarian, Scholten not only picked up the sport of fly fishing but also the hobby of crafting copper-and-leather lanyards etched with fishing-themed designs. Each lanyard cradles a fly box perfectly snug.
Available at AZ Fly Shop, $99.95
Motor Lodge Road Trip
Pretend it’s 1952. The war’s over, the economy’s prospering, and America is deep in its automobile era, to borrow a TikTok phrase. Owning a shiny whale of a vehicle symbolizes the freedom to roam wherever you please. Which is why everything caters to cars: drive-in movies, drive-in restaurants and roadside motor courts where you can park steps from your motel door.
Cut to 2023. While motor lodges aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were, they are having a moment. Everyone from mom-and-pop owners to major hotel chains is finding ways to imbue once-forgotten motels with new life.
The One with Style – Elevation: 6,909’
The only thing reminiscent of High Country Motor Lodge’s origins as a former Howard Johnson is its footprint – a two-story L-shape where all motel doors open onto a central sparkling pool. That, and its traveler-friendly locale between Route 66 and the Amtrak railroad, recall motor lodges of yesteryear. But everything else about the Flagstaff hotel (from $249/night) speaks to the modern aesthetic.
Decked out in earth tones of slate blues and dusty greens, and textures like soft leather and even softer velvet, the lodge offers a chic lounge where I unwind with a tequila-based mule; outdoor firepits and Adirondack chairs that I gratefully slink into after a day of hiking; and a Nordic spa experience – a healing therapy of sauna plus plunge pool plus hot tub – that I find completely exhilarating.
Some might argue that you can’t capture the spirit of a traditional motor court by stocking every guest room with artisanal pour-over coffee. But when it comes to offering respite to weary tourists, the salient purpose of any good roadside motel, High Country Motor Lodge nails it.
1000 W. Route 66, Flagstaff, 928-774-5221, highcountrymotorlodge.com
The One with Personality – Elevation: 5,367’
I’ve been at The Motor Lodge in Prescott for all of five minutes when I ask if I can buy a piece of art that I spot in a guest room: a wood carving of a cat, something I imagine would suit a 1970s living room. Manager Mark Dorsten laughs and gently breaks the news, that no, it’s not for sale. But he also says I’m not the first person to window-shop the property. Spanning decades, from the 1930s when the motel first opened to the 1980s, the eclectic décor serves up serious treasure hunting.
Among the 13 rooms (from $172/night, each with a fireplace and carport), guests will discover an authentic bedroom set from the notorious Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas; a plastic robot that plays cassette tapes; and a tin bread box filled with a stack of records, each one – wait for it – a Bread album.
Don’t spend too much time scouring your room’s nooks and crannies, though. The communal firepit is a great place to meet new friends, and the cruiser bikes are ideal for pedaling to Whiskey Row. Then there’s the soon-to-open market next door, The Edison, where motel guests can grab gourmet snacks and a complimentary drink upon check-in.
503 S. Montezuma St., Prescott, 928-717-0157, themotorlodge.com
The One with Heart – Elevation: 4,869’
Route 66 nerds like me love to talk about Lucille Hamons. She embodied the soul of The Mother Road, and by extension, that of the motor court. In 1941, she bought an Oklahoma gas station on Route 66, living on-site and working 24 hours a day to help motorists. When they couldn’t pay for gas, Lucille picked up the tab. When they couldn’t afford to eat, she fed them. When they had no place to stay, she offered shelter. Her generosity earned her the nickname, “Mother of the Mother Road.”
As soon as I meet Angela and Blas Sanchez, owners of the 1953 Earl’s Route 66 Motor Court in Winslow, I’m struck by the similarities to Lucille. The Sanchezes bought the motel in 2018 after the death of its previous owner, Floranel Earl, who had operated it since 1974 with her husband, Lee. They keep the neon signs buzzing and the original floors gleaming, but the couple’s goal isn’t to wow visitors with luxury. The motel is spotless, but it’s also no-frills. Instead, the Sanchezes seek to give Route 66-ers a warm and accommodating place to spend the night.
When I arrive, Blas shows me around, pointing out the handmade quilts that blanket the beds in the six motel rooms (from $80/night). Angela tells me that Blas has a green thumb, and sure enough, in the garden bordering the property, he’s cultivating apple trees, artichokes, rose bushes and vines of morning glories. In the lobby attached to the apartment where the couple lives, Blas grows jade that he re-plants in tiny pots as gifts to guests. Angela offers to make me dinner.
Lest I think this heartfelt welcome is for me, and only me, I flip through guests’ handwritten notes in the journals that Angela keeps in each room and realize that this is simply how business is done here. I read story after story of the Sanchezes’ hospitality: caring for a guest who arrived with a ski injury, driving someone to the airport in Phoenix, sharing coffee creamer from their own refrigerator.
If you’re expecting a five-star hotel, this ain’t it. But if you want to experience a motor court revival that goes beyond a flashy coat of paint to the soul of the enterprise, look no further than Earl’s.
512 E. Third St., Winslow, 928-386-1210
— Jessica Dunham
High Country Mountain Lodge’s nifty set of mix tapes ($45) might be spendier than a magnet. But considering that each themed tape (“Because the Night,” “Daytripping” and “Celestial Spacescapes”) cues up nearly 20 songs by little-known artists like country crooner Hub Reynolds and 1960s boy band Chayns, it’s a steal.
Northern AZ Off-Road Excursion
As a white-knuckling off-roader who can never seem to relax into the thrill of three-tire rock crawls or hairpin turns, I can admit to appreciating the access an OHV adventure grants to stunning backcountry.
Take the Hualapai Mountains. Nosing the sky at elevations nearing 8,500 feet, the mountains sprawl southeast of Kingman, making a rugged home for all manner of flora and fauna: ponderosa pines and gambel oak, manzanita trees and silktassel bush, eagles and mountain lions, mule deer, gray foxes, elk. This is mining country, too, which means crumbling relics of old mines hide in the mountain’s crags. It would take weeks (and a lot of ambition) to traverse this wilderness on foot. But an off-road trip on the Hualapai Mountain OHV Trail lets you do it in 6-8 hours.
The 46.9-mile point-to-point route kicks off in Kingman at Hualapai Mountain Park (6250 Hualapai Mountain Rd., 928-757-3859, parks.mohave.gov/parks/hualapai-mountain-park) and concludes in the Mojave Desert town of Yucca. Set up basecamp at the park, where you can reserve one of the fully equipped cabins (from $65/night) – including stone houses dating to the 1930s – or tent and RV campsites (from $20/night). Not only does the park give you a cozy place to sleep, it’s also rife with outdoor exploration: 2,300 acres for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, including a summit trail with unobstructed views of the Cerbat Mountain Range to the north.
Even though the OHV Trail is hard-packed most of the way, it’s also not marked, difficult in many sections (especially the ascents out of the park) and breathtakingly remote. The technical challenges like navigating ribbony switchbacks or tracing rocky ridgelines will tickle OHV enthusiasts. But for “just get me there alive” riders like me, it’s the isolation and natural beauty that’s truly remarkable.
Once it emerges from the park, the Hualapai Mountain Trail scuttles through hundreds of miles of pristine Bureau of Land Management land, just a fraction of the 2.4 million acres the agency manages in this region alone. The trail hugs the mountainside to crest 7,000 feet, where expansive sight lines burst from the firs, then arrows tightly through brush (bring a machete or loppers) on the descent. It careens through boulder-strewn canyons and it ping-pongs between Joshua trees. And the whole time, you’re utterly and totally alone – the only sign of civilization the abandoned Boriana Mine and the only sound the screech of a hawk soaring high above.
— Jessica Dunham
You’d think a stiff whiskey would be just the thing to loosen muscles cramped from a mountainous OHV romp. And you’d be mostly right. But it should be rum and whiskey, and it should be locally made. At Kingman’s Desert Diamond Distillery (4875 Olympic Way, Kingman, 928-757-7611, desertdiamonddistillery.com), ask for the aged spirit flight ($15): two rums, two whiskeys and a sip of moonshine.
Hualapai Mountain Park has a staging area (4444 Hualapai Mountain Rd.) with parking and an unloading ramp (day-use fee, $10/vehicle).
To chart your course, download the Hualapai Mountain OHV Trail on your phone from the AllTrails app (alltrails.com/mobile) before you launch.
Recommended OHVs for this trail: four-wheel drives, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), universal terrain vehicles (UTVs), side-by-sides (SxS), motorcycles and dirt bikes.
A valid OHV decal is required and available through the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Motor Vehicle Division (azdot.gov/motor-vehicle-services).
Open mine shafts and tunnels are dangerous; don’t explore them.
For detailed OHV information, contact Arizona Game & Fish (azgfd.com/ohv).
Glamping Near the GC
Nuzzled in the wooded crook of Kaibab National Forest, on 160 acres of private land, is a lake. It’s more of a pond, really, but it’s deep enough for a dock, wide enough for a beach and large enough to host an island in the middle. It’s here that geese nest every spring, the water-bound knoll a safe home for the little goslings. Set against a horizon spiked by ponderosa pines, the calm waters also draw osprey, ducks, bald eagles and frogs that croak like metronomes after a good rainstorm.
The pond’s wildlife “show” is just one of many National Geographic-esque moments awaiting guests at Backland Glamping Resort in Williams ($400-$700/night, 6929 E. Rosilda Springs Rd., 928-288-5441, travelbackland.com). For example, on a sunrise jog on the 2-mile trail around the property, you might encounter a mule deer bounding through the meadow. A midday horseback ride ($100/rider for 60 minutes, $150/rider for 90 minutes, $200/rider for two hours) crosses streams and scales hillsides to bestow riders with an astonishing view of the San Francisco Peaks. And nightly stargazing with Backland’s two telescopes takes advantage of the area’s dark skies.
When owner Jeremy Budge opened the resort in September 2022, it was with the intention to offer an immersive nature experience – albeit one steeped in luxury. That morning jog, for instance? Yep, it’s followed by a chef-crafted breakfast in Backland’s glass-walled restaurant. The horseback ride’s premier add-on: a one-hour human-equine connection session ($125/person). The evening stargazing: Well, you can skip the telescopes to instead see the celestial sights in your glamping tent through a 16-foot window arcing over the ceiling.
It’s Backland’s tents that just might be the most notable feature. Using a proprietary design, Jeremy built the 10 tents (each 450 square feet, with king beds and en suite bathrooms) with energy-efficient insulation that exceeds local energy codes to keep guests cool in summer and warm in winter. In another twist on the standard glamping tent, Backland’s structures are made of thicker material that doesn’t flap in high winds, and boast panoramic windows that let nature in without, you know, bugs and leaves and dirt.
Other want-for-nothing details include a restaurant serving a seasonal menu for breakfast and dinner ($12-$50); on-site massages ($125/hour); kayaks and fishing gear (free); beach volleyball (free); evening s’mores around the firepit (free); and a lobby with concierge service, a fireplace, board games, and beer and wine.
But it’s not all about luxury here. Perhaps the only thing rivaling the untouched wilderness that hypnotizes the gaze in every direction is Backland’s ecological initiatives. Of the resort’s acreage, 90 percent is in its natural state – no manicured lawns to irrigate, no non-native landscaping – and the water conservation efforts extend to the bathrooms (low-flow faucets, showerheads and toilets) and restaurant (compostable dishware only). Additionally, Jeremy planted 2 acres of milkweed for monarch butterflies, with plans to add an apiary to support other pollinators like bees. Guests visiting this summer can see Backland’s cows, which Jeremy will introduce for holistic managed grazing.
“This is a beautiful piece of nature, and we aim to have a limited impact, and a positive impact, on the land,” Jeremy says. “We want to make it possible for people to see it for themselves in a comfortable way. That’s what glamping is all about.”
— Jessica Dunham
Side Trip Idea
Though you won’t want to leave Backland (like, ever), a quick jaunt to Williams plunks you down at Canyon Coaster Adventure Park (700 E. Route 66, 928-707-7729, canyoncoasteradventurepark.com) for summer downhill tubing ($10) and alpine coaster rides ($20) on Arizona’s only mountain coaster. The view from the top is worth a brief departure from your luxe glamping digs.
Cottonwood Wine Romp
The town’s titular trees are blooming in theatrically puffy fashion as we cruise AZ-89A into Cottonwood. Instead of continuing on to Main Street, where most of the area’s wine tasting rooms cluster like bunches of Grenache on the vine, we veer onto Willard Street and quickly come to Pillsbury Wine Company (315 S. Willard St., 928-639-0646, pillsburywine.com).
Winemaker Sam Pillsbury greets us at the entrance to his new tasting room, which opened in September 2022 in a historical home that originally belonged to the town’s mine manager. “I want you to walk into this house and feel comfortable,” he says in his soft Kiwi lilt. “I don’t want you to feel impressed.” It does feel like you’ve stumbled into somebody’s home – somebody who owns a lot of art (Pillsbury displays scads of pieces by his friends and family), who pours you wine while talking shop about phenolic content, and who has a charmingly spicy vocabulary (“We have a wine called Inappropriate. It’s named after me,” he deadpans.). Today, he’s raving about the new vegan cheese boards created by tasting room manager Val Fisch’s husband, Jason. “We’re just passionate about having something for everyone,” Fisch says as she walks us through the board: Swiss, Muenster, cheddar, smoked cheddar, maple-Dijon and a cheddar-pecan ball. Their textures aren’t dead ringers for the genuine articles, but their flavors are spot on. Pillsbury loves how they pair with his wines, which are also vegan. “I make what I call food wines, not cocktail wines,” he says. “I don’t want to make the biggest, juiciest, oakiest, strongest… you can’t taste food when you drink [those kinds of wine] because they’re so big.” This summer, they plan to have monthly chef specials, collaboration dinners and outdoor events on the 2-acre lot.
When we tell Fisch our next stop is Tantrum Wines (918 N. Main St., 928-634-2266, tantrumwines.com), her face lights up. “Wait until you see the inside,” she says. “I’m not going to say anything else, because I don’t want to ruin it.” It’s easy to miss while walking down Main Street, but once we enter, we see what she means. “I wanted it to look like a cross between Holly Golightly’s apartment and a Barbie house,” winemaker Brighid McLoughlin says. She succeeded. The ceiling is red; the lighting is soft; the chairs are vintage or velvet; there’s a pink-toned cityscape mural by Disney artist Tom Fish covering one wall; a corner is covered in faux greenery, pink flamingos and strands of lights; and the bathtub in the restroom is full of cotton balls and plastic bubbles.
“No leather, no barrels,” McLoughlin says of her tasting room, which opened in 2019. “I knew how I wanted it to feel, and I knew I wanted it to be about women and to really show the feminine side of winemaking.”
The femme vibe extends to her wines, which she imbues with distinct personas. “They all have their own personalities behind them, and each one of these is truly a lady,” she says. “She’s a real woman to me when I am visualizing what I want this wine to be.” Savvy (Sauvignon Blanc) is “high-toned and wears 6-inch heels every day.” Felicity (Petite Sirah) is “the instigator.” My favorite: Dolce, a sparkling Muscat made in true méthode champenoise style. “She’s sweet and bubbly… everyone likes her,” McLoughlin says. “Like Dolly Parton,” I say. “Yeah, I like that,” she answers.
Everyone also likes the twaffles at Four Eight Wineworks (816 N. Main St., 928-639-3516, four8wineworks.com), manager Shawn Roeller says. “It’s tater tots done in a waffle maker, and it’s topped with a little tomato jam, onion chutney and then our micro greens that we grow in our gardens.” This splendidly crunchy snack is the headliner of a stellar food menu (bruschetta, gelato and gourmet popcorn are also tops) at this bar-style tasting room that opened in November 2022 in an old bank building. Winemakers Maynard James Keenan and Tim White make a handful of wines for Four Eight, whose Cottonwood outpost will soon be part of a new HQ for all of MJK’s wine brands.
Roeller’s favorite: Legion. “They take, throughout the harvesting process, what they call the rebellious fruit” – grapes that ripen too soon or too late – “and mix them all together to create Legion, which means ‘one from many.’” Such a lovely metaphor.
My favorite is the canned Queen B Sparkling Orange Malvasia, a fizzy and floral “skin-contact” expression of the Malvasia Bianca grape. I buy a four-pack and we reluctantly leave the Verde Valley to head back to the Valley of the Sun.
— Leah LeMoine
Verde Valley Wine Festival
Sample pours from more than 20 Arizona wineries at the region’s premier wine and culinary festival. May 19-20. Tickets start at $35. Riverfront Park, 1284 E. River Front Rd., Cottonwood, verdevalleywinefestival.com
New Restaurant Roundup
When desert scrub and cacti yield to aspens and pines on the winding route up the I-17 North to Flagstaff, most people are thrilled at the prospect of cooler temps and outdoor activities – hiking in summer, snowboarding in winter. My system reacts differently. As soon as I touch my car window and feel coolness, a hunger pang snaps my tum to attention. We’re about to get some good food, it says. It’s always right.
Despite my familiarity with the Flag food scene – Brix, Proper Meats + Provisions, Tinderbox Kitchen and Tourist Home are some of my favorites – I’m always surprised and delighted to find new restaurants in the mix when I visit. On this trip, I found four.
We start with a bang at Forêt (2 S. Beaver St., 928-214-7280, foretflagstaff.com), a cozy but light-filled space abutting a thrift store. The French-inspired café (Forêt means “forest” en français) opened in August 2021, the brainchild of mother-son team Natasha and Sam Greenhalgh. Natasha was a Phoenix realtor for 25 years, while Sam went to culinary school and cooked at FnB and Clever Koi.
The seared brioche with house-made ricotta, citrus curd and seasonal fruit is a crisper, less sweet answer to French toast. I’m besotted with the planks of pillowy brioche, creamy ricotta and puckery curd. The egg and cheese croissant boasts a crackly, beautifully buttery pastry (Sam uses high-fat Plugrá butter when available) encasing soft-scrambled eggs and sharp cheddar. Eggs Benedict features smoked shoulder bacon and ancho-ham hollandaise, smoky from the pepper and the pork infusion.
I mostly find avocado toast to be a mushy snooze, but here I can’t put it down. Sam builds his like an architect, layering finely sliced avocado, shaved fennel and marinated heirloom cherry tomatoes on properly bronzed brioche. Topped with a fried egg, ancho chile, a sprightly herb salad and chive oil, it’s easily the best, most refined avocado toast I’ve ever had. “I was trained in French cooking,” Sam says. “I think French food is my favorite version of breakfast.” Forêt is slated to start dinner service four nights a week – Wednesday-Saturday – in April, so the French vibes will continue to dîner.
Our first lunch is at Teatro Italian Food & Wine (16 N. San Francisco St., 928-440-4519, teatroitalianfoodandwine.com), the newest concept from THAT Place Projects (Annex Cocktail Lounge, Tinderbox Kitchen) In a stunning space that used to be a theater, chef Art Bagdasaryan takes guests on a tour of Northern Italy with his ever-changing menu, subject to his creative whims, seasonality and guest feedback. We tuck into a bright salmon Caesar salad, creamy chicken pesto linguine, hearty spaghetti Bolognese, pan-seared salmon with spinach sauce and rice, and a meatball sandwich stacked with Provolone, arugula and tomato sauce on fresh ciabatta. It’s all quite tasty, and I’m intrigued to come back for dinner. Also on the hit list for next time: weekend brunch, which the restaurant is slated to debut this spring.
My partner is stuffed, but I’m pumped for a plant-based feast at Plantasia Eatery (126 W. Cottage Ave., 928-440-4902, facebook.com/plantasiaeatery), which opened in January in the historical home last occupied by The Cottage restaurant. Owner Cecily Maniaci grew up in her family’s steakhouse in Tusayan and opened her own restaurant, The Toasted Owl Café, in Flagstaff years later. After adopting a plant-based lifestyle to treat her diabetes, she decided to open Plantasia, which is surprisingly only the third all-vegan restaurant in this famously crunchy college town. She entrusts the menu to executive chef Amanda Braun and sous chef Ian Long, who craft vegan versions of the food they loved and “missed being able to find as vegans,” Braun says. To wit: a crunchy, herb-packed tofu banh mi; black bean and impressively convincing faux chicken nachos dripping with rich “cheese” sauce; hemp tamales that boast the moisture of their lard-based brethren; Buffalo cauliflower wings with zesty ranch (even my carnivorous fella loved them); carrot cake with “cream cheese” frosting; house-made cocktails; and a great vegan wine list.
After a disco nap at High Country Motor Lodge, we venture back downtown for dinner at Atria (103 N. Leroux St., 928-440-4377, atriarestaurant.com). Walking in, I’m struck by its beauty. It’s among the most gorgeous restaurants I’ve ever dined in. Its palette of roses, berries, peaches and creams and soft lighting lend a blushing glow to everyone and everything – including the food, crafted by chef Rochelle Daniel, a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist for emerging chef of the year. She treats us to the tasting menu, sending out course after course of meticulously prepared and artfully presented bites. An oyster with apple, ginger and hibiscus granita is nestled on a swirl of seaweed. Coal-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese, tahini dressing, herb oil and pepita crumble take center stage on a painterly pale fuchsia plate. Luscious duck with cauliflower purée and a flower-shaped tuile are set atop a plate that looks like a geode. Aesthetics and taste are equally prized at Atria, with each enhancing the other.
My favorite dish is a petite bowl of tangy broth with specks of crunchy pita crumbs, minced cucumber and tomato, and pasta pillows full of braised lamb. The taste sensation is like eating a gyro – seasoned meat, tart pickle, juicy tomato, cucumber-rich tzatziki, pita – but in soup form. My mind is blown. The splendid pasta makes me want to return to gorge on Daniel’s other specialty: hand-made pasta, like the tagliatellini cacio e pepe and the duck and robiola doppio ravioli. Add Atria to my ever-growing list of Flagstaff favorites.
— Leah LeMoine
Hiking the Mogollon Rim
The phrase “old Mormon wagon trail” may conjure a sense of effortlessness among hikers, with all its implications of flatness, stability and twin-tracked ease of travel. But that idea simply doesn’t apply to the Highline National Recreation Trail, which hugs the Mogollon Rim and offers some of the most spectacular and challenging hiking in Arizona. If you hike the 17-mile segment of the trail that connects the headwaters of the East Verde River to the town of Pine – a quad-burning wander that takes about eight hours each way – you’ll get lots of up-and-down, plenty of stream crossings, an abundance of solitude, as much ochre earth as you’ll see in Sedona, an intriguing floral mix of desert plants and pines, and a glimpse of the high country that is exactly what you would have gotten in territorial days. “Knobs of craggy rock thrust up, with occasional ridges showing bare spines to the westward where the timber thinned out and the country finally became desert,” is how Louis L’Amour described this part of Arizona in his novel The Sackett Brand, and that description is as good as it ever was.
Cattlemen who heeded Brigham Young’s call for Latter-day Saints to go settle the Mogollon Rim in the 1870s needed a way to stay in touch with each other and trade livestock, so they blazed the Highline about two-thirds of the way down the escarpment. You can pick it up by parking at the Washington Park Trailhead, about 40 minutes north of Payson, while marveling at the glades created by the fresh water emerging from the geological fracture of the Rim. These are the headwaters of the East Verde River. In here, it seems as wet as Ireland. A bridge made of metal and wood will take you on a highly recommended warm-up loop through a series of small waterfalls and pools. If you go a bit further, you can see the remnants of an ill-advised tunnel that a railroad entrepreneur named James Eddy tried to carve through the Rim. He made it only about a hundred feet before quitting.
The real business of the Highline starts to the west, as the trail crumbles and turns the color of burnt umber. That’s granite. But even as the trail flings open its curtain on vistas of the Mazatzal Mountains that look as wide and operatic as any mural painted by Diego Rivera, the passage contains its secrets. When it bends into one of the many crinkles on the Rim, the land seems to abruptly fold in and become more intimate, even a bit moody and claustrophobic. Back here in the silences, you’ll see old corrals nearly lost in the overgrown scrub; tufts of pink Apache Plume; faint paths up creek beds blazed by thirsty deer; clusters of ironwood and piñon tucked away in little side canyons, their branches interlaced.
Soon, you’ll pass close to the dramatic shelf of Milk Ranch Point, named for a dairy operation that supplied workers on the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad that built the first steel-rail connections across Northern Arizona. One last tough ascent, and then it’s a leisurely cruise down to the trailhead just south of the town of Pine, an uncommonly rich place to dine and drink after your journey (see sidebar).
If you don’t have a ride back to the trailhead, you can find plenty of dispersed camping on federal land to the west of Pine by following Hardscrabble Mesa Road out of town for about a half-mile. And the 17-mile return is just as spectacular as the way in.
— Tom Zoellner
How to Get There
Head north from Payson on Arizona SR 87, then turn right on Houston Mesa Rd. (FR 199). After roughly 7 miles, turn left on Control Rd. (FR 64), and then right on Forest Road 32, which you follow until it dead-ends at the Washington Park Trailhead.
Après-Hike Refreshment in Pine
THAT Brewery & Pub
Steve and Tamara Morken pour one of the state’s premier nut brown ales at their 19-year-old taproom, crafted with local pinecones. 3270 N. AZ 87, thatbrewery.com
Old County Inn
Neapolitan-style, woodfired pizza is the thing at this upscale Pine pub. Our favorite: the “meat pie” with smoked pepperoni and house bacon. Pair it with a craft Manhattan cocktail. 3502 N. AZ 87, oldcountyinn.com
Early Bird Café
If you crash for the night and need breakfast, this on-point mom-and-pop diner has all the gravy-slathered biscuits and two-egg combos you need. 3618 AZ 87, facebook.com/theearlybirdcafepine