Where ponderosa pines meet sparking lakes
Heavy on beauty but light on crowds, just east of Phoenix is a gem tourists may be less familiar with. From small-town charm to river rafting to refreshing lakes perfect for swimming and boating, there are countless ways to wile away the days when you head east.
Ideal for outdoorsy adventurers or anyone who appreciates desert solitude and serene mountain towns this road trip along the eastern side of Phoenix will leave you speechless.
You don't have to go far to experience the famed Superstition Mountains. Head out of town past Mesa on the US 60 and you'll soon reach Apache Junction, home of this sprawling state park named for a local resident who disappeared in these hills while seeking gold. Legend has it there's treasure here somewhere, but you may want to focus on other activities namely, hiking, biking, horseback riding, or camping. If you're ready for a challenge, the view from the top of the flatiron up the steep, rugged Siphon Draw Trail can't be beat.
From Lost Dutchman State Park, continue driving and take Highway 88 to the old stage stop of Tortilla Flat, about 30 minutes away down the beautiful though narrow highway. Now officially Arizona's smallest community, this Wild West town (population six) features a restaurant, saloon, museum and more. If you can make it on the second or fourth Saturday of the month, you're in for a special treat: a gunfight reenactment!
Continuing east from Tortilla Flat and you'll soon view some of Arizona's most scenic bodies of water, including Apache and Roosevelt lakes. Perfect for boating, swimming or just lounging shore side, these lakes offer plenty of recreation. Plus, you don't even need to bring your own boat to get out on the water, thanks to the convenient rentals right at Roosevelt Lake Marina and Apache Lake Marina. Or, head to nearby Canyon Lake, where you can hop aboard Dolly's Steamboat and enjoy a narrated lake cruise.
Another option for a daytrip east of Phoenix includes Payson, a cool mountain town along the Beeline Highway also called AZ 87 about 75 miles from Scottsdale. Located just below the Mogollan Rim, Payson is a perfect getaway for outdoorsy types seeking hiking, fishing and camping. While sunshine is the norm up here, don't forget a jacket: at 7,000 feet, Payson stays about 15 degrees cooler than Phoenix perfect for a comfortable hike.
North of Payson, you'll find the small, quiet communities of Strawberry and Pine – home to B&Bs for those seeking a rustic getaway. While you're here, don't miss the Ranch at Fossil Creek, a charming working ranch raising llamas and goats. For a culinary treat, try the Fossil Creek Creamery cheeses and fudge all made from goat's milk. You can even schedule a guided llama hike, where the friendly animals will carry your lunch while you enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
Instead of heading north from Payson to Strawberry and Pine, you can also drive east another 100 miles on Highway 260 to Pinetop-Lakeside, sister cities in the heart of the White Mountains. High above the desert, these quaint little towns are blanketed in snow all winter but come spring, they're a haven for fishing, wildlife viewing and more.
Ready for a major change of scenery? Drive south from Pinetop-Lakeside along Highway 60 toward Globe and drop down into the beautiful Upper Salt River Canyon, where you'll encounter dramatic rocks, sheer cliffs and hairpin turns along the highway. At the bottom of this tightly winding road is the Salt River itself. Fed by mountain snowmelt throughout March, the Upper Salt is perfect for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Choose from daytrips or longer excursions with any of the many professional guide companies.
Ready for something a bit more leisurely than rushing rapids? On your way back toward Greater Phoenix on the US 60, just past Superior, you'll find Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a state park dedicated to local flora and fauna. Operated by the University of Arizona, this research facility is a favorite amongst birders, with more than 200 species sighted over the years. Stroll through these serene, blooming grounds, then eat a picnic lunch on the provided tables. You'll feel relaxed and recharged for the easy one-hour drive back to the Phoenix area.
Make sure to map your trip ahead of time for directions and approximate driving times. Depending on your pace (and how early you get up), you may need more than a day for some itineraries.