There is a long-held belief among people who don't know Arizona very well that this state has only one season - one long summer of searing, dry heat and a landscape of nothing but sand, rocks and cactus. But one only has to drive out of the Valley of the Sun in any direction to discover that there is so much more to this beautiful state. Yes, there's lots of cactus and rocks, but there are also mountains, lakes and forests and thunderous monsoon clouds that bring cooling rains. These are things perhaps you wouldn't expect from a desert state.
Late summer is particularly delightful in places like the White Mountains where the air is cooler, glorious green hills roll like ocean waves and wide, expansive meadows are full of sunflowers. There are crystal clear lakes and streams and forests of tall Ponderosas, crocodile-barked junipers and willowy, dancing aspens. This magical place will never bore me, so when I was offered a three-day trip with my two experienced birder friends, Susan and Brian, I jumped at the opportunity, even though Paul and I had just returned from a camping trip there a few weeks ago.
We started early and drove north on The Beeline Highway (87), stopping only for a quick bite to eat. Our first official birding stop was at Woods Canyon Lake, about 30 miles east of Payson. Although a relatively small lake at 55 acres, Woods Canyon Lake is one of the most accessible of the Rim lakes and is set in a scenic, heavily forested area on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. The road into Aspen campground and the lake runs along the edge of the Rim at an elevation of about 7,500 feet. Several pullouts allow one to stand at the very brink, with nothing between you and a shear drop to the valley below.
Our goal: find a Red-eyed Vireo that had been spotted in the campground the day before. But apparently it didn't get the message that we were coming and didn't stick around. Such is the nature of birding. We did see plenty of other birds, however, including several species of Warblers, beautiful red-backed Dark-eyed Juncos, happy Mountain Bluebirds and a handsome Hermit Thrush.
After making several more stops at birding hotspots along the way, we headed to Springerville to check into Reeds Lodge, our home base for the next couple of days. Built in 1949 to serve early travelers on U.S. 60, the nation's first coast-to-coast highway, Reed's has retained its original, relaxed country atmosphere. It is owned and operated by a fifth generation rancher, Roxanne, whose family is responsible for bringing in California Quail, pheasant and other game birds, the prodigy of which still populate the area. Our rooms were spacious, clean and comfortable and the museum/gift shop Roxanne maintains offers many locally made items with a little bit of history thrown in.
Springerville is in central eastern Arizona, close to the New Mexico border and sits at an elevation of 6,974 feet. The town grew around Henry Springer's trading post and was officially given its name in 1876. It is considered the gateway to the White Mountains.
We spent the next day and a half exploring the area from paved and dirt roads to narrow foot paths, around lakes and through dry washes, over Reservation land and around private ranches. So intoxicating were the sights, sounds and smells that I almost forgot to look for birds. We ate good food at local establishments among friendly, welcoming folks and came back to our comfortable beds at Reed's Lodge, tired but excited to start again the next morning. We saw plenty of birds, some difficult to find, and although the elk herds were gone now, (hunting season has begun), we saw other wildlife such as Pronghorn, Big Horn sheep, coyotes, squirrels and snakes.
John Muir said, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." I hope that, through my writings and pictures, those of you who haven't visited our lovely state, will better understand Arizona's places of beauty and renewal.
In the gallery below (click on one to enter slideshow), I give you...The White Mountains. My thanks to Brian and Susan for an unforgettable weekend.