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North Toward Phoenix: The Safford Area & Mount Graham

Roughly 50 miles north of Willcox, off U.S. 191 in a unit of Coronado National Forest, rise the Pinaleño Mountains and 10,717-foot Mount Graham, a favorite summer-vacation spot for desert dwellers. Here you'll find campgrounds, hiking trails, and an astronomical observatory. This observatory, funded partly by the University of Arizona and partly by the Vatican, was built despite concerns that the mountaintop was the last remaining habitat of 400 endangered Mount Graham red squirrels.

To the northwest of Mount Graham, at the end of a 45-mile gravel road, is the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, through which flows the perennial Aravaipa Creek. This scenic canyon is bordered on both ends by the Nature Conservancy's Aravaipa Canyon Preserve. Together these natural areas protect Arizona's healthiest population of native desert fish species, as well as cougars, desert bighorn sheep, bobcats, and 200 species of birds. Permits, which are required for hiking in the canyon, can be requested from the Bureau of Land Management, Safford Field Office, 711 14th Ave., Safford, AZ 85546 (tel. 928/348-4400; www.blm.gov/az/st/en/arolrsmain/aravaipa.html), 13 weeks in advance of your visit (spring and fall are the most difficult times to get reservations).

Not far from the turnoff for Mount Graham and just south of Safford, you'll find Roper Lake State Park (tel. 928/428-6760; www.azstateparks.com), which has a hot spring, a campground, rustic rental cabins ($55 per night), and a lake with a swimming beach. The day-use fee is $7 per car; camping costs $15 to $23. There's good bird-watching here and at the nearby Dankworth Pond (where you'll find a nature trail and an outdoor exhibit on the various Native American cultures that used this site in centuries past). The state park is off U.S. 191, about 6 miles south of Safford; the Dankworth Pond site is another 3 miles south.

In this same area is the Kachina Hot Springs Mineral Spa, 1155 W. Cactus Rd. (tel. 928/428-7212; www.kachinaspa.com), 6 miles south of Safford. Visitors can soak in hot mineral waters, enjoy a sweat wrap, and get a massage. A 30-minute soak costs $10; treatments range from $45 for a 15-minute soak, foot reflexology, and a 30-minute wrap to $95 for a soak, wrap, foot reflexology, and 1-hour massage. Just around the corner is Essence of Tranquility, 6074 S. Lebanon Loop (tel. 928/428-9312; www.azhotmineralspring.com), a more rustic establishment that has cement-lined hot tubs and offers similar services. Use of tubs is $5 per person for 1 hour; 1-hour massages go for $65. Tubs are available Monday from 2 to 9pm, Tuesday through Saturday from 8am to 9pm, and Sunday from 8am to 7pm.

Just south of Safford off U.S. 191, you'll find Eastern Arizona College's Discovery Park Campus, 1651 W. Discovery Park Blvd. (tel. 928/428-6260; www.eac.edu/discoverypark), an interesting stop for both kids and adults. This science park includes the Gov Aker Observatory, which is home to one of the world's largest camera obscuras (a dark room inside of which views of the outdoors can be seen projected on a wall). The observatory also has a 20-inch telescope that is available for public use and a space-flight simulator ride that is one of the park's top attractions. A marsh offers good birding opportunities. The park is open Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm and Saturday from 4 to 9:30pm; admission is free.

Twenty miles northeast of Safford off U.S. 70, you'll come to the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area (www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/blm_special_areas/ncarea/gbox.html), a popular hiking area on BLM land. As at Aravaipa Canyon, this area preserves the landscape around a perennial stream, in this case the upper reaches of the Gila River. There is no fee to hike the area.

For more information on the Safford area, contact the Graham County Chamber of Commerce, 1111 Thatcher Blvd., Safford, AZ 85546 (tel. 888/837-1841 or 928/428-2511; www.graham-chamber.com), or the Bureau of Land Management, Safford Field Office, 711 14th Ave., Safford, AZ 85546 (tel. 928/348-4400; www.blm.gov/az/st/en/fo/safford_field_office.html).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.