If you think Arizona is all desert and high heat, drive or fly to the town of Show Low, then head for the tall pines. An hour’s drive took us 8,500 feet into the White Mountains, where we jumped out of the car, climbed on horses, and soon were riding through grassy meadows into the ponderosa and aspen.
From a knoll carpeted with wildflowers we could see across the two million-acre Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona all the way to New Mexico. We kept an eye out for elk because our early autumn trip to the Hidden Meadow Ranch came during the rutting season. (Ever heard a bull elk bugle? Late at night or before dawn, when the forest is still, the eerie, high-pitched mating wail is a scream-like sound, odd coming from a beast that can average around 650 pounds on the hoof.)
This is also bear, deer, antelope, mountain lion, and wolf country. Wolves, long gone from this territory, have been reintroduced by the Forest Service and are said to be thriving. We never spotted one, but early one morning we had a close encounter.
Sue, camera at the ready, and I left our cozy cabin at 5 a.m. It was pitch black. We hoped to photograph elk returning to the high country from the Hidden Meadow Ranch meadow. Walking along a road, we followed the elk’s bugling, our ears straining for the sound of approaching elk. Then, between us and our cabin, we heard the unmistakable cry of a wolf, back in the upland trees, an insistent baying and barking. It was unnerving.
Sound travels in the forest, and if we could hear elk, they could certainly hear Mr. Canis lupus. Needless to say, we heard nothing more from the bulls and carefully made our way back to our cabin. Sensing something behind me, I spun around. It was an animal, all right-the black and white ranch cat.
We rode different horses every day at Hidden Meadow, in the warm sunlight, with young women as our wranglers. The horses were interesting creatures, each with a unique personality, some having special horseflesh buddies they enjoyed being on the trail with.
One of the best rides was up to a lake we approached through a wide, sun-warmed meadow. It was good to know that the 160-acre ranch is surrounded by the Apache National Forest, public land that (I hope) will always be protected and preserved.
Some guest ranches we’ve visited are virtual resorts, with golf courses and a genteel life style, and horseback riding available if you happen to desire. Others are rustic and dusty, showing a century of wear and tear. Hidden Meadow is one of Arizona’s newest, with a broad grassy lawn for relaxing, a main building where the all-inclusive daily rate (from $525) includes three fine meals, snacks, large two-story cabins, and all the riding your rear end can handle, plus activities.
One morning, guests gathered for a hearty cowboy breakfast: scrambled eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage, and biscuits and gravy, cooked in traditional Old West heavy dark Dutch ovens over an open fire, an old chuck wagon nearby holding the essentials. We washed it all down with rich, hot coffee.
Before dinner one day, we climbed aboard a wagon pulled by matched gray Percheron-Belgians and drove out into the meadow where the horses were awaiting the evening feed. We drove around, tossing out flakes of hay as the horses trotted behind us, munching as they went.
Low-key fun? You bet. For one thing, there are no TVs in the cabins. There was a large-screen TV upstairs in the main lodge, although I never saw anyone watching it. There are phones in the rooms and computer access. There’s also fishing and boating at the large pond, archery, leather working, nature hikes, and a hot tub in the meadow.
One evening after dinner, the ranch threw a S’mores and Snifters party around the campfire. We roasted marshmallows on sharpened sticks, and then wedged the melting sweets and hunks of chocolate between graham crackers. We sat around on logs, sipping hot chocolate and after-dinner drinks from the chuck wagon. Girls Scouts never had more fun.
Hidden Meadow Ranch is owned by two families who are also building roomy fractional-ownership cabins. The ranch is about four hours’ drive from Phoenix; we flew to the Phoenix airport from Santa Barbara, then by small plane to Show Low, where the staff picked us up.
This is the most beautiful country we’ve ever experienced at a guest ranch. Some ranches are too close to town to have a real country feeling. Hidden Meadow is open all year, and winter sports take over when the snow piles up. The staff will drive you about a half-hour to the Sunrise Ski Resort. For more info, visit hiddenmeadow.com.