It’s no secret that it gets hot in Arizona, real hot. Fortunately, there are many places where you can cool off. Unfortunately, the best places aren’t so secret any more, so we have found it best to hit these spots mid-week if at all possible. In preparation for an extended time away to a sandy shore, I packed up our Pin Drop with all essentials. The versatile roof rack allows us to haul two kayaks, and a solar shower is a great way to wash off at the end of the day, or wash sand off feet before crawling in for a snooze. Two ARB awnings provide ample shade. We brought along the Dometic chest-style fridge and loaded it full of fresh food before departing, and a separate Canyon Cooler was loaded in the back of the truck with ice and drinks. Life jackets, hats, sunscreen, water cannons, buckets, shovels. Time to hit the road.
I took some time to sneak my girls down to an undisclosed location where we could camp shoreline. It’s a beautiful lake, lower elevation and a great place to explore on a kayak. We hit the shore Tuesday afternoon, and I was pleased to see that our favorite spot was empty and available. I uncoupled the Pin Drop just a few feet from the shore, and my girls splashed in the water while I set up our camp. The kayaks came off right away, then I unfurled our awning, a critical component in the summer sun. When not in the water, we followed the arc of the shadow patch all day long. In just a couple minutes our camp was set up, and I dove in the water and joined my girls, who bobbed about like corks, giggling in their life jackets. The great part of this particular shoreline camp, is that it’s a nice, shallow bay removed from the larger body of water, which can get choppy if there are a lot of testosterone-fueled boaters on the water. It’s Tuesday, however, and we are pretty much the only ones around. After cooling off, we crawl back to the shore and I get dinner started while the kiddos make sandcastles.
Sunset is remarkable on this lake. The rugged mountains flank either side of this canyon and when the sun dips behind them they light up red, then soften to purple and stay so for a long while. A breeze always comes up strong from the south, but it cools you off so nicely after a day of roasting. Evening is a display of stars, as if viewed through a magnifying glass. It’s sublime. It’s fun to share with my daughters, especially at this age. Our oldest was six weeks old when she first camped here, so she doesn’t remember it. Now she will. I anticipated needing to run the fan all night to cool the camper down, but with both windows drawn open, the breeze flows straight through and it’s just perfect inside. My girls are lulled to sleep with stories of how Mom and I proposed here nine years ago, and the fun we had camping in the old 1952 Happy Home.
Our first morning was surprisingly chilly, or at least it seemed that way after having been in triple digits the day before. We enjoyed the coolness over breakfast, and I sipped coffee while the sun climbed behind the mountain range to our east. By 9 a.m. it peeked over the craggy ridge, and then it was hot, hot, hot. Before the lake became choppy from wind and boaters, we piled in the kayak and floated around the shoreline, venturing down to check out a nearby developed campground. The campground was half full of monster campers, generators were starting up and people were unpacking their toys. We floated by slowly, staring as if through a storefront window, watching the campground come alive. I was sure glad to be in the National Forest, not on blacktop. Back at camp we spent the day in the water or under shade. Sandcastles, books, snacks, naps. When evening arrived we felt we really earned it. It’s such a great relief when the sun dips below the ridge to the west. Even though the temperature may not drop much, at least the sun isn’t punishing you with its insistent shine, and the breeze kicks up to draw the moist air through camp. After dinner we take the kayak out for an evening float in the bay. A rental RV had parked across the bay from us and as we floated by our new neighbors shouted hello. We make friendly talk and learn they are visiting from Australia and had a week to spend. They ask about where some other good spots might be to camp in Arizona, and because they are from Australia, and because we use some Australian outback components in the manufacturing of our Pin Drops, I let spill a couple prime locations on the promise of secrecy. Back at camp we spin yarns again, and the girls want to hear more stories about when mom and I camped here before. I told them about our midnight canoe rides (not safe!) and how one morning the water level rose so high we walked out of our camper into the lake.
We are up again predawn and have breakfast in the cool morning. It’s a little less cool than the morning before and I already know it’ll be a scorcher. Mom is coming out to meet us this afternoon and the girls are already excited, asking again and again when she’ll arrive. We kayak out and I bring my coffee with me this time. Big bass are jumping out and slapping the water, their orange bellies shine for a flash and then they submerge leaving a large rippling circle in their place. For days they have disappointed fishermen along the shoreline. Up beyond the campground is a boat ramp and some early birds are dropping boats and jet skis already. It seems like the campground is filling up and I get the sense it’ll be a little more noisy today. Some day trippers roll through our camp throughout the day, just to swim and picnic. By late afternoon, however, we are descended upon by a large group of city dwellers. Two big fifth wheel campers rumble in, each pulling a boat trailer behind it. They circle camp once and I pray they pull back out to the main road. But no. Just about 20 yards away from our shoreline, they grain to a halt and put their rigs in park. Doors open wide and a gaggle of kids spill out of the trucks and attack the shoreline while parents uncouple boat trailers and campers . Our little paradise was no more!
We spin our chairs away from the shore and for the next hour my girls and I watch as they unload camp and set up. I tell them it’s rude to stare, but it was actually very entertaining to witness. About a dozen kids splashed about in the water, hollering in joy, parents made drinks in tumblers and opened cans of cheap beer and hollered back. Boats were backed into the water and trailers got stuck. Trucks needed to tow trucks with trailers while tires spun freely in the wet sand. One boat broke before it ever made it out of the bay. It needed to be towed back. Expletives. Bad music. Diesel trucks stuck again. Two generators unloaded and set front and center as in display for all to see and hear. Multiple red 5-gallon jugs of fuel were placed next to the generators. A couple dudes in Bermuda shorts set to work topping off tanks, checking oil levels and pulling cords, and within seconds the droll of the engines drowned out all other sounds. My daughter Faye looked to me and said in disgust, “They can’t do that!”
“Of course they can,” I tell her. “They have as much right to be here as we do.” I explain more about the National Forest and public lands. I have to shout for her to hear. And then I say, “Mom’s not going to like this one bit. Let’s hit the water.” We float out of the bay and up the lake a little bit till the sound of the generators disappears. We enjoy the relative quiet for a bit but the lake is getting busier. Boats zip up and down the canyon and our kayak rocks from the wake. There is no cell service at this lake, which is normally a great plus, except when you need to sound the alarm to your wife before she arrives. Interception is not an option, so we just wait at shore for her to arrive. The girls make sandcastles while I make dinner. One great feature included in the Pin Drop is the stereo system. With the rear hatch open, the component speakers create a nice envelope of sound, coming down from the hatch speakers so that it seems you are surrounded in sound. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I turn the tunes up to ten and have a beer.
Just as the sun sets, Ruth arrives and the girls freak out in excitement. We shrug shoulders and without saying anything agree that we’ll be pulling out in the morning. For now we hang out shoreline with the girls and enjoy the antics of our neighbors, who we learn are from Tucson, and who plan to be here for the weekend. That night, the generators ran non-stop. When one ran out of gas, there was a little hope that it would be quiet, but the rumble of the second generator would spill in, and after a quick refuel, the first would fire up again, and so on all night long and into the morning. In the morning we eagerly break camp, by 9 a.m. we are waving goodbye to our neighbors and heading out to pavement and the new possibilities beyond.
We didn’t make a plan beyond: leave. The best thing about the Pin Drop is how self-contained it is. Making a plan is not very important because we are solar-powered and don’t require a campground with shore power. We have a fridge full of food still and a Canyon Cooler with ice cold bevvies. We can go wherever we please! And the great thing about Arizona is, if you don’t like the weather, just drive an hour or so. As we near the state highway we make a plan to head up the Salt River Canyon and get to the Mogollon Rim, the higher country to cool off. But I still want to be on water so we figure we’ll hole up at one of the many lakes that are scattered throughout the pines.
The Salt River Canyon is one of the most amazing places in Arizona, it’s impossible to think they carved a highway through it. Many twists and turns later we drop down to the Salt and cross the bridge. The canyon walls are geometric shapes that defy gravity, red and bold. As we climb the other side the saguaros wave goodbye and give way to juniper trees and eventually pines. Within the hour we are in the heavy pines, and we grace the edge of Show Low before heading west on Highway 260 to hit the Rim Road. Meant to be a quick way to get supplies from Fort Apache to Fort Verde by General Crook, the Rim Road now is a quick way for flatlanders to escape the heat, and they are here in droves! After a washboardy rough few miles we strike north to a canyon lake deep in the pines. Campers begin to dwindle as we get some miles between us and the main road and within short time we find a great camp that is within walking distance to a lake frequented by few.
We have camp set up in minutes, and we all head out for a hike to the water, which involves a steep ascent to the bottom of a ponderosa-lined canyon where a dam has retained creek water to form a wonderful mile long lake, inaccessible to motorized travel. Silence. At last! The water is too cold for me to do anything but look at, but the girls wade in without hesitation. As evening beckons we decide to head back to camp, and climb the steep mile back to the main road. After dinner we read books and the girls are fast asleep. Night brings a light rain shower which sweetens the air with the scent of pine. No generators, no loud boats. Two more nights. Perfect.
Morning is nippy and crisp. After coffee we make a plan to head down to the water for a float in the kayak. Problem is, it’s a hike! Being stubborn and determined beyond sense, I wrap a tow strap across the kayak and sling it over my shoulder and hobble my way down to the lake, with Faye following at my heels asking me is if it’s a lot of work. It is. But we hit the shore and drop our gear and take a little break before taking turns floating out on the water. Binoculars reveal a landscape untouched, and wildlife undisturbed by the noise of mankind and its machines. A heron tends two babes in her nest, and multiple game trails through the woods reveal a highway of access to this clear lake’s drinking waters. We have a picnic lunch at the shore and figure we best make the long hike out. The girls are tuckered already and the heat of the day, even at 7,000 feet elevation, is coming on strong. Ruth and I grab opposite ends of the kayak and crawl (literally) our way to the top, encouraging, coercing, bargaining, and sometimes carrying our girls to the top. Pine tree shade greets us at camp, and naps.
In the evening we prepare a nice dinner while the girls roam about camp playing games. After dinner we stroll along the forest road and listen to night settling in. In another few months the elk will be bugling, but for now it’s just birds and an occasional coyote. The interior of the Pin Drop is cooled off quickly by the forest breeze, and sleep comes easy. We are up early and break camp quickly. I’d really like to take the scenic route home, so I lie to my wife and tell her we could be home by noon if we take the Rim Road. It’s 45 miles long, and we’re twelve miles north of it right now, but we are rolling away from camp before 8 a.m., so we have plenty of time, and the views can’t be bought.
It is Sunday morning and traffic is pretty heavy on the Rim Road. Weekend warriors are departing for their sad march back to their metro home base. They scramble off the Rim Road as quickly as possible so they can queue up on the freeway home. This poses a little problem as we are heading, as usual, against the grain of traffic. On a narrow dirt road, with monster RV’s, poor trail etiquette and an inexplicable draw back to city life, sharing the road with others can be a challenge. However, halfway along the road we are able to pause for a second breakfast (or first lunch) and enjoy, from a safe distance, the jaw dropping views the Rim Road offers. All to the south are the great mountain landmarks of the central and southern part of our state, in gradations of misty blue. Below the edge is a thousand foot drop to the scrubby high desert, but up here is the edge of the lower Colorado Plateau, and it’s clearly demarcated by the cliff we are warning our kids about every five seconds.
After another teeth rattling hour we hit solid pavement and sail out on the Highway 87 to connect in a minute’s time to the 260 to head back home. The way home is uneventful, and upon arriving it seems that we have been gone for a month’s time, which is always a good sign of a great trip. Our Pin Drop is easily cleaned and staged for the next trip, and has proven to be the best adaptable companion one could have for a spur of the moment camp trip across the landscapes and elevations of the great state of Arizona.--