SEARCH FOR A SMALL TOWN
Friendly conversation and free parking in
Christopher Creek is for people who want to hear the wind in the high mountain forest, the rushing water of our pristine mountain streams, or the bugle of a Rocky Mountain elk.
Cool morning air followed by a campfire smoke-chaser rolled into my car as I opened the door. The Tall Pines Market, a warm-red country store, advertised U.S. postal services above a “Fishing Worms Sold Here” sign. Potted flowers hung from the front porch, and a life-size plastic horse stared at the customers making their way inside.
I didn’t need stamps or worms, but I did want local advice about where to go for a hike and lunch.
I wanted to get away from speeding cars, concrete buildings, and overcrowded parking lots. When I asked friends for advice about small towns to visit in Arizona, a few gave the same answer: Christopher Creek, a mountain town of 200-plus residents in the Tonto National Forest.
“We aren’t a park, and we don’t have a theme,” the town’s website states. “Christopher Creek is for people who want to hear the wind in the high mountain forest, the rushing water of our pristine mountain streams, or the bugle of a Rocky Mountain elk.”
Two hours from Phoenix after taking a right at Payson, I’d arrived at the Tall Pines Market.
“I can give you a map, but I can just tell you the best place to hike,” said clerk Sandy Colidge. She shook her gray hair and focused her eyes on me. “See Canyon. It’s beautiful up there. My daughter goes up there every day.”
People thudded in and out of the store. Gourmet wine selections teased the sophisticated travelers, while hunters bought game licenses. Colidge helped a customer as she talked on the phone. “My daughter is getting married next weekend down by the waterfall.”
Photo by Kris Bolster A life-size plastic horse welcomes folks to the Tall Pines Market in Christopher Creek.
After hanging up, Colidge turned back to the cash register, and the customer asked, “Where’s the party?”
"We have a keg of beer. Everyone’s invited," Colidge laughed.
Smiling, I headed my car up the gravel road across from the grocery store. About a mile later, I reached the See Canyon Trailhead. This 3.5-mile trail—one of many forming the 51-mile Highline Trail along the Mogollon Rim—was cut in the late 1800s to link far-flung homes and ranches.
Long, velvety grasses grabbed my ankles in the first mile of the trail. Meadows spread under the ponderosa pines and maples. Half an hour later, the trees closed tighter around me. Finally I came to two trails. One arrow pointed left to continue on the See Canyon Trail. The other pointed right for a half-mile walk to See Spring.
See Spring grows into Christopher Creek, which I could hear bubbling through the forest. Town and creek share the same name. Back in the 1880s, a French explorer named Isadore Christopher and his mail-order bride, Mary Hope, ranched this land. Christopher’s name and part of his land became the town.
After I turned right, the climb grew steeper and starker. Small boulders and pinecones covered the trail. Flowers started to disappear. Grasses shortened. Then the trail evaporated.
I was lost. The forest was so thick that all I could see were trees and sky. Birds called to each other over the hidden creek’s rumblings. By following a dry riverbed, I found and retraced the trail back into the canyon.
After more than two hours on the trail without seeing anyone, I met Angie Tom.
“Do you know where the See Canyon Trailhead is?” I asked.
Tom leaned on her walking stick and pointed back to where two trails forked. Tom was on her fourth day of backpacking the Highline Trail.
Had she ever gotten lost here?
Tom squinted her eyes and said, “Yes, I have. I’d advise people hiking up here to bring a map, a compass, food, and clothing.” Wearing a green backpack the size of a small NFL player, she said she was a seasonal firefighter for the National Forest Service.
“It’s easy to get off trails around here,” she said. “Some areas are expertly maintained, while some are just lost.” She nodded her dark head. “There are no trail crews in the Payson District because of lack of funding, so volunteers do it [maintain the trails].”
Photo by Kris Bolster Young and old alike cool off and play in the creek.
Back on the trail again, I cut across the quieter length of Christopher Creek, where a family was playing on the large, cool stones.
“She loves it. She was hopping from rock to rock yesterday,” said Julie Kipper as Jessica, her 3-year-old daughter, splashed a stick in the creek. Jessica’s dad sat quietly on a rock while her brother and his friend jumped on the boulders.
“We camped here last night,” Julie said. "I heard an elk and had my husband build a fire at night, but nothing happened."
“They don’t do anything to you,” her husband said with a wave of his hand.
I kept walking, found my car, and drove back into town to the Landmark Restaurant and Saloon. Accented with long curves and sharp edges, the restaurant resembled a John Wayne movie set.
I took a seat on the back patio, looking into pine trees. After ordering a cheeseburger, I asked the waitress how big the town is.
“You have the Christopher Creek Lodge, the Grey Hackle, the Creek side Steak House, this place, and a couple of realty offices,” Felicia Sheahan said. “That’s about it. Yeah.” OK, there’s the fire station, a church, a scattering of houses, and a few cabins, but that’s about it.
Squirrels feasting on the pinecone nuts tossed the spent husks onto the green awning over my table. As I chewed my cheeseburger, I listened to the fake rain.
I turned to the table next to me as I caught a couple’s conversation.
What to do
“Are you from Wisconsin? I heard you say something about it,” I said to the woman.
“Oh, no, my family is from Wisconsin,” Mary White said.
“So am I. A small town on the Mississippi. That’s why I came up here. I was looking for a small town.”
“Well, we walked from one place to another when we got here. I don’t think we ever got into the car,” Mary said. A narrow walking trail parallels the two-lane highway through town, connecting cabins, houses, and restaurants.
Up from Scottsdale, Mary and her husband, Jack, had stayed at the Grey Hackle Lodge the previous night and on other weekend jaunts to Christopher Creek.
“We liked the folks so much," said Jack, his gray hair combed back smoothly from his cherubic face. “The owner is from Madison. He and his wife both own the place. You should go see them.”
The Grey Hackle’s wood cabins fell into view after less than a five-minute walk on the trail along the highway. Owner Erik Olson stood outside the office, cleaning supplies in hand, and greeted me.
Olson and his wife, Nancy, moved from Las Vegas to Christopher Creek five years ago. “We wanted a nice, kick-back lifestyle,” he said.
Long, brown pine needles shook from the trees when the wind curved into the pines. “We’re going to have rain,” Olson shouted to his neighbor across the dirt road.
He turned back to me and said, “A good way to add years to your life is to come to a small town.”
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
• Wooden Nickel: An Old West theme permeates these cabins. A bungalow for two runs $110 a night. The two-bedroom Butch Cassidy accommodates up to four people and costs $140 a night. The Ranch House holds up to 14 people for $325 a night. 928.478.4519
Photo by Kris Bolster The Landmark’s shady deck overlooks Christopher Creek.
Where to eat
• Creekside Steakhouse & Cabins: The home cooking has been famous for 32 years at this down-home place to eat and sleep. The Creek side Steakhouse cuts its own steaks, serves fresh fish, and makes its own salad dressing. 928.478.4389
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