In spite of living in a land-locked state, Google ‘Arizona’s Beach’ and you’ll find a lovely oceanfront just four hours from Tucson. Of course, it’s not actually part of Arizona; in fact it’s not even in the U.S., but it is an easy drive from both Tucson and Phoenix. If you’re like me, with a love for the mountains equal to that of the sea, you’ll find even easier access to some of the most beautiful mountains in the country. Most of our out-of-state friends picture saguaros and desert when they think of Arizona, and all of them are surprised to hear we have more extensive ponderosa pine forests than any other state. Mt. Lemmon, of course, is the quickest way to get a mountain fix for Tucson residents, but if you want an experience richer than that of a sky island, turn north to the White Mountains.
A three hour drive on Highway 77 skirts the magnificent geologic formations along the Gila River south of Globe, then takes you down into and up out of the spectacular Salt River Canyon, through Apache country into endless ponderosa forests, reaching civilization again at Show Low, a hardscrabble town named in a poker game. This part of Arizona, from Show Low north to Snowflake and east to Greer embraces two counties named for Native American tribes (Navaho and Apache), more than 20 lakes, elevations from 6,000 to more than 9,000 feet and lots of ponderosa pine trees. It’s also a great place to find birds, with dozens of eBird hotspots, many of which boast more than 100 species. There are many accommodation choices from private rental homes to resort hotels, with a wide range of rates. Some places are more attractive than others for birding, with forest-adjacent decks or well-stocked feeders.
One of our favorite destinations with both features is the WorldMark Condominiums in Pinetop-Lakeside, a small community of 4,000 just east of Show Low. At nearly 7,000 feet, the forest is pine-oak, and the birds are abundant. There are more than a dozen eBird hotspots, including lakes, reservoirs, ponds, creeks and marshes, all easily accessible from anyplace you choose to stay. We recently rented a condominium at WorldMark for a three-night getaway, and although we explored many eBird hotspots, the resort itself was hard to leave. A two-bedroom, two bath unit includes a covered outdoor deck, and is loaded with luxury for about $130 per night.
High definition television is included, but we put birdseed and nuts on our deck railing and spent most of our time enjoying, feeding and photographing Acorn Woodpeckers, Mountain Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Steller’s Jays. A special treat was watching Acorn Woodpeckers pluck nuts from the deck railing and stash them under windowsills and into tree holes; sustenance silos for the coming winter. Beyond our deck, a lovely seating area outside the reception building was outfitted with multiple seed and hummingbird feeders, and the time we spent there was equally rewarding, with all the above birds plus Pygmy Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks and even Rufous Hummingbirds (this was September). Needless to say, many more species are found at the area’s abundant lakes.
Late summer/fall is especially rewarding in this high-elevation country when triple digit temperatures are common back home, but we’ve ventured up here at all times of the year and have never been disappointed. Nights are colder in December, and sometimes snow hangs from the pines or builds along the roadsides. But the chickadees, nuthatches and jays are still there. And you get to watch the Acorn Woodpeckers raid their summer silos.
(This article was published in the November, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)