By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Associate Editor
Montana summers are ephemeral, and winters always seem to be lurking around
the corner. Around the autumnal equinox, the prospect of short days, gray skies and
cold temps can wear out even the hardiest of northern Rockies residents.
Fortunately, for those with the means, Phoenix, Ariz. is a two-hour trip from
Bozeman thanks to low-cost Allegiant Air flights.
A Thursday evening flight drops you at the Phoenix-Mesa airport just in time for a
long weekend in the country’s sixth largest city. It’s a sprawling metropolitan area,
but even so, it offers the outdoor enthusiast plenty to do in the surrounding
mountains. I was in Phoenix for the Taste of the Trucks festival in late October, and
spent Friday exploring that rugged terrain.
With a little research, I found the Flat Iron trail in the Superstition Wilderness, east
of the city.
A half-hour drive from my hotel in Mesa – essentially a suburb of Phoenix – got me
to the trailhead in Lost Dutchman State Park, where a friendly park employee
greeted me, curious about my plan for the day. When I mentioned I was headed to
the Flat Iron, an imposing sandstone butte that looms over the park, she said, “I
thought so,” and ducked into the park office.
She returned with a rudimentary map, showed me photographs of the hike,
confirmed I had ample water, and handed me a flyer advertising where I could buy a
t-shirt emblazoned with, “I Hiked the Flat Iron.” I knew I was in the right place.
The three-mile trail to the top of the Flat Iron is distinct until it enters the
Wilderness, where it becomes significantly more adventurous. Within a mile it
enters Siphon Draw, a sandstone basin scooped out by millennia of flash floods,
hemmed by towering red cliffs. The route climbs nearly 1,800 vertical feet over
slickrock and broken rock walls and the final pitch involves a 15-foot section of
scrambling hand over foot – don’t get let this discourage you, it’s worth it.
The expansive view from the top offers an unobstructed sight of the craggy
Superstition Mountains to the east, and metropolitan Phoenix to the west. Except for
the occasional train whistle on the ascent, this was the first reminder that I was on
the doorstep of such a populated area.
Jumbles of brown hoodoos jut from the top of the mesa, which is covered in a
patchwork of cacti and yucca. Canyon wrens skitter around the rocks while swallows
zip around the cliff’s sheer edge, catching insects on the wing. I spent an hour
scrambling around the hoodoos on the summit and was back to my rental car in five
hours. The following day, I made my way over to the Taste of the Trucks festival, which
occupied a vacant city block in Roosevelt Row, a neighborhood in the heart of
The festival featured 50 food trucks – 25 each Saturday and Sunday – from the
Phoenix area, offering samples of pulled pork and gourmet grilled cheese
sandwiches, Vietnamese Pho and spicy Cajun delicacies. Local bands entertained
gastronomes as they ate and enjoyed cans of Dale’s Pale Ale and Old Chub from
Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colo.
“No one lived downtown when I moved here from Houston in ‘92,” said Roosevelt
Row resident Carl Johnson, as we watched a line of 30 people wait for pulled pork
sliders, listening to the old-timey country riffs of local band Greenwood Sidee. “Now
the infrastructure and events are bringing people downtown.”
Like many metropolitan areas, downtown Phoenix is experiencing a renaissance as
the urban flight that created such a sprawling city has begun to reverse. People are
moving back into the city, relinquishing their manicured properties in favor of
smaller houses closer to the centers of commerce and culture.
Ambling around the neighborhood after the food trucks closed their awnings, I
noticed a number of new-looking bars and restaurants, thrift shops and art galleries.
The city plans to start a bike share program called ‘Gr:D Bikes’ in December to
make Phoenix more attractive to young professionals and encourage tourists to
traverse the city on their own.
Though I rented a car to drive to the Flat Iron, I hopped the Light Rail for a
45-minute ride in and out of the city from Mesa. It’s an easy mass transit option that
whisks you through Tempe, past Arizona State University’s iconic Sun Devil Stadium.
The afternoon flight to Bozeman on Sunday left me ample time to soak up some
Vitamin D poolside that morning. After a few laps in the pool, and with a mild
sunburn, I was ready to welcome the Montana winter with open arms.
Where to stay: Renovated in 2009, the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Phoenix
Mesa-Chandler boasts the largest outdoor pool in Mesa, complete with a cascading
waterfall. It’s also perfectly located halfway between downtown Phoenix and Lost
Dutchman State Park.
What to eat: Joyride Taco House in Gilbert, just south of Mesa. Go for the Chicken
Tinga and mahi tuna tacos on made-to-order corn tortillas; stay for the Aguas
Frescas: the cucumber-mint “con booze” – or without – will slake any thirst.
Hot tip: Rent a car, drive east and explore the Superstition Wilderness. Contact
Michelle Streeter at Visit Mesa, a wealth of local knowledge
(firstname.lastname@example.org). Make sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
Taste of the Trucks festival, from left to right: Beatrice Bullock
poses in front of her Buzz-n-Beez food truck; Fat Guys Grilled Cheese was
handing out gourmet sandwich samples; Greenwood Sidee performed old
timey country Saturday night; J-Licious was one of 50 trucks providing
samples over the weekend. Mahi tuna and Chicken Tinga tacos are served fresh at Joyride Taco House in Gilbert, Ariz. PHOTOS BY TYLER ALLEN
Travel tips to save on holiday travel
Book early. Airlines price flights based on how many tickets have sold, so as seats sell out, fares go up.
Consider smaller or alternative airports. The big airport doesn’t always have the best deal, so check
out all your options.
Be flexible. Save big by flying on less popular travel days like Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Consider
celebrating the holidays on an alternate day – like Thanksgiving on Sunday or Christmas on Saturday – and
save you hundreds on airfare.
Pack smart. Pack light, check the airline’s Website for size and weight restrictions, and measure and
weigh your bags before leaving home. Hotels will provide a number of toiletries free of charge, or you can
wait to buy those travel-sized items at your destination.
Lighten your load. If traveling with family or in a group, consider consolidating your luggage.
Download before you go. Don’t get stuck paying unnecessary fees for in-flight entertainment or wifi.
Instead, load your portable device with movies, games and books leaving the house.
Bring your own water bottle. Water can cost as much as $7 a bottle in airports, so bring a reusable
container from home. Just make sure it’s empty prior to going through airport security.
Consider travel insurance. Pay a little upfront to ensure you don’t lose a lot from an unexpected change.