Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Travel Issue: August 2015
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The “Best Cabin Region in the U.S.” offers both rustic recreation and luxury fun.

Pinetop-Lakeside was crowned “Best Cabin Region in the U.S.” this year by the readers of Cabin Life Magazine, beating out such locales as South Lake Tahoe in California and the Adirondacks of New York. It’s a well-deserved accolade: Roughly 50 alpine lakes lace the White Mountains region, which also sits on the largest stand of Ponderosa pines in the world. With Pinetop-Lakeside perched at a 6,800-feet elevation, the air is crisp and clean, and summer high temperatures are typically 15 to 20 degrees cooler than Phoenix. But this once-sleepy town of 4,200 is waking up with an explosion of events and festivals, bars and restaurants, and even day spas. Nature vs. nurture? Why not get the best of both? These days in Pinetop-Lakeside, you can get a calf-roping lesson and a pedicure, less than a five-minute drive apart.

“Somebody caught a big ol’ catfish,” my wrangler, Shane, says, pointing down at its sun-baked bones lying along the marshy banks of Scott Reservoir. We’re on horseback, moseying through meadows and open Ponderosa parks, where we’ve encountered grazing black Angus cows, majestic blue herons, a hawk and now this chum skeleton. We’re nearing the end of a one-hour trail ride ($33.50) from Porter Mountain Stables (3092 Jacks Rd., 928-368-9599,, and the thought of catfish must’ve made Shane hungry, because he starts enthusing about the prime rib at Charlie Clark’s. We could take another hour to trot to Mesa Overlook or Ice Cave (two-hour rides, $52) or even spend a half-day ($84) or full-day ($117) in the saddle, but my appetite takes me to the aforementioned Charlie Clark’s Steakhouse (1701 E. White Mountain Blvd., 928-367-4900,, where I order – and quickly consume in a fury of mmms – a perfectly-seasoned 6 oz. lunch steak cooked medium-well with tasty, paprika-dusted potato salad on the side. Established in 1938, Charlie Clark’s is the seventh-oldest steakhouse in the state, but a young and lively vibe thrives in the evenings, when the restaurant opens The Orchard, a large outdoor area featuring a barnyard converted into a rustic bar and a large dance floor for two-steppin’ to live music.

If I’d wanted to walk off my saddle soreness (or the steak), I could have chosen from the more than 200 miles of hiking trails within the White Mountains Trails System (, including Blue Ridge Trail #107, a moderate 8.4-mile meander along Billy Creek to the top of Blue Ridge Mountain; the 3.6-mile Ice Cave Trail #608, which winds along Porter Creek and the south side of the Scott Reservoir en route to a lava tube; and the intriguingly-named “Ghost of the Coyote Trail #641,” a difficult, 13-mile route along old logging roads framed by pinion juniper forest that’s known for its wildlife viewing (turkeys, javelina and mountain lions make frequent appearances).

Instead of hitting the trails, I connect with Mother Nature at the White Mountain Wildlife & Nature Center (425 S. Woodland Rd., 928-358-3069,, where I listen to University of Arizona professor Stephen Buchmann give a presentation on Arizona bees (did you know Arizona’s home to 1,300 varieties of bees, and that the majority of them live underground?) and walk around the 10-acre site – where they’re building a rehabilitation center for wildlife – taking pictures of vibrant wildflowers and spotting ospreys. Every month on a Saturday, the nature center hosts a Discovery Program (like the bee talk that had me buzzing); upcoming programs include “Elk, Deer, Antelope and Turkey, Oh My!” with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Arizona Game & Fish on August 1, and the “Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary & Mexican Wolf Recovery Workshop” with a live wolf on August 15.

The “Best Cabin Region in the U.S.” rightfully offers copious cabin rentals (visit for a list of accommodations), but one of the best bets for bucolic recreating is Lazy Oaks Resort (1075 Larson Rd., 928-368-6203, Pet-friendly Lazy Oaks boasts 15 log cabins ($109-$259 a night, depending on cabin size and season) situated right on Rainbow Lake, and offers boat rentals and bait for anglers. Families love to fish off the two docks for rainbow trout and largemouth bass, and fill the grassy common area with laughter, the smell of fresh catches on the grill, and the sound of horseshoes clanking against stakes.

PHM0815GE03Speaking of sound, live music is everywhere in Pinetop-Lakeside. Most of the bars and restaurants host troubadours strumming guitars and playing faithful renditions of classic rock and country songs. There’s some impressive homegrown talent in reggae band Planting Seedz and folk-rock crooner Ryan David Orr; both played the town’s annual High Mountain Music Festival ( in June, along with Phoenix-based indie rock band Darkness Dear Boy, Colorado chanteuse Lindsey Saunders, and Phoenix singer-songwriter Lee Perreira. Hundreds of people attended the music fest, dancing in front of the pine-log stage and sipping a variety of Arizona craft beers from several purveyors including Prescott Brewing Company, Grand Canyon Brewery Co., Four Peaks Brewing Company, Mudshark Brewery, and the town’s own Pinetop Brewing Company (159 W. White Mountain Blvd., 928-358-1971,, where I pick up a “Stolen Recipe” barbecue pulled pork sandwich and an effervescent blonde (a Tall Board Blonde beer with hints of banana, that is). PBC’s pork is chewy and smoky, smothered in a dark, tangy sauce and served with a side of brown-sugary baked beans. It’s sloppy-good, but I think the big-ass burger I had when I visited in the spring was better (two juicy half-pound patties between tough-enough buns).

The dining scene in Pinetop-Lakeside is diverse, with the one common denominator being hungry-cowboy-size portions. Steak is still king ‘round these parts, but breakfast is a big deal, too – as evidenced by the epic lines perpetually stretching through the parking lot at Darbi’s Cafe (235 E. White Mountain Blvd., 928-367-6556,, which, in terms of popularity with locals, is like the Matt’s Big Breakfast of Northern AZ. “It’s a madhouse every day, but especially on weekends,” one local old-timer tells us with a smile, as he circles the lot for the third time looking for an empty parking spot. Since opening in 2006, Darbi’s has been the go-to grub hub for gargantuan made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls, hearty huevos rancheros, and baseball glove-size biscuits bobbing in a sea of sausage-studded gravy. Anybody in line will tell you it’s worth the wait.  

Another good breakfast option – and another place worth its wait in golden yolks – is Johnny & Dee’s Picnic Basket (436 E. White Mountain Blvd., 928-358-1992), where diners enjoy traditional American breakfasts and strong Kozy Bean coffee amid red-and-white checkered décor and the sound of Sunday sermons softly piping through the speakers. The applewood-smoked bacon in my “Hen House” (two eggs cooked to order, hash browns, toast and choice of bacon or sausage) is chewy and flavorful, with a hint of maple.

It’s not all dirty spurs and meat-and-potatoes in Pinetop-Lakeside. People with finer tastes will find satisfaction, too – even if they’ve gotten used to the steak and burger staples at most local restos.

“You come to eat at Salt, and you order a cheeseburger?”

Rica Girardi, owner of Salt Restaurant & Wine Bar (476 W. White Mountain Blvd., 928-367-1819, seems genuinely upset with my dinner choice. Never mind that it’s the hautest burger I’ve ever had – oozing bourbon sauce and topped with gooey Gouda cheese, a sunny-side up egg and a tangle of arugula; it couldn’t have been any more European if the cow had a French accent – she would have preferred I perhaps try the natural black Angus beef filet framed by truffled mushroom farro risotto, or the Alaskan halibut swimming in purple ginger sauce, or maybe the Australian lamb with garam masala mustard and mint broth. Hands-down the finest dining establishment in town, Salt also offers wine flights and serves a tongue-tantalizing array of artisanal cocktails, like an elderflower martini made with St. Germain liqueur and top-shelf gin or vodka; a Love Potion #9 with pomegranate liqueur and Cointreau Noir; and the refreshing “Sib’s Cocktail” with muddled basil, vodka and soda served on the rocks. Meals are supplemented by live music, and the environment – industrial-chic with a black-and-white motif – feels surprisingly sophisticated and urban.

Located in the same shopping center as Salt, White Mountain Soap & Bath (928-358-1975, is a one-stop shop for spoiling oneself. Here you’ll find hundreds of handcrafted body butters, botanical-infused soaps, massage oils, bath bombs and fragrance sprays. Our favorites: the orange-vanilla fizzy bath bombs, which make it smell like you’re soaking in a melted Creamsicle; the lavender roll-on fragrance with sweet almond and grapeseed oils; and soothing green tea body butter. Extend your zen next door at Open Spaces Yoga Center (928-367-4636,, which offers meditation sessions and classes in yoga styles including “gentle beginning yoga,” Iyengar yoga (a form of Hatha yoga that focuses on posture and breath control), and Kundalini yoga (influenced by the Tantra school of Hinduism). For those looking for a faster-paced path to enlightenment, Open Spaces also hosts tae kwon do classes.

PHM0815GE05For people who want to be pampered after a long day of recreating in nature, Pinetop-Lakeside plays host to a handful of salons and day spas, the most luxurious being Spa Estique (1746 E. White Mountain Blvd., 928-367-6500,, where guests are soothed by the sounds of running water and New Age flute music in an earth-toned setting embellished with oversize pillows, shimmering sheer gold curtains and gongs. Whether you want a “Cinnamon Paprika Cellulite Treatment” body wrap ($60), a microdermabrasion facial ($125), or just a good ol’ fashioned Swedish massage ($65 for 60 minutes; $105 for 90 minutes), the menu of services here has you covered – perhaps in mango enzymes and coconut sugar, but covered nonetheless.

A fruity facial and a frolic through the forest? It’s enough to give us cabin-living fever. Eat your heart out, Adirondacks.

Upcomin Festivals & Events in Pinetop-Lakeside
Lion’s Den Summer Concert Series
Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers play August 29, and A Boy Named Sioux performs Sept. 19, at The Lion’s Den Bar & Grill, 2408 E. White Mountain Blvd., 928-367-6050, Call for ticket prices.

10th Annual Woodland Wildlife Festival, Sept. 5
Features live wildlife and presentations from the Wildlife World Zoo. Free. Held at the White Mountain Wildlife & Nature Center.

40th Annual Fall Artisans Festival, Sept. 25-27
One-of-a-kind handcrafted pieces from more than 80 artists are the focal point of this fest, which kicks off with a parade and includes a 10K run, a quilt show and an antiques exhibit. Free. Held at the Mountain Meadow Recreation Complex, 1101 S. Woodland Rd., 928-368-6700.

32nd Annual Run to the Pines Car Show, Sept. 25-27
This classic automobile fête kicks off with a “Cavalcade of Cars Parade” along SR 260 that ends with a barbecue dinner at Hon-Dah Resort Casino and continues with the car show at Pinetop Lakes Golf and Country Club, 4643 Buck Springs Rd., 928-368-5325,