"Oh, it's just a dog," says my husband, setting down his high-powered binocs, disappointed that our wildlife tour through Arizona's White Mountain Apache Reservation has so far turned up zero wildlife. "That's no dog," corrects our guide, whistling slowly under his breath. "That's a Mexican gray wolf."
And sure enough, out from the edge of the Douglas fir forest trots the once-endangered predator, giving us a good look at his gorgeous gray and buff coat ― and explaining why the elk we expected to encounter are nowhere in sight.
Such surprise sightings ― and the promise of bald eagles, black bears, and a scenic, if bumpy, ride aboard a zebra-striped Pinzgauer off-road vehicle through millions of protected wilderness acres ― are only part of what draws people to the town of Pinetop-Lakeside and the forests close by.
Perched at a cool 7,000 feet, 200 miles northeast of Phoenix, Pinetop-Lakeside is the perfect summer playground, with its pine-scented mountain air, easy access to adventure, and instant tranquility, as well as the delightful discoveries found only in small towns like it.
Long used as a gateway to the White Mountains and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, Pinetop-Lakeside proper has a lot going for it as well, such as a sophisticated wine bar, oddball antiques shops, quaint log cabins, and a friendly year-round (and swollen summer) population that thrives on both the solitude of nature and the town's strong sense of community. Add to that the hundreds of miles of nearby trails, with their lush meadows and chilly but swimmable lakes.
As its mouthful of a hyphenated name suggests, though, this town wasn't always so tight-knit. Pinetop-Lakeside started out as two separate communities. Lakeside was all about sheepherding, while Pinetop saw freight wagons heading toward Fort Apache. As time passed, they were pulled together by a building boom that included plenty of vacation homes, and the two incorporated as one in 1984.
The community came even closer together in 2002, when the massive Rodeo-Chediski forest fire ― the largest in Arizona's history ― roared to the edge of town. Jo Baeza, a 42-year resident and a columnist for the local paper, was on duty as a Forest Service fire lookout that summer. "The blaze was frightening," Baeza says. "It seemed like it was moving all the way to New Mexico." The fire didn't actually cross state borders, but it did consume more than 460,000 acres ― and forced the residents of Pinetop-Lakeside to evacuate. Luckily, the town emerged unscathed, everyone returned home, and the two communities, says Baeza, truly united.
Today its restaurants and roads are bustling with summer crowds, while the surrounding wilds of the 1.6 million-acre Apache reservation and 2 million-acre Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests ensure that Pinetop-Lakeside has plenty of peace and quiet for everyone.
Get out there
Take advantage of some of that solitude by hitting the White Mountains Trail System, Pinetop-Lakeside's recreational crown jewel, with about 200 miles of volunteer-maintained loops available to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.
Pack a picnic for the 6-mile Panorama Trail, a rigorous half-day excursion that winds past grassy meadows dotted with grazing cattle and continues up a hillside flanked by vistas of the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains. Make time for a guided ride with Porter Mountain Stables, and amble on horseback through carpets of yellow wildflowers to the clear blue stillness of a small lake.
You'll find lots of trails in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests too. Before heading out for an all-day hike, warm up with an easy mile-long stroll around Woodland Lake, an idyllic reservoir ringed in sunflowers that's in the Apache-Sitgreaves. Yep, you could hike around here all summer long and never tread the same path twice. And people do. As Baeza says, "You don't come up here unless you love the outdoors."
Eat and antique
Hiking boots are optional at the Tuscan Glass Wine Bar & Restaurant, which opened last year and has since become the go-to spot in town. With a collection of more than 1,500 bottles, 40 wines by the glass, and a menu including osso buco and gorgonzola-tossed penne, the Tuscan Glass provides a civilized meal after a day in the dirt.
Just up the road is Charlie Clark's Steak House, another summer-night favorite, where locals come for ribs and a twirl on the outdoor dance floor set up in an old apple orchard.
Spend an afternoon prowling for antiques and browsing in boutiques along the main road. Harvest Moon Antiques has old-fashioned firearms, and the Burly Bear carries very cute (but not so cuddly) chainsaw-cut creations.
Go on safari
End your stay with a wildlife tour at dusk led by Backcountry Safaris & Tours, an outfitter with permits for otherwise off-limit backroads in the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Clamber into six-wheelers once used by the Swiss Army, and ramble through the remote wilderness ― keeping your eyes peeled for that rare Mexican gray wolf ― before darkness envelops the forest and you return to the welcome civilization of a little town.