MORMON LAKE, AZ (Arizona Highways TV) -- In this lush setting of ponderosa pine forest, your outdoor adventure is about to begin. Take a self-guided tour of this 300-acre property, ranger-style. Or, quiet things down fishing lakeside with the kids. A 2.5-hour drive northeast of Phoenix is all it takes to reach this mountain retreat -- Mormon Lake.
"It's the largest natural lake in the state of Arizona, when full," explained our tour guide, Scott Gold of Mormon Lake Lodge. "It's roughly 7.5 miles long by 5 wide."
At an elevation of 7,000 feet, summer temps at Mormon Lake rarely hit 90 degrees. It's cool, refreshing, and even a little bit wild.
"I've sat on my back porch and counted up to 400 elk standing out in the lake bottom area out here," Gold said.
He has lived and worked in this quiet town for nearly 20 years. And with a population of 50 to 5,000, he calls this place one of Arizona's best-kept secrets.
"There's (sic) people that I've been on airplanes with, traveling cross country, they say, 'Oh, I've been to Mormon Lake, but yet there's (sic) people in Flagstaff that don't know anything about it."
Only one real question remains. Where exactly is the lake?
"'Where's the lake?' "What happened to the lake?' Of course, everybody asks that question," Gold said.
Surrounded by several other natural lakes, Mormon Lake is the largest, but typically completely dry or shallow in certain areas.
"The main reason that it does not hold a lot of water is one, we have to have adequate snowfall because it's fed completely on runoff. And it's very shallow, so it evaporates easily."
Visitors, however, still flock the area, especially in mid-May. That's the peak season for the Mormon Lake Lodge, which has long been the town's cornerstone. It is also where you'll find a saloon, country store and family-sized comforts of home.
"We have everything from small rooms, small motel-type rooms, all the way up to large, family-style cabins that will sleep 12 people, with full kitchens, game tables, television, satellite, the whole works."
The "whole works" includes enjoying the great outdoors without ever having to rough it.
Heading north, you'll find Upper Lake Mary, a long and narrow lake popular with power boaters and water skiers. It's also known for its northern pike and yellow bass.
Then head over the gorgeous Ashurst Lake, which is always stocked with rainbow and brook trout.
Just a bit south of Mormon Lake, check out the remote Kinnikinick with the San Francisco peaks on the horizon. Here, enjoy trout fishing and antelope watching.
The legacy of Tumblers
The Mormon Lake Lodge became a destination in 1924, in the heyday of logging and ranching. As the story goes, a Chandler man built the lodge, called it 'Tumblers' and it became a summer getaway for his friends and family.
"The community kind of was built back in the late teens and the early '20s. Back then, they didn't have any air conditioning per se in Phoenix, so they would send their wives and children up to spend the summer at Mormon Lake. And they'd have all these little cabins, so it was very usual to come to town and see nothing but women and children."
Well, today, 80 years later, the locals are still enjoying the legacy he left behind.
Part of that legacy is the food.
"It's always had a history of pride in great meals. You know, that country, large portions, and a steakhouse, of course. And we've tried to keep that reputation intact."
Known for its fireside steak, we couldn't do a show on Mormon Lake without visiting the steakhouse. We're talking authentic, open-pit. "We're one of the few, well, one of the oldest open mesquite steakhouse pits in the area still in existence."
"We actually cook our steaks on real mesquite wood, which gives it a real unique flavor, and it's done on a big open pit with a fire," Gold continued. "And the area down by the pit can get to around 150 degrees. You gotta be pretty durable to deal with that. And I have people that fly over to Phoenix from California to drive up here and spend the weekend and get a steak dinner."
So bring your "hungry man" appetite, and take a bite out of this place! It is sure to fill you up.
Mount up and hit the trails
One of the most popular summer activities at Mormon Lake Lodge is horseback riding. Whether it's pony rides or half-day treks, what better way to explore 20 miles of trails set against 300 acres of pristine forest?
"Most of the people that we take are people who have never ridden before," said Eddie Pisciotta of High Mountain Trail Rides. "And they get out there, and sometimes they've never seen a horse; they can be nervous."
"Basically, we pick their horses out, match them to their personality and experience level," he continued. "Every time we put somebody on a horse, we tell them how to steer. We tell them how to put their feet. We keep an eye on you the entire time.
"We take them out on a guided trail ride, and we have good, friendly wranglers that take care of them and make sure they're calm and confident the entire time."
"It's a nice, pretty area here in the pine trees -- lots of pine trees, lots of oak trees, and it's a nice, enjoyable way to spend the afternoon," Pisciotta said.
"When they're done, most of the time they feel like they're an expert and they had a great time. We'll make the most scared person come back with a smile on their face, every time."
The story of Romeo and Juliet
No other animal symbolizes the great outdoors quite like your trusted steed, except perhaps, the buffalo.
Visitors will also find it curious that buffalo, otherwise known as the American bison, are calling this place home.
"In 1997, the owner said, 'You know Scott, you need to have a couple buffalo out here,' and I thought he was joking," Gold said. "In 1998, he came up the next year, and he says, 'Where are the buffalo?' I said, 'Oh, you're serious.'"
Romeo and Juliet were the first ones purchased, and the herd just grew from there -- 10 in all, and each weighing up to 2,000 pounds. But don't let their docile nature fool you. These creatures can out jump and outrun almost any predator.
"A buffalo can jump 6 feet easily if it wants to. They can run about 30 miles an hour. They don't pivot on their rear like a cow or a cattle do. They pivot on their front, so they can do a 180 without breaking their stride. So, they're very fast for as big as they are."
These wild beasts can also live some 28 years. So far, the herd has given Mormon Lake a new calf each season. And now, will always roam this home on the range.
"You never really can tame a buffalo, and it's kinda like a grizzly bear. But if you're feeding them and they're happy like they are now, you're not gonna have to worry about them."