Pat and I have found paradise, and it's only about an hour's drive north of Tucson. I'm talking about Aravaipa Farms, a country inn along Aravaipa Creek, just outside the west entrance of the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area.
Ten miles north of Mammoth on Arizona 77, you turn off on East Aravaipa Road. After passing Central Arizona College, you're engulfed in the pristine land that follows Aravaipa Creek, lined with large, old sycamore and cottonwood trees and grasses.
You can almost feel the presence of former creek-side residents, including Apaches, pioneer homesteaders, Basque Angora sheepherders and traditional Old West cattlemen.
Carol Steele moved to Aravaipa Creek 15 years ago from Phoenix, interrupting a successful culinary career. Inspired by her father, who often told her that she could do anything in life, Carol was a groundbreaking developer of gourmet food services and a 1992 inductee into the Phoenix-Scottsdale Culinary Hall of Fame.
In 1995, Carol was looking to "escape from technology" and achieve balance in her life. So she bought a working orchard. As Carol tells it, her mother's response was, "You're insane!"
During the next few years, Carol converted the farm's original barn and outbuildings into five casitas that she advertises as a peaceful, romantic retreat for visitors to the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area.
Today, Aravaipa Farms is a successful country inn with orchards that produce peaches, apricots, pears and pecans. It also has a garden and greenhouse for vegetables and a henhouse for eggs. From all of this - and regular trips to stores in northern Tucson along Oracle Road - Carol prepares wonderful gourmet meals for her guests.
Breakfasts are do-it-yourself from tasty ingredients in your casita refrigerator. Lunches are brought to your casita in picnic baskets (or tote bags if you're going to hike the canyon). The evening meal starts with guests getting together for wine on the patio followed by dinner at a communal table in a cozy dining room.
Casitas start at $250 per night during the summer and $345 per night the rest of the year.
Pat and I spent three delightful days at Aravaipa Farms, taking a break from TV, WiFi and cellphones. We were celebrating Pat's birthday, and at the first wine gathering learned two of the other four couples also were celebrating birthdays.
Our "Mountain View" casita was eclectically decorated with rustic furniture, folk art, Carol's treasures and regional books. Outside the casita we had our own burbling fountain and gazebo, plus plentiful chairs, lounges and tables.
Besides vegging around our casita, we walked the grounds at Aravaipa Farms, checking out the orchards and birdhouses, and also read a lot and played Scrabble (I finally won a game). Of course, Pat did a little knitting.
Running right through the farms, Aravaipa Creek is one of a handful of Arizona natural waterways that flows year-round, formed in the mountains to the east and fed by springs along the way. The creek has chiseled a narrow, winding canyon - preserved as the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area by Congress in 1984 - that offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Arizona.
The canyon contains a lush, diverse habitat for numerous species of birds, mammals, amphibians and butterflies.
The wilderness is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management - not the Forest Service or Park System. The distinction is important; you can hike through the canyon but there are no improved trails, and, except at the beginning, no helpful trail signs.
In its June 2011 issue, Arizona Highways features the Aravaipa Canyon trail as one of its 10 favorite hikes in Arizona.
We spent several hours hiking in the beautiful wilderness area - a unique experience.
Actually, it's hard to call it a "hike." It's more like a "wade." The natural land path keeps hopping the creek, so you find yourself continually crossing it. Our feet got wet quickly and, rather than searching for land paths, we defaulted to walking in the creek. Progress was slow, but fun.
We have long wanted to visit Aravaipa Farms. The setting, Carol's hospitality, her wonderful cuisine and the other guests made this a memorable experience.
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Access to the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is limited to 50 people per day in an effort to preserve its wild character.
Permits ($5 per person) are available only through the Bureau of Land Management's Safford Field Office, 1-928-348-4400, or www.blm.gov/az/st/en.html (click on "On-line Permits").