TRAVEL
California Bucket List: Strange vibrations near Joshua Tree, monarch butterflies, startling urban archaeology and a new adventure each day

A weekend escape to Carefree, Ariz., is just that

We drove to Phoenix for a family wedding in early November and had most of two days free between evening events. What’s to do, nearby and low-key? Cue the little town of Carefree. The town center feels a bit like a junior Sedona-style art colony, with shops, galleries and restaurants. We found ourselves on Easy Street (literally) strolling the Thunderbird Artists Fine Art & Wine Festival (also March 17-19), then heading into the nearby hills for a short hike amid stately saguaros.

The tab: $143 a night, excluding taxes and fees, for a king suite, $75 for meals and $20 for admissions.

The bed

In retrospect, we wished we had booked one of the mountain-view western-style resorts  in Carefree or Cave Creek, but family obligations kept us in north Scottsdale at the freeway-close Hampton Inn & Suites [9550 E. Talking Stick Way, Scottsdale, Ariz.; (480) 270-5393]. Spring training note: It’s a swell place to stay for Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies baseball games at next-door Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

The meal

Start with a creamy wake-me-up at the Black Mountain Coffee Shop [7211 E. Ho Road No. 23, (480) 488-9261], then stroll down to view Sundial Plaza under the town’s massive 62-foot gnomon (the shadow-casting part of a sundial). Nosh along the way at the festival booths; the Orange Dreamsicle flavor at K&R Fudge (to order, [480] 818-1938) is somehow both delightfully fudgy and reminiscent of that childhood frozen treat. $5 per slice, about a quarter-pound.

The find

For us, it was the great desert outdoors at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area (44000 N. Spur Cross Road, Cave Creek). We chose an easy loop trail but made slow progress as we stopped to stare at the massive, many-armed saguaros reaching into the vast Arizona sky.  The slow-growing saguaros don’t usually sprout a first arm, or branch, until 50 to 75 years old, so we were surrounded by real history in this 2,000-acre protected zone. The previous night’s thunderstorm had drenched the trails and creek canyon. That water may explain why this desert, teeming with mesquite, palo verde, opuntia and barrel cacti, appears so green. Note to curious husband: The “teddy bear” cholla’s name is ironic; it’s not really a cuddly plant. Yes, that barbed “jumping joint” you kicked is going to stick to your shoe for the duration.