Our dinner conversation was spirited. Tell the story, someone insisted:
Walking a path on Pink Hill, a group of hikers came upon a rattlesnake. As it rose up from its coil and sounded its rattle, guide Brenda Donnelly put out her arm and whispered for everyone to back up - sloooowly.
At first, those closest froze. But after endless seconds, the group took a collective deep breath, slowly retreated, and chose a less-threatening path.
I wasn't at Pink Hill that day; I had opted for a climb along the Tanque Verde trail in Saguaro National Monument. In a way, I was a bit envious. Not that I was hoping to happen on a rattler; it was just a desert experience I had missed.
Before this trip, the desert was something I knew only from TV and movies - "F-Troop," Clint Eastwood and John Wayne films, and Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. All this changed last month.
Not only was this five-day journey in southeast Arizona my first, it was the christening trip for the company that organized it, New England Hiking Holidays. Based in Conway, N.H., 13-year-old Holidays specializes in hiking trips in the US and Europe. As its motto goes: "Footpaths by day! Country Inns by night!" Groups of up to 16 with two guides hike between six and 10 miles a day. Accommodations are at high-quality inns; meals tend to be gourmet, with lunches served on the trail.
The Arizona/Canyons & Copper Towns tour looked ambitious: hikes in the Santa Catalina, Rincon, and Chiricahua Mountains. All were different, and all were spectacular.
"We're here to show people the desert," says our guide Dana Steele, instructing us: "You can walk and you can gawk, but just don't walk and gawk at the same time." No surprise with the climate: temperatures in the 80s, dry air, and an intense sun, which always delights when it sets behind a mountain range.
Saguaro National Park is in the Sonoran desert, and in early spring it is just starting to bloom. Every second, it seemed, a bud exploded into a blossom: white, yellow, and pink flowers on cactuses; red-orange blossoms on ocotillo, and purple fairy dusters. Hedgehog Cactuses, normally the small-fries around here, get noticed more often, like a lady at church who sports a big colorful hat.
The Saguaro park is studded with the towering cactus after which it's named; tall and majestic, they are symbolic sentinels of the Southwest. They can live to be 200 years old, grow to 50 feet, and often don't sprout their "arms" until into their 60s. Small holes in them suggest the tiny homes of gila woodpeckers or elf owls. We hear a cactus wren and Ms. Donnelly remarks, "I always think he's laughing at us."
Saguaro (suh-WHAR-ro) are but one of many species of flora here. Prickly pear cactus, cholla cactus (including the teddy bear and staghorn), mesquite trees, palo verde, ocotillo, jojoba, yucca, and more dot the landscape. Explaining how the species capture moisture and survive desert extremes, Mr. Steele says, "There are invaders, escapers, and endurers." Donnelly offers up a crushed white berry to smell. Yuck, strong. "Creosote," she says.
By contrast, the vegetation we encountered later in the Chiricahua (cheer-i-COW-wha) Mountains was of higher-altitude order: cedar, alligator juniper, and oak. There, we found the shade and cooler temperatures welcome.
Our group of 12 was varied in age and included a university professor, social worker, litigation manager, an artist and mother of three, and a church organist. All were wise in bringing proper gear, including water bottles, extra socks, hats, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen. Four were first-timers, and eight had hiked with Holidays before.
Shirley and Bob Ritter from Vero Beach, Fla., hiked in Tahoe last year. "It's something different," says Mr. Ritter. "We don't do cruises anymore... we aren't interested in spending a lot of time in museums or going antiquing, and we like to hike." The couple, who will soon celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, takes two-mile walks at home every night.
Arriving fit for this trip was a concern for us newcomers. Wisely, the company offers daily choices; easy or more-difficult hikes, depending how vigorous you feel that day.
"This is my type of vacation," says Irene Vogado, an enthusiastic hiker from Orange County, Calif. "I enjoy the exercise, I enjoy meeting new people, and it's comfortable if you're traveling single." The company attracts an equal number of couples and solo hikers.
Repeat Holidays hikers answer directly when asked, "What brought you back?" The answer: "The guides."
Brenda Donnelly and Dana Steele are pros. Both have been with Holidays for years, and are experts in planning trips, first aid, and dealing with diverse groups. "I see value in taking people hiking with the purpose of acquainting them with the forest [or desert] in a comfortable way, so the forest feels like home and not a foreign place," says Ms. Donnelly.
Joanne McTiernan from Dover, N.H., who has hiked with Holidays several times, explains, "The guides are informative and sensitive to people's needs, yet they're here to hike." And hike we did.
The schedule went something like this:
Sunday: Settle in at Hacienda del Sol, a ranch resort that once had been a girls' school. (Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy stayed here.) The adobe buildings, beautifully kept desert garden, and views of the mountains made for a perfect scene-setter.
Monday: Hike along Bear Canyon. We stopped for lunch at the Seven Falls (yep, we counted them), a beautiful spot where we kicked off our boots and dropped our feet into one of the pools of cool water. For those who wanted more time in the desert, Steele led a short jaunt into the Sabino Canyon area.
Back at the Hacienda, several of us took a soak in the hot tub that overlooks the Santa Catalinas, before dinner at Papagayo, a Mexican restaurant.
Tuesday: The Tanque Verde trail in the Rincon Mountains led us up to what became known as "our nubble" in Saguaro National Monument. Our lunch spot presented spectacular views of other mountains. The less-strenuous option was Pink Hill (of rattlesnake fame). That afternoon, we traveled to Bisbee with a short stop in "the town too tough to die," Tombstone, Ariz., home of the O.K. Corral.
Bisbee was a flourishing copper mining town at the turn of the century. Today it's making a comeback as a tourist attraction and arts center. Appropriately, we checked into the Copper Queen, an old-time hotel built by the Copper Queen Mining Co. which hosted such notables as Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne. Nearby, the cavernous Lavendar Pit Mine looked as if it could swallow a meteor.
Wednesday: We set out for Chiricahua National Monument. The Chiricahua Apaches appropriately named this the "Land of the Standing-Up Rocks," for its towering rock formations are astounding, even artistic. If you look imaginatively, you can see faces: an old man, E.T., someone winking.
Thursday: What are the chances? Rain. A downpour in a place that barely gets 12 inches a year! We were supposed to hike Ramsey Canyon, but the six-mile loop didn't provide a sheltered place for lunch. So we took a walk along the San Pedro River. After the rain let up, we split into two groups: One went to the Mission San Xavier Del Bac, known for its Spanish Colonial grandeur; the other hiked part of the Douglas Springs trail in Saguaro National Park. We met back in Tucson at the Hacienda and set out for Daniel's, an elegant Italian restaurant.
Our last morning brought us to the impressive Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where I did see rattlesnakes - behind glass, thank you very much - as well as roadrunners and more. During our farewell picnic, we took photos of the group as well as a coyote that was eyeing our food from a distance.
Would you do this again? Overwhelmingly, hikers answered "yes." But it wasn't just the scenery or the hiking or the people, there was something more. Donnelly explained that a hiking trip puts people in a different place mentally as well as physically. "We get real busy," she says, speaking of lifestyles. "Often, we don't stop to listen... This is a great avenue with which to get in touch with ourselves."
For more information:
New England Hiking Holidays
P.O. Box 1648
North Conway, NH 03860
Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch
5601 N. Hacienda del Sol Road
Tucson, AZ 58718
(520) 299-1501 / 800-728-6514
Saguaro National Park
West: (520) 733-5158
East: (520) 733-5153
Copper Queen Hotel
11 Howell Ave.
Bisbee, AZ 85603
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N. Kinney Road
Tucson, AZ 85743-9818