Ethan Hartz peers over a bear claw-scarred log on the Mogollon Rim.
Don't let the eye-popping red, orange and yellow of fall foliage and the gentle rustling of same dazzle you to the sights and sounds of other wonders of the woods.
My husband, Myron, and I met our son, Ethan, on the Mogollon Rim road the second weekend in October and headed for the spot we've deemed "Hidden Autumn Valley."
Several autumns ago, in the midst of a predominately Ponderosa pine forest with occasional aspen stands, we stumbled upon a sizable pocket of maples and oaks. We marveled how they stood out like a girl in a party frock at a business conference.
Neither did they disappoint this year. While the aspens had barely started turning golden, these other deciduous trees blazed red with yellow highlights.
We enjoyed a two-picnic day: smoked salmon and garlic cheese on crackers, fresh pears and homemade Halloween-decorated cookies for lunch when the sun kept us warm enough to have a cold meal; hot dogs roasted over the campfire, beans heated right in the can, chips and s'mores for supper when we desired heat from the open flames in the rapidly cooling evening.
In between eating, we read, dozed, and even ambled through the colorful woods, and while admiring the patterns of fallen leaves, noted those other wonders. One was a large tree trunk scarred all over by a black bear's claws. Piles of bear, elk and deer scat showed who shared their wondrous home with us.
Agile squirrels chased each other up and down the 45-degree angle of a fallen aspen. Mea Dog loved charging after the squirrels when they ventured to the ground. They easily leaped into the trees, then chattered at her while she stood, head up, tongue lolling and tail wagging.
Whenever the wind gusted, we heard groans as the dead aspen rubbed against a tall pine that held it above the forest floor.
As the afternoon waned, we faintly heard an elk bugling across the mountain, calling for a mate. And even in the cold, crickets started chirping.
Just before dark, we packed up, doused the fire and headed for home.
To get there, we went past Camp Verde on Hwy 260 and up to the Mogollon Rim on Hwy 87, and turned off at the Rim Road/Knoll Lake sign (Forest Road 300) for the scenic rim drive. Ethan came down from Flagstaff on Lake Mary Road to Hwy 87.
Somewhere that Myron always remembers and I always forget, we turned left on an unmarked and rougher forest road. You can explore many a road in here to find many a treasure like our "hidden autumn valley." Take warm clothes to layer up, and plenty of drinking water.