I sit, contented and amazed amid the music and the mysteries. I am perched upon a water-smooth granite sculpture, light rock veined with a great ribbon of blue-black. The East Verde River splashes through a series of pools just in front of me.
On my right, a tributary creek cascades into the larger flow — tinted turquoise blue with travertine — dissolved limestone laid down on some long-vanished sea bottom.
Overhead, a summer monsoon is gathering — working itself up to something spectacular. The stripped electrons have not quite built up sufficiently in the roiling clouds to begin the lightning display.
In the pool in front of me, trout have begun to rise experimentally — testing the floating flies and the darting larva of one of the Southwest’s best little streams — spring-fed and undammed.
The moment is perfect. I’m in heaven, high on the negative ions wafting up from the little waterfalls.
At just this moment, a big elk emerges from the thick screen of trees upstream.
He pauses, sniffing the air. Then he turns his ponderous antlered head toward me and regards me with wary disdain.
I just shake my head.
There goes God: Overdoing again.
That often happens to me here in Rim Country, where I’ve rooted after a long, tumbleweed roll through my life.
For the years upon years I wrote for newspapers in big cities, I lived for moments like this. I would save up my vacation time, I would finagle freelance assignments, I would sneak in long drives to lost places. All that so I could engineer such moments once a month or so, some alignment of the planets that would deposit me on such a rock in such a moment.
Now, I can do it every day after work — usually where I stop to fish on my way home from the office.
Funny how life works out. I’m with John Lennon, who observed: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
I never planned to end up here in Payson, working for a twice weekly newspaper. Why, heck: I was editor of Arizona Highways magazine, after a career that included working on the faculty at Arizona State University and jobs as a science writer, political writer, investigative reporter and other odds and ends at big newspapers — like the Oakland Tribune, The Arizona Republic and the Contra Costa Times. But then I got sideways with a publisher — the almost inescapable fate of editors. Soon I found myself looking for work as the newspaper industry I loved so dearly collapsed all around me.
Then along comes the Payson Roundup, offering me a soft place to fall.
I’d traveled all over Arizona in 15 years of writing travel articles about every nook and cranny in this state. Thought I knew all the secret places. But all I’d ever done in Payson was fill my gas tank and get a burger on my way to someplace cool.
But hey: Gotta work — any rowboat in a flood is my motto.
And now two years later, here I sit — the sound of water all around as I receive the Blessing of the Elk, just before the storm. Looking for a shelter, I stumbled onto the place I’d been searching for all my life, not knowing it.
Now, just for emphasis, a big old rainbow clears the water in front of me, falling back to the stream with a glad splash.
Thank you Lord, for my many belly flops. I don’t know why You are so good to me: But I surely do appreciate it.
So, I thought I would share the blessing a little — and offer you a list of my eight favorite places in Rim Country, whether you’re a lucky resident or an inquisitive visitor.
But before I reveal the places close to my heart, you have to take a little test. So please answer the following questions with complete honesty:
Have you ever left an empty beer can at a campsite?
Have you ever caught a fish, killed it carelessly, and left it to rot?
Have you ever tossed a cigarette out a car window?
Have you ever left a campfire still too warm to touch — or even thought you did without going back to check?
If you’re driving past a spectacular sunset, do you keep going so you won’t get home too late?
If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, please don’t read any further. Just put the paper down. Go do something else. Heck, I hear Sedona’s nice this time of year.
Go there: find a vortex. Chill.
All right. So, like — you all answered no to all five questions? Right?
OK. Then I’ll tell you — because you get it. Here are eight of my favorite places in Rim Country:
East Verde River
An all-but-unknown treasure, not counting the locals who live along its banks. The river gushes from a spring up above Washington Park, runs for 15 miles along Houston Mesa Road, crosses the highway at Flowing Springs Road, flows past East Verde Estates and on down through miles of wilderness canyon far from the road. You can fish and hike, splash about at several sites along Houston Mesa and Flowing Springs Roads, just outside of Payson. The Salt River Project is now releasing 40 cubic feet per second into the stream at Washington Park, which has dramatically increased its flows and left the water clear and clean and cold. It’s a treasure: please protect it.
From Payson, head east up Highway 260 through Star Valley toward the Mogollon Rim. In about 18 miles, you’ll come to Tonto Creek. If you turn north off the highway, you’ll follow a dirt road up and along the trout-stocked creek. Eventually, you’ll hit the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, which produces the fish that stock all of the Rim Country streams. You can take a tour of the hatchery. You can find places to park all along that road leading up to the hatchery and head down to the creek. The creek gets heavy use during summer weekends, but even then you can hike up and down the creek and find your own little swimming hole. Alternatively, you can turn off Highway 260 before you get to the hatchery road and make your way down the narrow dirt road to Bear Flat, where you can evade some of the crowds on prime weekends.
Drive through Pine and take the Fossil Creek Road turnoff that leads through Strawberry. Stick to that road after it turns to dirt, brace yourself for the narrow, hair-pinned dirt road — where you have to pull to the side to let other traffic pass and get yourself down to Fossil Creek.
About five years ago, Arizona Public Service shut down a hydroelectric plant that had diverted the spring-fed waters of the creek from its bed for a century, which created one of the most remarkable places in Arizona. The gushing spring is laden with travertine, dissolved limestone that forms dams and drip castles — and tints the long succession of crystal-clear, turquoise-blue pools. The stream had become one of the best refuges in the world for native fish like Verde Trout, Headwater Chub and Sonoran Suckers. The Forest Service has banned camping and fires near the creek to protect it from heavy use. Make sure you never leave without hauling out a bag full of litter left by the idiots.
Forest Road 300
About 30 miles northeast of Payson, Highway 260 tops out on the Mogollon Rim — a 200-mile long chain of 1,000-foot-high limestone cliffs that defines the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Right after you top out, you cross Forest Road 300. This historic wagon trail hugs the edge of the Rim in both directions. Go right, and you skirt the White Mountain Apache Reservation and end up in Show Low. Go left and you pass a couple of beautiful lakes and wind for miles along the edge of forever before rejoining the pavement just above Pine. Spectacular views either way — and lot of vivid history.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
The world’s largest natural travertine arch lies about halfway between Pine and Strawberry. Threatened repeatedly by closure due to the state budget crisis, the park will remain open five days a week all summer with help from the town of Payson. The park features a historic, century-old lodge, grassy expanses where deer and javelina browse, and a short, steep trail down to the massive, cavernous tunnel-like arch dissolved in a great dam of limestone by the fitful but persistent waters of Pine Creek. The limestone formed originally from the bodies of sea creatures in the bottom of an inland sea. The limestone was fused and uplifted, after which water moving through fissures dissolved the limestone and re-deposited as a great dam that attempted to thwart Pine Creek. Instead, the creek chewed a hole through the center of the massive wall of travertine and went a burbling on its way.
Cracker Jack Mine Road
Pick up this long, sometimes rough dirt road just outside of Payson as you head toward Pine. It’s the only dirt road turnoff from the highway dignified by a stop sign. The road leads through the woods down to the East Verde River, crosses the river, then continues along the high plateau as it winds down toward another crossing of the Verde River at Doll Baby Ranch. The road demands a high clearance vehicle — preferably with four-wheel drive. It’s treacherously muddy in the spring or after a big rain — don’t go near it when it’s wet. But otherwise, it provides a scenic, relatively unvisited backroad adventure, with access to water at several points.
Willow Springs Lake
One of a string of popular man-made lakes on top of the Rim. Other equally alluring lakes include Knoll, Bear Canyon and Woods Canyon. All lakes feature easy access and lots of stocked trout all summer long. Most have campgrounds and other developed facilities. I like Willow Springs because the fishing opportunities are more varied and its not as heavily used as Woods Canyon or some of the others. The campground at Willow Springs has 26 campsites, which fill up every weekend.
Horton Springs Trail
The popular, but intermittently strenuous hike along Horton Creek offers one of the best hikes in Rim Country. You start at Horton Campground alongside Tonto Creek, hike up to the gushing spring that feeds Horton Creek, then return to Horton Creek Campground on the longer, drier Derrick Trail. All told, that loop covers almost 10 miles and should take all day to accomplish. Along the way, you’ll gain and lose about 1,000 feet in elevation.