Awash in flatlanders — one last weekend.
How’d that happen: Labor Day? Already?
Where’d summer go? Seems like the trees just flushed with leaves, the monsoons just smashed up against the Rim, the swimming holes hardly got used.
What to do? What to do?
Rim Country residents are bracing for the final rush of summer, as campgrounds — and hopefully hotels and restaurants — fill with thousands of Valley residents intent on the final fling of summer.
One Forest Service ranger predicted a busy weekend, advising anyone to bring their own rock to sit on if they planned to fish any of the Rim lakes.
So here’s a completely idiosyncratic guide to what you can do this weekend — whether you’re trying to impress grandkids and Valley refugees or find something to do yourself. In short, we offer here an incomplete list of our favorite places in Rim Country.
But first, a word of advice: Don’t leave this paper lying around where out-of-towners will find it. This piece includes some sacred knowledge for people from the right zip code. You don’t necessarily want the flatlanders to look upon such deep wisdom. At the best, they’ll wanna move up here. At worst, their poor urbanized heads will explode. Either way, could wreck your weekend.
10 Great Things to do in Rim Country
So, let’s say you’ve got a mixed group of guests with you for a couple of days. What should you do with the poor dears, half-baked from a summer of record Valley temperatures? Here’s 10 things —do as many as you can.
East Verde River: Now, this might freak them out a little, since it looks muddy thanks to monsoon runoff and isn’t chlorinated. But the East Verde has some great swimming holes and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish this week stocked it with some monster trout. The trick lies mostly in finding some places to splash about that aren’t overrun with heat stroke refugees from down south. The campsites along Flowing Springs Road and up by Whispering Pines have undoubtedly already filled up. The best single swimming hole remains Water Wheel. Just park in the new day use area, pay your irritating fee, then hike half a mile upstream to the big pools and waterfall. Will probably be crowded — so you might want to keep going above the falls to where you might be able to find a semi-private pool.
Alternatively, you can go down Crackerjack Road to where it eventually crosses the stream and then wander off downstream for some splashing about spots. You can also get good river access off Flowing Springs Road, but that’s usually pretty overrun.
Tonto Creek: Higher, cooler and clear, Tonto Creek offers more shade, better fishing and camping spots than the East Verde, since it’s overhung by pine trees instead of sycamores.
However, you’ll have to contend with the crowds on a holiday weekend. Game and Fish filled pools along the recently renovated stream with giant trout this week, but expect intense fishing pressure. Smoke from the controlled burns that have closed off the popular Horton Creek Trail was pretty thick midweek, but may have dissipated by the weekend. You can escape a lot of the people by driving down to Bear Flats — or by parking near the hatchery and then heading over to the upper reaches of the creek.
Tonto Natural Bridge: Pine Creek has dissolved an immense, cavernous tunnel through a massive cliff of travertine. The state park should hopefully get a crowd this weekend, but that won’t spoil the place for most visitors.
You can appreciate the historic lodge, with some displays on the fascinating history of the place. Reportedly, a settler hid out in the caverns from an Apache raiding party and then decided to homestead the creek. The steep walk down to the stream and the meander through the damp, cool, echoes of the world’s largest travertine arch makes for a memorable adventure. Definitely worth doing.
Mountain Biking Heaven: Rim Country has a wealth of great bike trails — from easy to highly technical. In the easy category, check out the flat trail that runs along the Mogollon Rim off Highway 260, with an unending succession of 200-mile views to the south.
You can also ride for miles along Crackerjack Road — the dirt road marked by a stop sign just east of Payson off Highway 87 before you get to the East Verde River. Finally, you can test your skills on the newly improved, highly technical trail out of Pine used for the recent Fire on the Rim mountain bike race.
Hiking: The Highline Trail runs for some 40 miles along the base of the Rim, with road access to the trail in several places. Some stretches thread through deep forest and pass by refreshing streams — some thread through chaparral in the hot sun. Check out a map for access to the various segments.
For the shoppers: For people who like activities that don’t involve sweating or getting wet, consider an afternoon browse through Pine, where the annual Labor Day arts and crafts festival is this weekend.
Get some intense, mesquite or camelthorn honey. Then stop to browse the two or three funky antique shops in town — some on the main drag, some off Hardscrabble Road. Also in Payson on the weekend, check out Western Village on the south end of town, right on the Beeline Highway.
Great Drive: If you’ve got half a day to spend, hard to beat the 35-mile drive along the edge of the Mogollon Rim on historic Forest Road 300, which follows the Crook Trail that once linked Camp Verde with Fort Apache during the tragic Apache Wars of the late 1800s.
The road leaves Highway 260 where it tops out onto the Rim, a line of cliffs caused by the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, which formed both the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. The lake wanders past some of the best fishing and camping lakes in Arizona — including Bear Canyon, Woods Canyon, Knoll, Willow Springs. The dirt road hugs the Rim all the way to the highway above Pine, with spectacular views and access to scenic campsites.
For the eaters: Rim Country is blessed with a wealth of good restaurants. Here’s a couple of favorites, in different categories. For a great value on breakfast, try the Beeline Café. For a gourmet breakfast, try the Small Café. For a great lunch, try 260 Café, Cardo’s, El Rancho, the Crosswinds at the airport, or Macky’s Grill. For dinner, don’t miss Randall House in Pine, Fargo’s in Payson, Diamond Point in Star Valley or Ayothaya Thai Café in Payson.
Night Life: All right. We’ll admit it, the options are limited when it comes to the night life — unless you’re big on counting shooting stars and actually being able to see the Milky Way (try driving out Flowing Springs Road or Houston Mesa Road to get away from the lights of Payson). But the Buffalo Bar and Grill in Payson has a little dance floor and live music on the weekends. So does the Mazatzal Casino, which blinks, buzzes and rocks through the weekend and has a high-quality, low-cost bar and restaurant to match.
Fossil Creek: Although this travertine tinted, spring-fed stream remains one of the most beautiful places in Arizona, holiday weekend crowds might cause more hassle than joy.
Besides, unless you head down Fossil Creek Road from Strawberry before about 9 a.m., the Forest Service probably won’t let you actually descend into the canyon — since the limited number of parking spaces in the bottom go quickly.
You can probably hike down on the Fossil Creek Trail, so long as you’re in good shape with lots of water. Search and Rescue Teams have to haul people out who underestimated the rigors pretty much every weekend.
On the other hand, you can head toward Fossil Creek — and when you hit the Forest Service road block, turn instead to the always reliable pleasures of the Fossil Creek Creamery, with its gourmet goat cheese and every-so-sinful fudge.
While you’re there, rent a horse next door and enjoy the view from horseback.