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Tuesday, 10 June 2014 11:21

A visit to The Arboretum at Flagstaff

The blooms are just beginning to bud at The Arboretum at Flagstaff. In just a few weeks, it’ll be a great side trip to take on your way to the Grand Canyon. The former residence of now deceased Frances McAllister (who first came to Flagstaff by train in the 1930s and moved here permanently in 1967, after her husband, John Vickers McAllister, died), the gardens and buildings share what she learned about gardening at 7,000 feet elevation.

The place was originally used as a family mountain cabin retreat and overlooks the San Francisco Peaks. It became a public arboretum in 1981. A garden in her honor is currently under construction at the entrance and is expected to be completed in time for summer tours.

With 2,500 species of plants, 10 acres of gardens, two ponds, and a working greenhouse, there’s plenty to see amidst the ponderosa pines and quaking aspens. A research center is also on site, with the work there focusing on the ecosystems of the Colorado Plateau, which means you’ll learn about drought-resistance and the importance of growing native vegetation in a desert mountain environment.

If you’ve never been, the arboretum is located less than four miles south of Historic Route 66 on the west end of Flagstaff on Woody Mountain Road. Be prepared to drive on a gravel road, as Woody Mountain is not fully paved.

Picnic areas outside offer several shady spots to eat a packed lunch, which they welcome you to do. The Visitor Center sells gardening books, seeds, yard art, t-shirts, and other garden-related gifts items, including painted gourds. This is also where you pay for the tour. You can either take part in a guided tour or walk around the nature trails on your own. If you have a specific interest, ask the volunteer to direct you on the map.

If you don’t mind birds flying over your head, the Birds of Prey program is a favorite event for kids. Rangers spend some time talking about owls, hawks and raptors, and then let them fly over the crowds. That always makes me antsy, as their talons can catch the top of your head if you’re tall enough. But kids love it. If you won’t, just stand off to the side and watch. Or walk up to the ranger after the tour and meet the birds up close, perched safely and securely on a ranger’s hand.

Currently, the minute you step outside you’ll hear the Western Chorus Frogs croaking in the ponds. Common at the Mogollon Rim, they start breeding in the spring. You’ll also likely see a maze of mud trails. They look like giant-sized termite tunnels. The gofers are doing it. They’ve been particularly active this year, I’m told, and are a nuisance. One guide said she was standing with the executive director outside last week, when, all of the sudden, they witnessed a flower bud shaking in the air. No wind around, the next thing they knew, the flower was gone. A gofer had yanked it right under the ground with him as an afternoon treat.