The drive along Highway 260 from Payson to the top of the Mogollon Rim offers visitors some of the Rim country's most scenic vistas, especially when accented by fall colors or coated with a fresh layer of snow.
The highway meanders past the quaint communities of Kohl's Ranch, Tonto Village and Christopher Creek -- all outstanding starting points for fall and winter recreational opportunities.
Historic Kohl's Ranch Lodge is located on the banks of Tonto Creek in the largest Ponderosa pine forest in the world. This area was made famous by Zane Grey in many of his western novels. Welcoming Payson area pioneers and visitors since 1924, Kohl's Ranch Lodge has been a sought-after sight to many a weary traveler to the Mogollon Rim. The original patent on the property was granted to Mr. Lewis Kohl. He and his family lived in a large "dwelling house" built by a previous settler.
Kohl and his wife, Neecie, decided to start renting rooms to the hunters, fishermen and miners who traveled the wagon trail to the Rim. Neecie served three meals a day and rang a big dinner bell when the food was ready.
Over the years, the home-cooked meals and warm hospitality of the Kohls won them many friends. The ranch became the favorite gathering place for Saturday night dances, weddings, potluck dinners and goat roping contests.
Today that tradition continues. While the old dance hall is gone, Kohl's Ranch remains one of the most popular places in the Rim country. The A-frame main lodge, with its oversized river-rock fireplace, overstuffed leather chairs, library, game area and balcony is a favorite gathering place for visitors and guests.
The lodge rooms offer a variety of amenities, some with fireplaces and kitchenettes, all with an outdoor patio.The one and two-bedroom creekside cabins overlook Tonto Creek from redwood viewing decks complete with private whirlpool tubs.
Although the property is a timeshare, rooms are available to the public. Winter rates range from $95 for a lodge room, up to $1,000 a night for the most exclusive cabin.
Horseback riding is available year-round at Kohl's Ranch Stables. Guests also can fish for trout, go mountain biking, enjoy a swim in the resort's heated pool, relax in the whirlpool or sauna, sharpen your skills on the putting green, cavort on the sports court, or work out in the mini-fitness center. For those quiet winter moments, borrow a book from the Zane Grey Library and curl up by the fireplace.
There's a nearby hill that's perfect for sledding when there's snow on the ground, and cross-country skiing is available at nearby Forest Lakes. On Saturdays, a full range of supervised activities is available for children, including snowman-building contests fishing lessons, treasure hunts, nature walks, crafts, movies, kid's bingo, and bug hunts. Kohl's Ranch also has a playground.
Other recreational options include paddle tennis, pool, horseshoes, basketball, volleyball, bocce ball, shuffleboard. There's even an outdoor wedding chapel.
Pets are welcome everywhere but in the guest rooms. The resort has kennels for smaller pets and horse stalls for larger ones.
Besides a wonderful restaurant offering enticing breakfast, lunch and dinner choices, Kohl's Ranch also provides live entertainment on Saturday nights. Special fall and winter dining events include Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter buffets, New Years Eve extravaganza and Valentine's sweetheart dinner.
A miniature village in the Kohl's Ranch lobby makes a glorious Christmas scene.
This hamlet nestled under the Mogollon Rim gives sightseers a panoramic view of the mountains and meadows. It's a place to remember what it's like to be civilized in the wilderness, an opportunity to explore a simpler, purer path.
Christopher Creek is for people who want to hear the wind in the high mountain forest, the rushing water of pristine mountain streams, or the bugle of a Rocky Mountain Elk. It's a place to feel the joy of leaving no tracks.
Of course, the forest is open in the fall and winter and visitors to this scenic community make the most of it.
Fall colors peak on Oct. 18, Susan Keown said. They usually last about four weeks. Local businesses have maps showing the best places to hike and drive to enjoy the color season.
In the winter, people stay in Christopher Creek to enjoy cross-country skiing at Forest Lakes, or sledding at any of a number of nearby hilly locations.
"It's beautiful with the snow," Debi Aschbrenner said. "We've got that hard-pack snow that's great for snowmen, sledding, everything."
"It's fun to bring kids up who have never seen snow just to play in it, even if it's just parking off the side of Colcord Road to build a snowman," Keown added.
Ice fishing is growing in popularity too.
"The easiest spot to get to go ice fishing is Willow Springs Lake," Keown said.
But there's also a lot to be said for a cozy fireplace or a great meal at one of Christopher Creek's two popular restaurants, the Creekside and the Landmark.
Aschbrenner hopes to offer live holiday music and plans to hold a hot chocolate tasting during the holiday season. Christopher Creek is also one of the best places to enjoy outdoor holiday lighting as merchants and residents create a memorable display.
For the latest information on events and weather, go to christophercreekarizona.com or call Aschbrenner at (928) 478-4550.