Tonto Road Trip
Noah and Thomas munched on their breakfast in their seats behind me, occasionally breaking out in short bursts of chatter between long periods of quiet eating. I drove the three of us eastward on US-60 under a predawn sky towards Globe. This was my weekend alone with the boys and we had ambitious plans for today, and it all started with a little nature preserve under the cliffs of Picketpost Mountain.
The parking lot at Boyce Thompson Arboretum held a half-dozen cars at six in the morning, which was just dandy by me. I didn't know if it would be crowded or not this morning, being close to an hour's drive outside of Phoenix, but I didn't want to take any chances and planned on being here right as it opened. With Thomas in a back carrier and Noah holding my hand we ventured through the entrance and paid the small entrance fee. The temperatures were cool, the sun was blocked by the eastern hills, and the kids were in great spirits. We were off to a fantastic start.
So, this little park is a collection of eclectic gardens and exhibits all connected by trails. Based off of the map I had printed off, there was everything from a greenhouse to a Chihuahuan desert section to eucalyptus forests to legume displays. A main loop goes around and over a central ridge with dozens of side paths and random meanders for distraction. My plan was to do the main loop, over two miles in length, and venture down a few of the distractions on the way. We started by exploring the Heritage Rose Garden, which did not have a single flower in sight, though Noah found a cactus growing where it shouldn't have been.
Once out of the rose bushes we started heading towards the Smith Greenhouse. I wasn't quite sure if this would be a cool thing to check out with the kids, as it's easy to imagine overhanging prickly plants along narrow paths, so when I saw the closed doors and no one nearby I led us right past to the Gum Trail. The enormous trees overhead more than made up for missing out the greenhouse.
Noah was scared of the big trees, which was too bad. Guess he's just not used to trees after a few years in Arizona. They were surprisingly young. One of the larger ones had a sign declaring it was only seventy-odd years old. The thing was huge. Compared to the white pines of Michigan and their centuries it felt like a sapling, if a rather oversized one.
Beyond the gum trees were swarthy eucalyptus forests and even more shade. I thought about letting Thomas down here to wander under the large boughs and decided to wait - we had a climb coming up that would be too much for him. I kept him in the carrier while Noah held my hand through the forests, past some pomegranates, along the Queen Creek riparian growths, and then over a suspension bridge over a wash. Well, I let Noah run free on the bridge for some time. It was fun to watch him hop around and feel the wood sway underfoot.
Our loop began to slowly swerve north along a narrow path etched into the side of the ridge. There were a few signs that advised hiking boots for this section that were cute. Noah practically jogged along in his shoes while I quick-footed behind him. On the far side, near a pumphouse, we did find some more awesome signs to keep people on trail.
Soon, though, the trail began to climb. We had to go up and over the ridge that split much of the park in half. It wasn't much of a hill, less than a hundred feet in height, though it was enough to have Noah whining to be carried. I told him that he could make it and that there was a treat waiting on top. We had been going strong for an hour by now - it was getting about time for a snack.
Once we reached the top pavilion I let Thomas down and gave them each a bar and water. While they busied themselves with exploring the nearby landscape and munching on their snack I noticed an interesting view to the north. Beyond the nearby hills and powerlines, far off on the horizon, was the jagged line of the Superstitions. There was the ridgeline and Weaver's Needle and Mound Mountain, all spread out. It was a great view compared to the one you get in Phoenix and made me want to climb nearby Picketpost all the more. Eh, not today.
I pulled the empty carrier on my back and let both Noah and Thomas walk down the path, holding each one of their hands as we slowly headed downhill. Thomas is still too young for me to let him run down desert paths with spiky cactus on each side. We stopped briefly at a shade hut, one that wasn't offering too much shade this early in the morning, before checking out a dammed pond. The variety here was fantastic - it was cool to see more than just the native Sonoran flora.
Before we headed out there was one last stop to make. Next to the greenhouse we had passed by earlier was a small children's center. I let both of the kids wander here, as most of the spiky stuff was trimmed back, and we played in the small maze and hopped from one colored tile to the next on the over-sized sundial. By the time it was time to leave I had an exhausted Thomas back in the carrier and a sweaty Noah in tow.
We tumbled back into the van and I drove us further east, further away from Phoenix, and to unexplored lands. First was Superior nestled in the shade of the highlands above, then came a winding section of road along Queen Creek that went through a tunnel. Next was Top-of-the-World and some tortured landscape. Then it was Miami and Globe and huge poor rock piles that dwarfed anything I've seen in the midwest. We stopped at Judy's Cookhouse for some pancakes and bacon, where I got to entertain two hungry kids by helping them color and then folding their menus into hats.
Once breakfast was done it was time to head north. Our trip today was a huge triangle, and so far we had only done the bottom leg. AZ-188 goes north and connects Globe with AZ-87, though there is a lot of cool things along 188 besides just the connection. About twenty minutes into the drive we turned left and stopped at one of these cool things: Tonto National Monument.
After paying the park fee and telling the ranger that the three of us would be just fine out there we started up the path. I looked up the side of the hill and immediately had second thoughts. 400' above us was the cave and lower dwellings of the monument, and I had planned on both Noah and Thomas on making the walk up without any assistance from the carrier. Maybe that park ranger's concern was warranted. My boys didn't seem to concerned.
The short walk was a warm one, being fully exposed to the morning sun, and we stopped a few times to make sure they were drinking water and not too hot. Both of them did great. When Noah wasn't holding Thomas's hand he was running ahead excitedly, and even Thomas seemed to be handling the climb well. Near the end there were rock stairs with a steep drop off to one side that I decided to carry the little one up. It was more for the exposure than him being worn out.
Once we reached the top a ranger greeted us and asked that we don't touch anything. Of course, ten feet into the cave and Noah kicked over one of the grinding stones and we had a short, tense talk. After that they were well-behaved enough. The temps were cool and comfortable in the cave, the rooms in the dwelling big enough for us to walk into and explore a bit, and they had a fun time deciding which rooms were 'theirs'.
As fascinating as the monument was, and as much fun as it was explaining to Noah that people really lived here centuries ago, there just wasn't much to see. A handful of rooms, most of them gated off, and one or two signs. It wasn't long before we were heading back down the hot trail. I carried Thomas past the stairs again before letting him go, though I ended up holding his hand for most of it after he tripped on the trail several yards in. It's fun to run downhill until the feet get in the way.
When we got back in the van and topped off everyone's water it was time to continue north on AZ-188. We drove through the small town of Roosevelt and over the Teddy Roosevelt bridge. I thought briefly of turning here and driving west on the Apache Trail but decided against it - that is a very slow dirt road to travel down. Instead I stuck to 188 and went through Tonto Basin and Punkin Center, passing back pieces of trail mix for the boys to snack on, until we reached the fast curves of AZ-87.
The rest of the trip had optional stops, mostly because I wasn't sure how the boys would be doing by this time. It was after noon and we had been out for seven hours now. They drifted off to sleep along 87 so I decided to skip out on the beach at Butcher Jones (which I didn't have a pass for anyways) and just head home. We made it back to the house via Bush Highway right around 1:30.
So this ended up being a huge success. I've always tried to keep our adventures relatively short, sticking to activities within an hour's drive of the house. With frequent stops, books to read, songs to sing, and plenty of snacks, they seemed to be able to handle a significant outing. Perhaps next time I'll take them to Payson or Flagstaff to get out of the valley, or even Lake Havasu. Any adventure that gets us all out of the valley of the sun sounds great to me.