On a warm day, my kids love to hike the Bell Trail along Wet Beaver Creek. They couldn't care less about the gorgeous vistas of high Sonoran Desert - they're more interested in our destination: a cool, shady swimming hole a little more than 3 miles in.
The trail and the creek are part of the Coconino National Forest and the adjacent Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness Area, an easy drive from Phoenix. The same paved road, Forest Road 618, that takes you 2 miles off Interstate 17 to the trailhead continues another half mile to a picnic area. Continue an additional half mile and you'll find a petroglyph site. An excursion to Wet Beaver Creek can occupy a full day, so before leaving we make sandwiches for a picnic, and we stop on the way to pick up homemade muffins, cinnamon rolls, sodas, melons, and other fruit from Maxfield's Produce (9655 Cornville Rd.; 928/634-2542) in nearby Cornville.
The Bell Trail was originally built in the 1930s by rancher Charles Bell to move his cattle up to cooler grazing grounds in the summer. It rambles on for another 8 miles past the swimming hole, climbing to a high, grassy plateau. The first several miles of the easy-to-moderate trail parallel the creek, a lush riparian oasis of cottonwoods and sycamores that's a stark contrast to the red rock desert.
Known informally as the Crack, the swimming hole is a wide, deep stretch of creek where you can wade in for a swim (be aware that cliff diving is dangerous). After a dip, you can picnic on sandstone cliffs, or dry out on the walk back to the trailhead and have lunch in the picnic area farther along the road. There are no rest rooms or water, but tables are nestled on the shady banks of the creek. Keep your eyes peeled for herons and deer.
Round out your day up the road in the petroglyph site at V-Bar-V Rock Art (9:30-3:30 Fri-Mon; $5 per vehicle). A docent will point out many of the hundreds of petroglyphs pecked out on a rock wall between 1150 and 1400 by Sinagua Indian creek dwellers.
WHERE: From Phoenix, head 95 miles north on I-17; from exit 298, head east on Forest Road 618.
FYI: Bring water, food, and sun protection.
CONTACT: Red Rock Ranger Station, www.redrockcountry.org or (928) 282-4119.