Photo by Jack Taylor

Feature Story — Spring/Summer 2018

Arizona’s Secret Canyon

Remote, lush & diverse, steal away to Aravaipa Canyon. | By Edie Jarolim

Looking to escape civilization and its discontents? Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, a desert oasis tucked away between Tucson and Phoenix, might just be the place. The Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcels out only 50 permits a day to enter the 19,410-acre preserve, thus minimizing encounters with other humans while maximizing opportunities to ogle wildlife.

Bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcats, javelina, and more than 200 types of birds are among the species drawn to the year-round stream that threads its way through the dramatic 11-mile-long gorge in the Galiuro Mountains. Prickly pear cacti poke out from impossible perches in sandstone cliffs that soar as high as 1,000 feet, while sycamores, willows, and cottonwoods hold sway below.

This is the natural universe unplugged, with no formal trails or campsites—just a streambed to follow during the day and whatever canopy of trees you choose to rest under at night.

But maybe you’re not soothed by mysterious animal cries after dark, and prefer to sleep on a mattress that doesn’t require inflating. Good news. In a pristine spread near the preserve’s western entrance, Aravaipa Farms Orchard & Inn offers abundant creature comforts while eliminating creature worries.

Both canyon and inn have rich histories.

Early native peoples, including the Hohokam, Mogollon, Salado, and Sobaipuri, lived along the lush banks of the spring-fed stream. The Western Apaches who followed gave the region its name: Aravaipa means “land of the laughing waters.” Settlers in the early 20th century had a heavier footprint: Farmers diverted the creek, miners dynamited fishing holes, and ranchers hunted cattle-eating species.

Concern over these depredations led Congress to protect the vast Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness in 1984. In addition, the Nature Conservancy took guardianship of 9,000 acres adjacent to the BLM land. Author Edward Abbey finished The Monkey Wrench Gang while serving as the first manager of the Conservancy’s preserve. Among the reasons he was sacked: skinny-dipping in Aravaipa Creek.

Although the mines were shuttered, a scattering of the canyon’s farms and ranches remained—including a spread with an abandoned fruit orchard bought by culinary pioneer Carol Steele. In the 1970s, Steele became known in Scottsdale and Phoenix for such ventures as a French bakery/cooking school that numbered as-yet-unknown chefs Jacques Pepin, Diana Kennedy, and Jeremiah Towner among its instructors. Steele’s foodie devotees flocked to the rustic-chic B&B she created at the orchard in 1995, despite—or perhaps because of—its off-the-beaten-path location.

After Steele retired, new owners updated the inn while maintaining its founder’s spirit.

You can feel Steele’s presence everywhere: in the colorful mosaic tiles of the walk-in showers and patios of the guest casitas; in the assortment of handmade bird feeders and metal sculptures that dot the grounds; and, especially, in the converted barn where guests gather for dinner.

Steele’s farm-to-table ethos is alive and well—and carefully planned additions are ensuring a lasting legacy. Last spring, 350 new trees took root alongside their mature cousins. Varieties include peach, plum, apricot, cherry, pomegranate, fig, apple, and more. In addition, a large new garden produces heirloom tomatoes, yellow watermelon, kale…you never know what garden-ripened bounty might turn up on your plate at dinnertime.

Vases of fresh-cut zinnias, sunflowers, gomphrena, and other grown-on-site blooms also appear on the wood plank dinner table, another of the many details that make a stay here special. No question: A little civilization in the wilderness can add a lot of contentment.

Edie Jarolim is a Tucson-based freelance writer who believes in balancing nature and nurture: Great hiking followed by great food.