Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, AZ

As we approached the final day of our 700-mile tour of Arizona’s high country, Eleanor and I found ourselves a little reluctant to contemplate going home.  The weather was fine and I had only a little work pressing me to return by Monday morning.  Our budget was holding out very nicely too:  about $50 in fuel, one night of motel, and a couple of inexpensive meals were the total of our expenses.  Another night would cost us virtually nothing, whether measured in money, lost work opportunities, or any other factor we could think of.

The real limitation was that we were running out of high country.  Our third night was spent near the Mogollon Rim at the west end.  From there, Rt 87 dips down to the towns of Strawberry, Pine, and Payson, all at elevations of about 4,500-5,000 feet.  Although that was still moderately high altitude, it would be hotter than we wanted for tent camping.   Our other option was to head north into the vast Coconino National Forest and stay at 7,000 to 8,000 feet, but such a detour would add two days to our itinerary, and that was too much time for me to skip work.

We puttered around for a while, but eventually decided that we’d make a very full day of going back to Tucson, with a big stop at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (north of Payson), and anything else along the way that caught our eye.  (Click here for map from Kehl Springs Camp to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.)

Tonto Natural Bridge had been on our “to do” list ever since we first came through this area with the Airstream Safari in May 2007.  The entrance road to Tonto has a very clear warning of a 14% grade, and to emphasize the point, a “trailer drop off area.”  In our first visit we weren’t inclined to drop off the trailer, so we just parked there for lunch and then moved on without having visited the park.  I’ve wondered if we could have done that grade with the trailer, so last week’s trip with the Honda was our chance to investigate it without any risk.

I’m glad we heeded the sign.  The 14% grade is real, and it’s probably a little over a mile long.  There are a couple of tight turns, and — the real killer — no RV/trailer parking in the lot.  Don’t bring your rig down.  Due to limited space in the parking area, you might have trouble turning it around to get back up!

As you may know, Arizona is one of many states with a budget crisis.  Our legislators robbed the “dedicated” funds for state parks over the past two years (a total of $71 million!) leaving the park system underfunded and in danger of collapse.   One-third of the state parks were closed in April 2010.  Since then, a combination of increased fees at state parks and contributions by nearby towns and private organizations have allowed some of the parks to re-open.  It’s pretty sad when the park system — a profit-making enterprise for the state as well as a critical cultural and recreational resource — is so mistreated by the legislature that towns have to run fundraisers to keep their state parks from being shut down completely.

When we arrived, the impact was apparent.  Entry fee is now $5 per person (up from $3), and the park is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.  We contemplated getting an annual state parks pass ($75, or $200 if you want to visit the Colorado River parks on weekends).  We’ve always supported our national park system by buying an annual National Parks Pass, for $80 every year.  But we realized the Arizona State Parks Pass was an iffy value if, at any time, the state might choose to shut down a third of the parks again.  There’s no guarantee that any of the parks will be open later this year, since 23 of them are now dependent on local community support and that funding carried them only through the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010.

So we skipped the Arizona State Parks Pass.  That was a sad moment for me, because I know that many other people will skip the pass as well, for the same reason, and that will only deepen the financial crisis.  But if I bought the pass, would I be assured my money would go to the state park system and not be “swept” or “diverted” (i.e., stolen) by the state legislature to fund something else?  Maybe I’d be better off buying a lot of cupcakes at the next Town of Payson community bake sale.


Enough of that.  We were here to visit the natural bridge, not talk about politics.  So we chatted with the volunteers managing the cash register and headed down to the parking area to begin exploring.   The park is centered on a deep travertine canyon with a small stream running through it.  The stream carves through a massive natural bridge which you can scramble beneath from a canyon trail. Uniquely, there is also a small waterfall from atop the bridge as well, for added poetry in a place that is already abundant with beauty.

tonto-natural-bridge-canyon.jpgI simply can’t do justice to this place in a couple of blog photos, so I’ve put an album up on Flickr with a better selection.  It is an impossible place to capture in any single photo, since every view offers a completely different take on this gorgeous place. But here’s a bit of advice:  don’t be so blown away by the grand views that you fail to notice the little details in the canyon.   We saw fabulous cave-like formations in the travertine walls, swallows nesting up high, fresh-water crawfish scuttling around the pools down below, brilliant yellow century plants in bloom, and much more.

tonto-natural-bridge-waterfall.jpgTo really see all that Tonto Natural Bridge has to offer, you must make the effort to climb down into the canyon and hike along the stream through the tunnel beneath the bridge.  I recommend  going down the Pine Creek or Anna Mae trails (steep) to the river canyon, scrambling through the tunnel, and coming back up on the shallower Waterfall Trail.  And hurry:  at last report, Tonto is scheduled to close on September 27, 2010.

It was well into the 90’s even at Tonto, elevation 4500 feet, so we knew to expect plenty of heat by the time we got to the Phoenix area.  But the road had one last adventure for us, the incredible Rt 87 “Beeline Highway” from the point south of Payson where Rt 188 splits off, southwest to Mesa. “Beeline” is a misnomer, as the road twists and rolls through high desert for fifty miles to Ft McDowell and Mesa.  But I suppose that’s in keeping with the fact that it passes through a section of the Tonto National Forest that has no trees.  Even though the Beeline was fairly swarming with pickup campers and boat trailers (from Roosevelt Lake) heading home on Sunday afternoon, I had a fun time zipping down it in the Honda Fit.  By dinnertime, we were back in Tucson … and thinking about where we might go next.

Mogollon Rim

One of the things I like best about Arizona is that it is so diverse.  People who haven’t really explored it often assume the state is one giant barren desert of scorching sand.  If you only flew into Phoenix for a short trip, you might easily be forgiven for that mistake.  The state is so huge that you have to allow a lot of time in order to see even a tiny fraction of what it has to offer.

az-route.jpgThat was a big motivation for making the recent tent camping trip that I’ve been describing over the past few blog posts.  We are now officially Arizona residents, complete with drivers licenses, vehicle registrations, and (soon) voter registrations.  This is our home base between Airstream trips.  I want to know this place that I’m calling home.  So I mapped out a 700-mile round-robin (click map for larger view) to see the high-altitude parts of northern Arizona that we never venture near during the winter.

Our trip started up the Devil’s Highway (Rt 191) through Arizona’s White Mountains, and then brought us across the Mogollon Rim, staying almost exclusively above 7,000 feet elevation.  This is the gorgeous green part of Arizona, where pines and black bears and tourists all flourish in the summertime.


The Rim, the focus of today’s adventure, bears some explanation, as it is not nearly as well known as the Grand Canyon to the northwest.  But it is nearly as grand.  It is a 200-mile long escarpment, sharply defining the edge of the high plateau.  As you can imagine, standing at almost any point along the edge of the Rim yields fantastic views to the south, perhaps even more stunning in some ways than the Grand Canyon because you can often see five or more forested mountain ranges in succession over distances of up to a hundred miles.

rim-view1.jpgTo enjoy the view, you need only drive up Rt 260 from Payson and stop at the visitor center just at the top edge of the rim.  But to really see the Mogollon’s many views, you’ll need to drive on some gravelly National Forest roads, namely FR300, and grit your teeth against the dust and constant jarring.  This probably explains why the Mogollon Rim does not have the stature of certain other western sights.  You have to really want to see it, and there are no signs along the paved highway indicating, “Turn this way for awesome views!”

rim-view2.jpgWe drove almost all of FR300, about 38 miles in total.  With regular stops for photo and exploring, the trip took over two hours. Most of the travelers along this way are in pickup trucks, so our lowly Honda stuck out, but there’s no need for a high clearance or 4WD vehicle in good weather.  The key is to go slowly, but why would you rush?  Every turn yields an astonishing view from the Rim.

Bring a good map.  The Forest Roads form a maze along the Rim, and Mapquest is not your best tool when planning this trip.  It’s easy to stick to FR300 all the way (signage is good) but without a map you’ll be hard-pressed to figure out how to get back to pavement, should you wish to cut the trip short.  Otherwise, it’s a long rugged drive from one end to the other.

rim-view3.jpgCamping is available at many spots along the rim.  With a few exceptions, you can camp anywhere within 300 feet of a road.  Toward the eastern end of the road are several established campgrounds, all of which were mobbed on this Saturday of peak season.  Ten to fifteen miles further west, the crowds disappeared and so did the campgrounds, but we spotted dozens of incredible single tent sites right on the edge of the rim.  At a few, you could hang your feet out of the tent door and your toes would be dangling in mid-air.  Most of the sites were occupied, but we passed a few others we could have snagged. The memory of the previous night’s huge thunderstorms were fresh in our minds, and we didn’t want to choose a campsite atop an exposed 7000-foot elevation escarpment if those storms returned again.  This time, we were going for something in the trees.


Kehl Springs camp fit the bill.  This old National Forest camp sits in a little valley, well sheltered from storms and apparently less-loved by campers than boondock spots along the maze of Forest Roads.  We were only the second occupants of this 8-site campground.  I can’t imagine why — it was shady and quiet, with the benefit of pit toilets nearby (but no water), and like our previous camp it was free.

butterfly-at-kehl-springs.jpgThis was perhaps the best night of the trip.  We arrived at camp hours before sunset, with absolutely nothing to do.  The sun was shining through the trees and the air was scented with pine, fairly dry and beautifully cool.  As often happens in western camping, there were no biting insects, either, just lots of friendly butterflies.

So lacking anything structured to do with our time — the essence of vacation — we proceeded to make camp, pitching our tent just inches from the biggest tall pines at the campsite.  We read our paperback books at the picnic table and made an Indian dinner over the camp stove with the gas lantern hissing in the background.  It may not seem very traditional to be eating Trader Joe’s Indian food at camp, but we liked it just fine.

This was to be our last night above the Rim.  Knowing that it would be well over 100 degrees by the time we reached the desert floor, it was hard to contemplate leaving this forested oasis.  But at least we were rewarded on our final night with light cool breezes, a peaceful night among the trees, and no thunderstorms.

Exploring the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest

eleanor-hunting-bear.jpgIn the morning after our near-encounter with the black bear, we decided to redeem ourselves by searching for signs of bear activity near the campground.  If there were trash, food, or other human debris around, those things might help explain the presence of bears.  But the campground was clean, and the bear-resistant trash cans seemed to be intact.

It was hard to say where the roaring sound came from exactly, but we took a guess and hiked up the hill across the road.  As frequent hikers, we’ve been accustomed to identifying animal scat along the trail, and I was hoping to see some fresh bear scat.  (Because you know he does it in the woods.) But our bear didn’t leave such a clue.  We found plenty of horse manure (there is a horse trail nearby), cattle manure (free range, at least at one time), and elk droppings.

Looking for bear scat always reminds me of the joke about the guy who sells bear bells to hikers.  He say they work pretty well for scaring off black bears, but not so well for grizzly bears.  Fortunately, you can tell if there are grizzlies in the area by identifying their scat.  Black bear scat has berries in it, and grizzly bear scat has bells in it.

The other clue we were seeking was claw marks on trees.  We’ve seen those many times in other forests, but again, nothing here.  Was our bear a tourist like us?

Further up the Devil’s Highway, we stopped at an overlook of the Blue Range Primitive Area. You just can’t stop seeing fantastic views in this part of the country.  Eventually the road starts to wind down a little, rolling through gorgeous and peaceful areas like Hannagan’s Meadow, and eventually to the misty town of Alpine.

Alpine is a little piece of Montana plunked down in Arizona.  It’s small, rustic, and scattered with cabins.  Accounting for the altitude, coming up here is the equivalent of traveling up to the Canadian border, and you can see signs of that everywhere.  Buildings are made from logs.  Eaves and pavements show the slightly rotted hints of a long hard winter.  Green meadows and tall forests cover the rolling hills.  Nothing is like the hot desert down below in southern Arizona.  We decided to have a second breakfast at the Bear Wallow Cafe, just because we could, and to enjoy the feeling of having gone to a completely different climate/culture/community seemingly 1,000 miles north of home base.

North of Alpine is the crossroads town of Springerville, best known for the ancient ruins called Casa Malpais.  The ruins have been the subject of much controversy since they were discovered, re-discovered, and then partially re-buried for preservation purposes.  You can take a tour from the community center daily for $8, but we arrived just after a tour and didn’t want to wait a few hours for the next one.  Even still, the little free museum and video presentation were worth the stop, along with the extremely helpful volunteer who was staffing the place.

From Springerville we finally exited Rt 191 and switched to a westerly course along Rt 260.  This road brings you along the north edge of the Mogollon Rim, which is still mostly National Forest territory, studded with little towns.  Everyone talks about Greer, a tiny tourist hamlet just off Rt 260, so we popped in there to take a look.  It is mostly a town of resorts, restaurants, and several very pleasant-looking campgrounds in the pines.  Some of the houses in the area look like the type that rich software executives build as $25 million getaways and then only visit a few times a year.

The road also passes through Indian reservations, which you can almost always tell these days by the presence of a casino hotel. Looking at the ominous skies, we had a bad feeling about the likelihood of thunderstorms in the evening, and so we checked at the Hon-Dah hotel but it was booked solid for a Native American art show.  Likewise, the town of Pinetop-Lakeside (four miles further) was nearly booked solid.  But the clouds weren’t looking any better as the afternoon wore on.  We checked three hotels and two cabin rental places before we finally found a berth at the modest Motel Six at an immodest peak-season price.

When you’ve spent the night sleeping in your car, and then relocated to a tent, a Motel Six looks pretty comfy.  In the old days we used to alternate tenting and motels a lot, on the theory that the motel experience gave us a chance to shower, recharge the electronics, get a better night of sleep, and pick up some ice for our cooler.

I also was happy to have The Weather Channel, and see a monster set of thunderstorms develop over the area not long after we checked in.  These were real gully-washers, complete with lightning every 2-3 seconds, and high winds.  The power went out at the motel for an hour (an event the manager said happens weekly during monsoon season), and the force of the storms’ gust front was so powerful that it caused dust storms as far as Phoenix. It was a good night to skip tenting.

Not an exciting night on the road?  Sometimes you have to just find pleasure in holing up and watching the rain.  After the storms we went out for ice cream cups and brought them back to the motel to eat while watching a movie.  It wasn’t much, but it was perhaps all we needed before another day of exploring and tenting along the Mogollon Rim … which I’ll cover in the next blog.

Adventure on Devil’s Highway

First of all, let me throw in a note here for the Mercedes Benz enthusiasts who are checking this blog for the first time.  An article I wrote about towing with Mercedes was published in the July-August 2010 issue of The STAR, which is the official magazine of the Mercedes Benz Club of America. In it, there’s a little note that “you can follow Rich Luhr’s travels at”.

So where’s the Mercedes?  Sorry folks, it’s up in Vermont with the Airstream and my daughter, all in the good care of my parents.  Eleanor and I are on a hiatus from Airstream travel for a few weeks, which means no blogging about MB-based adventures.  We’ll get back to that in late August, when all parties (Eleanor, Emma, Rich, Mercedes, and Airstream) will be reunited and begin traveling down the east coast through September and October. We plan to visit STARFest 2010 in Winchester VA along the way, and there definitely will be some blogging about that.

In the meantime, here we are in Arizona with only a small Honda and a tent for our camping adventures.  We’re doing what traveling we can with what we have: the basics that we used nearly two decades ago when we were unmarried, childless, and quite a bit younger.  Car-camping is certainly less convenient than traveling with an Airstream in tow, but it does make for an interesting change.  On the other hand, I may have cursed myself, when in the previous blog I said that we were “guaranteed” an adventure by going tent camping.  Or perhaps I was just forgetful in not recognizing that tenting carries certain discomforts and tribulations that you generally avoid by traveling in an Airstream. In any case, things got a bit more interesting than we would have liked.

Our first day out started well enough, with a drive up the “Devil’s Highway” (formerly Route 666, now known as SR 191) from Safford, Clifton, and Morenci. We stopped for a Mexican lunch near Safford, explored Roper Lake State Park briefly, and cruised up to the massive Freeport McMoRan Morenci Mine.  The photo below will give you a rough idea of the huge size of that mine — and you can’t even see all of it in this panoramic shot.  There’s quite a bit more both to the left and right.  They’re mining copper and gold here.


From Morenci the road begins to engage the driver in earnest, with tight climbing turns and zero guardrails, as the landscape changes from low desert to alpine forests of pine and oak.   You need to pay attention and keep both hands on the wheel.  It’s a great driving road, which is why the motorcyclists like it, but beware: there are no services at all for 90 miles north of Morenci, and long vehicles (such as motorhomes 40 feet or longer) can’t negotiate it.  I wouldn’t want to drive anything longer than 25 feet, personally.  And if anyone in the car is prone to motion sickness, keep a window open.

Murphy’s Law struck with a vengeance about halfway into the 90 mile stretch of forest, when the Honda began to lose power intermittently.  No question that the car was working hard due to the altitude and grade.  At 8,000 feet, our 110 horsepower engine was probably putting out a maximum of about 95 hp.  That wasn’t the problem (you can’t go fast along this road anyway).  The intermittent symptom felt like a fuel problem, as the engine randomly and dramatically lost power for several seconds, and then just as suddenly surged back to life.

devils-hwy-curves.jpgThere was nothing to do but keep going.  We were 45 miles from services in either direction.  Very little traffic is on Rt 191, so if the car stopped entirely we might easily have waited for hours for someone to come by, depending on time of day.  The power loss happened five or six times, and then whatever was causing the problem (fuel contamination?) ceased and all was fine from there.  I think the seemingly endless S-turns on the road stirred up some gunk from the bottom of the fuel tank, and the car simply had to pass it like an automotive kidney stone.  Fortunately, if the car had given up, we were set for several days of camping at roadside, including food and water.

strayhorse-campsite.jpgInstead of being stranded, we ended up at a National Forest campground called Strayhorse, elevation 8,200.  On Thursday night it was deserted — perfect by our standards — featuring only a handful of basic tent sites with pit toilets and a water spigot. We set  up camp, made dinner, and enjoyed the beautiful quiet, the cool pine-scented air, and the view down into the valleys below.

It doesn’t take much to disturb such a delicate environment of peace and solitude.  Being alone on the top of a mountain range is great until something goes awry, or when a pair of cars comes up the highway after dark with loud rap music being blared out of the open windows.  Startled out of our sleeping bags, we feared the worst: teenagers had come to party at our isolated location, and we were going to have to deal with them.  Fortunately, it turned out to be just a bathroom stop for their little caravan, and we returned to our bags again.

strayhorse-valley-view.jpgWith the Coleman gas lantern turned off, we noticed something strange, a series of white flashes visible through the fabric of our tent. It was a massive thunderstorm with considerable lightning, wreaking havoc somewhere south of us.  The storm was too far off for us to hear the thunder, but the incredible frequency of lightning made it obvious that this was a big sucker.  If it came up the mountain, we’d be in danger of a lightning strike, so we made plans to bail out for the safety of the car.  We returned to our sleeping bags again, a bit rattled now.

And then we heard it.  It was a loud, drawn-out, and horrifying roar (kind of like this but much longer and with a big huff at the end) and it was coming from the other side of the road.

It was a black bear, and from the sound of things, he was not far away.  We think it was a male announcing his territory. Almost immediately, we heard an fainter answering roar from the valley below.  A few seconds later, our bear repeated his roar, and at that point we were officially terrified.  Our campsite was clean — no food smells to attract a bear — but if a black bear was in the campground, we did not want to sit in a thin nylon tent waiting for him to check us out.  This was the final straw.  We dashed for the protection of the car, sleeping bags and shoes in hand, while I nervously scanned the surrounding woods with my high-powered LED headlamp.

Eleanor actually had the amazing presence of mind to grab her digital camera and flick it into video recording mode, in hopes of capturing the roar, but all we got was some Blair Witch-type video in the tent as we scrambled to find our things.  On the recording you can hear Eleanor say, “Sounds like a bear …” and then after about ten seconds of silence (while the bear roars again but the camera microphone misses it) she says, “Let’s go to the car!”  Just listening to it now still chills me.

We slept in the car until 3 a.m.  The bear called again at about 10:20 pm, but it was further away and I slept through it.  By 3 a.m.  it seemed that being mauled by a hungry bear might be preferable to another minute of contorted sleep in the front seats of the car, so we returned to the tent for the rest of the night.  No more bear.  The thunderstorm never came back, either.  We felt like complete weenies for having abandoned our tent, but in retrospect I think it was the right move to get out of potential danger.

We’ve camped a lot, both in Airstream and tent, and we’ve never heard a bear once. This was a rare experience, confirmed the next day when we dropped in on a ranger station to report it.  The rangers seemed dumbfounded, and then one of them said, “Did you say Strayhorse campground?  I think the Forest Service has been dumping the problem bears up near there.”  Oh great.

So that was Day One of the great tenting trip through northern Arizona.  I was thinking that if the rest of our camping trip followed this exciting pattern, we were going to be lucky to survive.  Fortunately, the rest of the trip was considerable mellower, and I’ll report on that in the next blog entry.

Low concept camping

It is the blogger’s curse:  When things are uninteresting it is difficult to inspire oneself to write, and when things are too interesting, you often can’t tell the full story.  So it has been for me lately, and thus I hope you will forgive me for telling a highly edited version of recent life.

Suffice to say that TBM is no more.  “Kryptonite” Eleanor flew into Phoenix and my alternate identity evaporated while I was standing at the security checkpoint waiting for her to arrive.  (Still, TBM will be back in a couple of weeks when she departs again.) Because Eleanor was scheduled to arrive late in the evening, we took advantage of the off-season and booked a very nice resort hotel in Scottsdale for the weekend.  In June and July you can pretty much have those places to yourself, at bargain prices.  We snagged a 4-star hotel for about $70 per night, and trust me, it was posh.

I don’t know why people are so afraid of the desert heat.  Everything is air conditioned, and even the outdoor bars and restaurants have misting systems cooling the air all the time.  Sure, it was 110 degrees in the afternoon, but we didn’t notice most of the time.  (Did I mention that we haven’t seen each other for three weeks?)

Besides, you can beat the heat by getting up early.  Imagine if the Great White North were like that:  a frigid 10 degrees F during most of the day, but every morning it warmed up to 70 degrees for a few hours, and the sun was always shining.  How could you complain?

Even the pool was virtually vacant, with just a smattering of like-minded cheapskates taking advantage of the bargain rates.  We stood in the shallows and talked for two hours while our fingers wrinkled up from the 90 degree water.  (It would have been perfect except for that crazy wasp that landed on my neck.  I brushed it off and the dumb thing stung my index finger. Fortunately, I’m not allergic.)

To keep the weekend exceptionally cheap, I brought a huge collapsible cooler along with snacks and drinks.  We had to make daily trips to the hotel ice maker to fill gallon-sized ziplock plastic bags with ice, but that was a minor price to pay.  I was hoping that someone would come along during one of my ice runs and ask what I was doing with three gallons of ice in plastic bags.  Had an answer all ready to go:  “We need it for the ice chest.  Just took out someone’s kidney.”  But again, there was hardly anyone in the hotel to ask me.

In a way, that cheap, low-concept weekend in the hotel was a warm-up for the travel we plan to do.  There’s a two-week period between issues of the magazine in which my workload is traditionally light.  Having just about wrapped up the Fall issue, I’m about to enter that period now (no coincidence with Eleanor’s travel plans) and we are going to take full advantage by traveling around Arizona as much as we can.  We have no tow vehicle for the Caravel, so our trips will all involve tent camping. The living room floor is covered with all of the gear:  tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, stove, lantern, Arizona Gazetteer, guide books, cooking equipment, headlamps, water purifier, etc.   We just need to get the food organized and we’ll be ready to go.

Go where?  We’re not really sure.  We’ve got lots of ideas but no specific plans.  The general plan is to wander into Arizona’s White Mountains region where there are several large national forests, and see what looks interesting.  One advantage of tenting over RV’ing is that you can pitch it in a lot more places, particularly in the mountainous national forest lands of Arizona where many campgrounds are tiny and inaccessible to large vehicles.  This is our chance to see the places that we wouldn’t go with either of the Airstreams, and the high-altitude spots that we would have to skip in the winter.

But most of all, this is a chance to get back to our travel roots, the type of footloose and utterly basic travel that we did in our first nine years together. Everything in a backpack, $24 worth of gas in the car, and no itinerary whatsoever.  It won’t matter if it rains or shines, whether we see the Mogollon Rim or just the inside of a local deli, whether we come home on Sunday or Monday.  We’re pretty much guaranteed a good time (or at least an adventure!) just by taking the effort to pack the bags and head out.