Hills and valleys of green. Shimmering aspen. Temperatures in the mid-40s to low 80s. Babbling streams. Damp trails lined with mushrooms, purple butterflies, ferns and flowers.
This is Arizona in August.
No way, you say?
It’s true. Of course, I’m not speaking of the Phoenix metro area where temps hover at 100 degrees-plus from May to October. I’m referring to the White Mountains, a four-to-five-hour drive east and up, depending on which part you choose. The White Mountains encompass the towns of Pinetop-Lakeside; Heber-Overgaard; Snowflake; Taylor, Show Low; Wagon Wheel; and my favorite, Alpine (population 150). The village, which sits at 8,500 feet, is about as far east as you can go without crossing the New Mexico border.
My husband, Jerry, and I spent several days with my sister, Jenny, and brother-in-law, Dan, in their Alpine home. Lucky for us, they are familiar with the area and took us on roads and trails throughout the surrounding Apache National Forest. We rarely saw another human on the latter.
What we did see were trails through wide meadows carpeted with wildflowers; towering red-rock cliffs; a mystical view from the Blue Vista overlook (Highway 19) where multiple layers of blue-green mountains roll into infinity; and wildlife — hawks, a herd of elk, deer and javelinas. Luckier visitors see bears, mountain lions and bighorn sheep.
We also visited some of the 700,000 acres that was consumed by the Wallow Fire in 2011. Driving southwest from Alpine, we passed through vast patches of landscape where naked, blackened tree trunks stood against a cloudless cerulean sky. The earth below is a carpet of leafy green bushes and grasses, occasionally punctuated with small groves of young, low aspen. Their white bark stands out against the charcoal poles that once were thriving ponderosa pines.
Oddly enough, sometimes the charred trees were surrounded by large swaths of untouched pines just feet away. It’s a panorama of extremes and stark beauty. I was told that restoration and regeneration takes about seven decades.
In the meantime, there are plenty of things to do and enjoy in other areas of the White Mountains, including hiking the well-developed trail system (https://www.trackswhitemountains.org/), road and mountain biking, four-wheeling, horseback riding, fishing and a lot of just relaxing. That’s what the group of five along the east fork of the Black River were doing. Camped nearby, they had plunked their aluminum fold-up chairs in the river, letting the shallow water move over their feet.
“It’s cold, but you get used to it,” said one of the women, smile on her face and beer in hand.
August in the White Mountains brings another of my favorite phenomenon — mid-afternoon “monsoons” as they call them in the desert, complete with lightning, thunder and sometimes hail. It’s a sound and light show that’s exciting to witness, especially if you are caught in the middle as we did one afternoon attempting to get to Big Lake for a picnic. The skies opened and the rain descended, ferociously pounding our car, each drop leaving a footprint the size of a golf ball. Despite hardly being able to see the road, there was no missing the forks of lightning that sliced the air in the distance.
In the end, we picnicked in front of the fireplace back at Dan and Jenny’s Alpine home and watched the continuing deluge through their picture windows.
Top: August in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona means unpopulated trails, hiking through fields of wildflowers and temperatures in the 60s and 70s. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.