Key to the Good Life: Destination: Strawberry, AZ
Over Easter weekend, the Missus and I loaded up the family truckster and set out on our first vacation in quite some time. We’d been invited to explore one of the rare remaining hidden gems in Arizona — the Pine-Strawberry area on the Mogollon Rim.
This is an area that is just starting to emerge as its own tourism destination. Located about 20 minutes north of Payson, the communities provide a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of city life — while featuring amenities you’d expect from a true travel destination.
Pine and Strawberry are effectively twin communities, separated by only 2 miles and located on Highway 260, an easy 90-minute drive from the East Valley. Pine is the bigger of the two and has most of the infrastructure — a modest grocery store, post office and a broad variety of antique and curio shops. Strawberry is essentially fully residential except for one pocket in the middle of the community that hosts some shops and restaurants, and importantly …
THE STRAWBERRY INN
Our home for our three-day adventure was this fully restored and completely modernized property in the heart of Strawberry. The Strawberry Inn sprawls over three properties — the main lodge with traditional guest rooms, and upper and lower properties that feature cottages and a few Airstreams.
We stayed in Cottage #2, a two-bedroom setup with exceptional finishes, a kitchenette, full bathroom, front porch and a yard overlooking Strawberry Creek. The cottage was smallish but efficiently designed; the kids had bunk beds while the Missus and I enjoyed a comfy queen-sized bed.
The Inn itself is beautifully restored, and each portion of the property features stunning public areas with lounge seating, fire pits, picnic areas and games. It was an excellent location for a weekend getaway but would also be ideal for a group gathering, thanks to the ample communal facilities.
The Inn isn’t an inn in the traditional sense — there’s no restaurant, although there is an exceptional coffee shop in a cute windmill structure out front. It’s run more like a vacation rental, with no central office and everything transacted in a touchless manner. Each room has a secure keypad for entrance rather than an old-school key. And you don’t miss having an on-site restaurant — four restaurants are within easy walking distance, and numerous others are a short drive away in Pine.
We didn’t have time to hit every restaurant in town, but we did hit four that we thought were noteworthy. This could be its own column, but I’ll make it quick:
Old Country Inn:
This restaurant in Pine features delicious wood-fired pizzas, craft beers and a charming indoor-outdoor environment. It also has a cozy side bar that featured a guitarist performing the evening we were there.
Perhaps our favorite experience of the trip. It’s like a bar, but for pie. Housed in an audacious little building right off the main road in Strawberry, PIEbar features a broad variety of sweet and savory mini-pies, baked kind of like an empanada. Combine that with its own variety of craft beers and you get a really unique, approachable place to eat.
Greater Pine-Strawberry area residents have an appreciation for good beer, and THAT Brewery is probably the epicenter for barley and hops in the area. It also provided our son with the opportunity to try an elk burger for the first time, which he enjoyed immensely.
The Randall House:
This breakfast and brunch location in a historic home on the main drag in Pine was the healthiest of the places we visited. It serves a delicious menu of traditional and heart-conscious morning staples. WARNING: It’s also a toy store, so if you’re bringing young kids, be prepared.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
The entire point of going to the Rim is to enjoy nature, and the options for doing so are almost limitless. At approximately 5,800 feet of elevation, Strawberry is about 20 degrees cooler than the Valley at any given moment, and its location in the heart of Rim Country provides a stunning natural environment.
We had to narrow it down a bit, so our big outdoor adventure was Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. As the name implies, the park features a remarkable natural bridge that rises about 200 feet above the creek floor below it, with a cascading waterfall dropping a light mist on the bottom. There are several striking viewpoints of the bridge on top that are easily accessible, but if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can take the Gowan Trail for about a quarter-mile hike that drops you 200 feet to a new observation deck in the creek bottom. It’s steep, but not Piestewa or Camelback steep, and my kids were easily up for the challenge.
Obviously, the Mogollon Rim itself contains myriad opportunities for outdoor recreation, but the forest roads were closed the weekend we were there. Friends of ours happened to visit the Fossil Creek Wilderness Area the same day we were at Tonto Bridge and raved about the natural waterfall and clear waters the creek provided.
Strawberry and Pine are still sleepy, and that’s a good thing. If you’re looking for an opportunity to commune with nature and get out of the heat without the hassle of heading to Flagstaff or the White Mountains, the two communities are a great option where you can experience an ideal blend of the rustic and the modern.