We Arizonans are hearty. We are no shrinking violets, and when the temperatures soar way past triple digits, we say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Well, by August, even the most loyal and devoted sun-worshippers may be looking for someplace a few degrees cooler – so here’s an idea: an escape to the Rim Country.
Just two hours outside of Phoenix, folks can experience the charm of Payson, Pine and Strawberry, where it’s about 20 degrees cooler than Phoenix. Highway 87 is the road that leads through the center of the Tonto National Forest, the most visited urban forest in the country.
It’s also the largest in Arizona, made up of nearly three million acres stretching from the edge of the Phoenix metro area north to the Mogollon Rim, where passersby can see some of the most rugged, beautiful and diverse scenery in the country. From flat land to highlands, visitors will climb from 1,300 to nearly 8,000 feet in elevation as they make their way to the Mogollon Rim.
Saguaros will bow out to towering evergreens in the largest stand of Ponderosa Pines in the world. If you like the calm and peaceful sport that requires a rod, a line and some bait, there are plenty of streams and creeks stocked with trout. By the way, ever wondered why Highway 87 is called the Beeline Highway? It’s because it makes a ‘beeline’ to the heart of Rim Country, Payson, Pine and Strawberry.
On our most recent trip to this beautiful part of the state, we went hiking around Fossil Creek, took a bike ride through Pine, and stopped for a treat at the PIEbar in Strawberry. Fossil Creek is one of just two wild and scenic rivers in Arizona and is one of the most diverse riparian areas in the state.
Here, there are more than thirty species of trees, shrubs, ferns and moss. Well over a hundred species of birds have been spotted in the area, as well as javelina, snakes, and spiders. Seven different springs feed into Fossil Creek at a constant 76 degrees in winter, spring, summer and fall.
Folks who missed the sign saying ‘Entering Strawberry’ along Highway 87 won’t miss the bright red and yellow building just up ahead. Not only is it welcoming, it practically screams at you to stop in. The PIEbar is Strawberry’s sweet and savory spot, serving empanadas to locals and visitors.
Owner Kimberly Brennan got her inspiration from a woman in Puerto Vallarta who made two trays of empanadas every morning in her store. She said there was a line at 6 a.m., and if you didn’t get them by 6:30, they were gone. Brennan started with green chili, red chili, and bean and cheese flavors. Once they caught on, she started experimenting and now makes chicken potpie and mushroom stroganoff empanadas along with sweet empanadas like a lemon bar – some say that one is life-changing.
While in Strawberry, check out Arizona’s oldest standing school. Strawberry Schoolhouse no longer holds classes but can provide a great history lesson.
The real lesson here, however, is that Highway 87 is dotted with roadside stops from kitschy stores to mouthwatering treats, and between the weather, the trails and the eye-catching scenery, there’s no reason not to enjoy one last summer trip to Rim Country.
– Robin Sewell is the host and executive producer of Arizona Highways Television, Saturdays and Sundays on CBS.