Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: picacho peak

Now, anyone who has made it to the top of Picacho Peak knows that it obviously isn’t a good hike for small children. The trail is steep and slippery, to the point that there are cables drilled into the rock as handholds to prevent hikers from falling – and it’s an amazing trail if you can do it, but there’s no way I’m going to recommend doing it with three kids five and under!

However, Picacho Peak is one of the most beautiful wildflower sites in the state, particularly during a magnificent spring bloom like the one we’re having this year, so we made the drive down to bask in the beauty along all the short interpretative trails around the base of the mountain.

There were so many poppies. The wild golden poppies that grow here are one of my favorite flowers – like a more glamorous version of the buttercups I loved as a child in the Northeast – and when they carpet the ground it seems to shimmer in the sunlight.

There were patches of lupine as well, their deep blues and purples providing the perfect foil to the golden poppies.

One of the shorter trails led up to a small cave overlooking the valley around the base of the peak, and the kids had a lot of fun clambering over the boulders above the cave, as well as stroking the velvet softness of the poppies and delighting in the presence of the wildflowers (as is only to be expected!).

I really couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to bask in the desert spring. I would definitely and without hesitation recommend Picacho Peak to anyone who is in the state in the month of March, especially if the preceding winter has been on the rainier side, no matter their hiking abilities – there is something for every level here, and beauty to make it worthwhile even without reaching the summit.

There is a $7.00 entrance fee since the peak is a state park, but there are also covered picnic tables, clean bathrooms, a very nice little gift store/information center (with some fun Southwest themed souvenirs and books), and even a small playground, and the trails are well-maintained – so the fees are apparently being used to good effect here šŸ™‚ My only regret is that I have waited so long to come back since the last time I hiked the peak (with my dad, as a teenager, to the top), and I won’t be making that mistake again.

How to get there from the East Valley: There are a few ways to get started, but whether you take the US-60 or the Loop 101 or the Loop 202, you’ll want to end up on the I-10 E headed toward Tuscon. From there it’s very straightforward – you just keep driving south until exit 219, and then follow the signs into the state park. I believe you can pay the entrance fee with a card if you go into the visitor’s center, but it is simplest to bring cash and pay as you drive by.

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: superstition mountains – treasure loop trail

Now that our very wet winter has come to an end, the desert has burst into life with a wild spring bloom, and I’ve been trying to take the kids out to see the mountains turned green with wildflowers decorating the slopes. My mood always tends to improve as the colder and grayer season ends (can’t imagine what I’d be like if I lived elsewhere), so I’ve had the energy and motivation to hike again – and the prospect of flowers definitely adds to that motivation!

The day we chose to hike the Treasure Loop trail in the Superstition Mountains was unfortunately cloudy and rainy, so many of the flowers stayed hidden away, but it was still a beautiful hike.

Treasure Loop trail is almost 2.5 miles long and moderately difficult – the trail is broad and well-marked, but it can be steep and slippery in places. We took a few hours doing it… in out defense, we stopped to smell the flowers a time or two (and count their petals, in Limerick’s case):

We also took time to climb up some boulders near the path and pretend to be mountain lions:

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And of course we took breaks for snuggles and snacks (the bench at the overlook was really timed perfectly for the kids’ hunger):

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The cold and wind did make the hike considerably more challenging, as Aubade really dislikes being cold and getting wind in her face (we’ve had this issue on other hikes). Because the trail ended up being a lot colder than our home just 30 minutes away, Aubade wore my jacket for most of the hike, which helped and was adorable but left me rather cold as a result šŸ™‚ I guess it’s just a reminder to check the weather at the actual trailhead before deciding what to wear!

For others considering Treasure Loop, I’d say it would take much less time with just slightly older kids – we were mostly slowed down by Aubade (and our spirit of exploration!). Good footwear is important though as the trail can get quite slippery once you start coming back down the slope. This is a fairly popular trail from what I could tell, based on the number of other hikers we saw on a weekday, but it wasn’t overly crowded. It can be accessed from free parking spots by the First Water trailhead, or through the Lost Dutchman state park for a $7.00 entrance fee (as well as a shorter hike and good bathrooms, both of which were needed with my little hikers). We enjoyed it and I’m sure we’ll be back next spring šŸ™‚

How to get there from the East Valley: take the 60 to Apache Junction and exit on Idaho Road; turn right onto Apache Trail and continue until you reach the entrance to the Lost Dutchman State Park. The entrance fee is $7.00 and the ranger will give you a map of the trails and state park roads/parking lots.

Posted in family life

spontaneity and snow storms

Last Wednesday I looked at the weather forecast and realized that two days of cold rain here in the valley would most likely mean two days of snow up north. I thought to myself that a day trip might be nice, on Friday or Saturday depending on the road conditions, but when I bounced the idea off of Paul and my mom (both of whom might have appreciated a day trip being scheduled when they could join me), my mom suggested that I go up before the storm and stay through it so as not to worry about the roads at all. And Paul thought that sounded like a great idea and a good reason to take a few days off of work, so I set about planning it.

Note: this idea was forged late Wednesday morning, and the storm was scheduled to hit around 9 o’clock that evening. So that left me with about six hours to find a place to stay, pack two days worth of food in case we ended up snowed in, buy or borrow snow gear for the entire family, and pack clothes, activities, and other necessary items. I definitely had some moments where I regretted ever having had the idea to play in the snow in the first place! (Like when Paul called to tell me his car battery died so I would also need to pack for him and pick him up at work on the way up, when I had been hoping for his help as the crazy late afternoon itch hit the kids…)

In the end, however, I am so glad that I didn’t let my anxiety or insecurity change my mind.

Thanks to Air BNB allowing same-day booking, we found a little house in Prescott Valley that didn’t seem likely to necessitate four wheel drive (I lost a couple hours agonizing over a different cabin that was absolutely gorgeous but whose owner was very concerned about us being stranded there), and took the kids to experience real snow – not just flurries or random patches on the ground – for the first time in their lives. And this was serious snow. Prescott Valley averages 5 inches of snow in the month of February, but this storm brought in about two feet in just two days (the official totals range from 21 to 28 inches depending on location in the city) – and we were there to watch it all come down, to feel the fluffy lightness of the new snow and the dense strength of the old, to wake up to icicles on the eaves and a world glittering like a preschool art project, to taste the ethereal coldness of snow dissolving like cotton candy in our mouths, to catch individual flakes on our jackets and marvel at their complexity, to be pelted by hard fast-falling half-melting and refreezing almost-hail flakes, to see the world turn suddenly white and new.

Rondel was a huge help preparing for the trip, because he was so excited about the chance to go up to the mountains to see snow, and so he cooperated with all the crazy last-minute packing and helped keep Aubade and Limerick happy all afternoon – and when we got there, he loved the snow just as much as he anticipated (though I think he didn’t realize just how cold it would be!). He ate the snow, he pretended to be the unstoppable boar from a Kung Fu Panda short (in other words, he knocked people over and was knocked over into the snow quite often), and he just generally relished in the opportunity to run and play in it!

Limerick had a slightly harder time with the snow – the depth made it harder for him to move around, and he got cold more quickly. But he still enjoyed it quite a bit, in his quieter way. On one of our excursions, when Rondel was chasing me around as Boar Unstoppable, I made a snowball for Limerick that just didn’t seem to break, no matter how many times he threw it at me, so we dubbed it the Indestructible Snowball of Doom. Every time Rondel would knock me over Limerick would come up with the snowball and drop it on me and the look of mischievous glee on his face was so hilarious that I could hardly push myself up out of the snow from laughing so hard.

Aubade really wanted to like the snow; she wanted to go out anytime anyone else went out; but she got cold really fast and struggled to walk through the snow as well. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find more waterproof mittens in her size and had to settle for lined fleece ones, either – the few times I put her in Limerick’s mittens she seemed to last longer despite having almost no control over her hands. She did have a lot of fun until she got cold, though, and she definitely enjoyed getting all bundled up in the snow clothes šŸ˜›

All in all, it was one of the best times we’ve had as a family (and definitely the most spontaneous!). There was so little tension and so much laughter, as all of us were able to relax into the wonder and excitement and peace of our time away. And as Rondel keeps reminding us, each time he sees the snow-capped mountains in the distance, we will definitely go back north again some day.

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: rim lake vista trail

In an attempt to catch some fall colors up north (I think they are delayed because of our warm, moist summer this year), we drove up to the Mogollon Rim this weekend, just northeast of Payson to the Rim Lake Vista trail specifically. I chose this trail because it was recommended for fall colors in October, because it should have gorgeous views off the edge of the rim even if we were too early for colors, and because it is mostly paved and there was rain in the forecast. In other words, I wanted something with no flash flood risk, where we wouldn’t be stepping in mud puddles and getting our feet soaked in the cold.

While we did end up being too early for fall colors, the trail was undeniably beautiful and – totally unexpectedly – we got caught in a snow flurry! There isn’t much else to say about this trail except that it is ideal for new walkers and could even be navigated by a stroller if necessary; likewise, it would be good for older out-of-state family who want to hike and sightsee but who aren’t up for something challenging.

Some views looking off the rim down towards Payson (approximately 7700ft up, looking down at mountains around 5000ft in elevation – Payson is not objectively low):

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The clouds were draped so low over the mountains – at some points on the trail we were walking through small wispy clouds, and the large heavy clouds looked ready to break open at any moment.

It wasn’t raining when we parked (it had been for most of the drive from Payson up to the rim!), so the kids were excited to get out of the car and start off down the trail.

While there weren’t many changing leaves yet, the small ground plants and flowers bearing their glassy beads of water were calling all of us to stop and pay attention to their subtle beauty:

Before the rain started up again, Aubade meandered along immersing herself in the wildflowers – she was so excited about every new plant, so eager to touch each new flower.

Towards the end of our hike, however, it started to sprinkle – and then it began to pour – and then I noticed that snowflakes were sticking to the fuzzy hood of Limerick’s jacket, and – and then suddenly the air was full of fat white flakes! It was the first time any of the kids have seen snow; Rondel was excited, Limerick was chill, and Aubade (who was already really bothered by the cold wind) completely lost it and cried the rest of the way to the car. So it ended up being a shorter hike than usual because we were just so cold!

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However, along the way we discovered a plant I’d never encountered before, with bright red stems and a sharp smell that remind me of mint and fir together. From a brief search online IĀ think it is a fetid goosefoot, which is quite an unpleasant name for a plant that I found both visually and aromatically attractive – do any of you know for sure?

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How to get there from the East Valley: take the 87 up to Payson; turn right at the McDonald’s on to the 260-E and continue for 30 miles until FR300. Turn left onto FR300 (the Rim Visitors Center is on the right) and park at the lot on the left between mile markers 39 and 40.

Posted in family life

the rainy remnants of rosa

The Phoenix area was hit by the remnants of Hurricane Rosa, a category 4 hurricane, this week. My dad, who is from Miami, was going around humorously asking everyone if they were ready for the hurricane, but of course by the time it got to us it was just a big rainstorm. Still! A big rainstorm in October isn’t common, and this storm actually gave us the rainiest October day in Arizona recorded history (which goes back, in terms of weather records, to 1895). Even crazier, of the top ten wettest days in Arizona, this was number eight and was the only one that my kids have been alive for (except for Rondel, who was just over one year old when we had the wettest recorded day in Arizona history).

 

So what do you do when there is more rain coming down than you have ever seen in one day in your entire life?

You drop everything else and immerse yourself in it, of course!

My two adventurers were out in their pajamas by 7am (I mean, why get dressed only to get immediately soaked and need to change?), and must have stayed out for at least an hour before they decided they needed to eat breakfast. And after breakfast they were right back out in it, with Limerick this time (but in their underwear, so no publicly shareable pictures unfortunately). Limerick found the big hole in the yard that was completely submerged and hidden, pulled the toy car out of it, and measured how deep it was on his legs (almost to his knees); Rondel pushed Aubade around the yard in the rescued car until it got stuck in the mud.

I learned that one of my children likes to get extremely muddy, one likes to get extremely wet and can handle the mud along with it, and the third somehow manages to stay almost clean even in a mud puddle and prefers to remain at least somewhat dry.

Aubade is, obviously, my mudlover… she is completely in her element when she is outside getting dirty, and I hope she never loses that. Limerick gets cold so easily that he preferred to sit just inside the house or under the patio overhang, learning how to multiply two-digit numbers with my mom while I hung out with the mud babies šŸ˜› But we all loved it – and there is rain in the forecast again next week so maybe we will get a repeat!

Is rain a normal occurrence or a special event where you live? Do you love it or tolerate it?

 

Posted in hikes

gilbert riparian preserve

With all the sicknesses going around the family, we haven’t made it out for a hike in a few weeks, but we were able to visit the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert for a new experience and a bit of a respite from the city.

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The preserve is only about 15 minutes from our house, but it feels like we’re in a completely different environment once we’re there. There are several large basins, with trails weaving between and around them, and a myriad of native plant life. There were butterflies everywhere, and rabbits scurrying around under the mesquite trees with their little white tails bobbing. Ducks, turtles, and fish live in the water, and we even saw a large goose strutting down the path! Unfortunately, because the basins are filled with reclaimed water, they aren’t safe for swimming or wading in, which was disappointing for the kids, but they still appreciated the beauty of it.

On the parking lot edge of the preserve are some activity areas, including a dinosaur dig sandpit, a collection of Arizona animal footprints, and a lot of walls for climbing on. We honestly ended up staying around the climbing walls for the majority of our time at the preserve, and the kids seemed to really enjoy them.

Another nice aspect of the preserve is that it is directly adjacent to the Gilbert Public Library; a little boardwalk bridge connected our play area to the library lot, and the walk wasn’t far at all.

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We went over around 11, when the heat became a bit too much for us, to cool off, refill our water bottles, and spend some time reading. This particular library has a huge children’s section, with the picture books arranged by topic on sparsely filled shelves, enabling children to easily browse on their own for books that look appealing. I can imagine it would be difficult to locate a specific book of interest, but it is ideal for finding new books to try out, which is what we did.

I will note that our morning at the preserve and library so exhausted Aubade that she napped for a solid 3 hours that afternoon, and the boys flopped onto the couches and watched a movie. Everyone was worn out, mostly from the heat but also from the climbing.

We will definitely be going back, and hopefully we will get to explore the trails around the basins more thoroughly in the future! As the weather gets cooler I expect it to be an even nicer experience, but even in the heat I highly recommend it since the library is there to provide some relief afterwards.

For more information about the Riparian Preserve, including its location, visit the City of Gilbert site here!

Posted in family life, hikes

hiking with littles: tonto natural bridge state park

As part of the Maricopa County reading program this summer, we all received passes to the Arizona state park system, and I’d been looking for a chance to use them (we’re saving some for Boyce Thompson Arboretum in the fall). Then I was reminded about the Tonto Natural Bridge just outside of Payson – the largest travertine bridge in the world.

Travertine is a form of limestone, calcium carbonate deposited at the mouth of mineral springs; travertine bridges like the one at Tonto can be formed when a travertine dam across a canyon (in this case Pine Creek Canyon) is eroded by water over time. For a detailed and illustrated explanation, visit the Arizona State Parks page about it here!

I hadn’t been to Tonto in at least 15 years, so I didn’t remember how difficult the trails were, but I did remember how beautiful they were, and how breathtaking the natural bridge was, so I decided to try it. We drove up early one Monday morning, making the ascent into Payson and then the steep descent into the Tonto valley. It is like a hidden vibrant green gem surrounded by dark pine-covered slopes; with the clear startlingly blue sky overhead, it was beautiful beyond my ability to capture with a camera (at least with three little kids running every direction at once!).

We did the Waterfall Trail first. This is a short trail (300ft one way) down a series of steps to a small waterfall running down a moss-covered side of the canyon.

The steps are quite steep. This isn’t a good trail for someone with poor knees – and Aubade needed to be carried most of the way down because the steps were too tall for her short legs. She was able to clamber up, however! The trail also gets very slippery down by where the waterfall splashes over it; the railing will keep you from tumbling down the canyon wall, but good shoes and attention to footing are important also (or you can be barefoot like Limerick was for the majority of the time… he does a lot better when he can feel the ground directly).

After we came back up from the waterfall, and realized just how short of a trail it had been, we decided to try the Pine Creek Trail – a half mile loop down the creek bed to the natural bridge. Does that sound easy? It did to me as well, until I saw that 75% of the hike consisted of bouldering through the creek with occasional arrows for guidance. But hey, if bouldering proves too difficult there is always the creek to play in, so we went for it.

The first part of the trail is very easy – smooth paths and steps down to the creek. Aubade was able to handle most of this on her own, except for a few of the bigger steps. Several of the native trees are signed along the way, so we were able to identify and learn about the cypress tree, comparing its thin peeling bark to the thick checkered bark of the juniper tree, noticing how much larger its berries were, and feeling its sticky resin.

When the trail first reaches the creek, there is a shallow wading pool perfect for little kids to play in! We stayed here for quite a while before moving on, and again on our way back; I think there are only a few things in life that Aubade enjoys more than playing in running water, and she could have stayed here happily for hours. Limerick, however, was eager to climb, and Rondel wanted to see how far he could hike and try to reach the bridge. So onward we went!

It was on this hike that I realized how lucky I had been at Ellison Creek that Aubade had taken a nap on the drive up; here, she wasn’t as rested, and almost fell asleep during an emergency nursing break halfway down the creek. Fortunately she was able to recover and enjoy the rest of the hike, but I was seriously regretting not using the hiking child carrier backpack for a while there. (She dislikes it, and also likes to hike herself where possible, so it tends to mean I’m just carrying unnecessary weight, but she may have fallen asleep in it.)

I also was very grateful that I had remembered a backpack for the water bottles as there is no way I could have made it over the boulders carrying both Aubade and a water bottle in my hands. There were times when I had to lift her over a tricky spot and then climb up myself – and then, at least once, lift the boys up next! So this is definitely not an easy hike, despite the short overall distance, and I wouldn’t recommend it if your children don’t enjoy scrambling up and over boulders.

Mine do, fortunately, so we made it, in the end, to the bridge.

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It is stunning. Too high and wide to get a good shot of in its entirety, from where we were in the canyon (we didn’t go all the way under it as I remember those rocks being extremely slippery – I had to be coached down so I wouldn’t fall when I was quite a bit older than my kids are now – and we were already all worn out). But we stayed and admired it for a while, one of those wonders made by the joint efforts of hard rock and moving water, and then made out way back from whence we came.

This was a difficult hike (the ranger who gave us our parking pass emphasized that the trails were “strenuous”), and I was so proud of all three kids for pushing themselves up the final stretch back to the car, when they were just about exhausted. Limerick was especially tired, being smaller and younger than Rondel but hiking the whole trail independently unlike Aubade, but he kept going without complaining all the way back to the car, and rode home in a very well-earned glow of accomplishment (not to mention a much-needed nap). However, despite the difficulty, I would wholeheartedly recommend this hike, and the entire state park, for anyone with experienced or determined young hikers, or who has extra adults to help carry a tired child. It is a truly unique and beautiful place.

To reach Tonto State Park from the East Valley: Take the 87 north through Payson; turn left on Nf-583 (it is well-marked with a sign for the state park) and continue to the park entrance. The park is open beginning at 8am in the summer and 9am in the fall through spring.