Experience the beauty and wonder of Arizona with an adventure trifecta
Whether your bucket list includes soaring 3,000 feet in the air in a hot-air balloon, riding a mile high on horseback on a legendary trail, or rafting the rapids a mile deep in the Grand Canyon, we’ve got just the adventure for you. The best news? These three journeys provide unique perspectives for those who want to experience Arizona’s most special destinations with a new view.
In 1984, fixed-wing airplane pilot Pat Nilz saw some hot-air balloons flying and thought he should check it out. Just one lesson, and he was hooked.
“It was a lot more enjoyable, but probably took more skill to fly the balloon,” he says.
After getting his commercial pilot’s license and performing jobs flying overseas, at multiple Winter Olympics and for National Geographic and Discovery, he decided it was time to put together a balloon ride business in Tucson, Southern Arizona Balloon Excursions. Recently, Linz’s son Patrick earned his license and joined in on piloting tours, as well.
Depending on the number of passengers (up to 10), most tours are done in either a 220,000-cubic-foot or 77,000-cubic-foot balloon. A typical day starts early in the morning, watching the crew assemble the balloon before heading skyward at altitudes up to 3,000 feet.
One of the most popular routes is towards the Avra Valley, with views of wildlife, the Tucson Mountains, Mount Lemmon, and the whole mountain chain around the southern Arizona area—plus plenty of open area for a nice, safe landing after 45 minutes to an hour in the air. Afterwards, it’s time to enjoy pastries and a bit of celebratory champagne while chatting about the experience and receiving your first-flight certificate. Including time for the chase vehicle to take you back to your car, plan for a total time of three hours.
From bucket-list fulfillment to holiday gifts to special occasions, the reasons for taking a balloon excursion run the gamut.
“We do a lot of marriage proposals, and we’ve even had a few wedding ceremonies. As long as I’ve been doing this, every time it’s special to see how romantic that can be,” says Nilz. “Everybody needs to enjoy the experience of hot-air balloon flight, because it frees the spirit and it’s good for the soul.”
Rim Country Riding
Patty Motley grew up on a ranch and always loved the country lifestyle. While she ran a horse-drawn carriage business in downtown Scottsdale from 1983 to 1993, the wilderness still called to her—spurred by a desire to have nights free and spend more time with her kids. The result was MTM Ranch Horseback Adventures, which runs tours in Cave Creek and the Tonto National Forest, and in Mogollon Rim country, east of Payson.
Up north, recent restoration projects have dramatically improved the 51-mile Highline Trail, making it an even more pleasant way to enjoy the serene forest, creeks, and canyons beneath the rim.
“Best of all, it’s just for horse riders, hikers, and bikers,” says Motley. “If you’re on an ATV, how many elk, deer, or California condors are you going to see? On a horse, you can walk right up to an elk.”
At three hours, the shortest tour starts at the eastern 260 trailhead, with fantastic views from under the rim, and descends into See Canyon not far from the MTM Ranch office in Christopher Creek. The scenic section from the fish hatchery near Kohl’s Ranch to Horton Springs takes three-and-a-half hours, while the longest ride, at five hours, runs from See Canyon to Horton Springs.
No experience is required, but you need to be physically fit and 12 years or older to navigate the remote, often rugged terrain.
“The horses are very good at their job, you just need to lean back and enjoy it,” says Motley. “They have three feet on the ground at all times, so they absolutely can’t fall.”
In July, MTM Ranch also wrangles rides for the Southwest Kids Cancer Foundation’s Arizona Camp Sunrise and Sidekicks, which offer special programs for children who have or have had cancer, and their siblings.
“It’s a wonderful organization, fully funded by donations and fundraisers, so no child ever spends a dime,” says Motley.
Run the River
Founded in 1970, Arizona River Runners has introduced countless adventurers to the wonders of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. Bruce Winter and Bill Gloeckler, two of the early guides, bought the company in 1985 and continue to run it as a family business, with their kids heavily involved in the warehouse and office operations.
Arizona River Runners specializes in creating exactly the trip you want. The first decision is the type of boat: The 35-foot motor rafts seat 14 and allows you to see the Canyon in about a week, while the 18-foot oar-powered rafts seat four people with a guide doing the rowing and offer a slower pace.
Second, you need to choose the duration, with multiple options from three days (split between a working ranch experience on the North Rim and whitewater adventure) all the way to 15 days to cover well over 200 river miles. All trips offer side hike opportunities, but if you’re keen on doing more, the hiker’s specials will be just the ticket.
“The Grand Canyon has some of the best rapids in the world, but it’s so much more than that,” says Dean Knuth, marketing director. “Side hikes can take you into slot canyons, Nankoweap Granaries, 100-foot waterfalls, and all these places that you can’t see from the South Rim.”
The company provides drinks and snacks on the water, while the meals whipped up on land by the guides include omelets and pancakes for breakfast, deli spreads for lunch, and anything from salmon to cowboy steaks for dinner.
“We’re really proud of our food—you’re not going to be eating MREs or pork and beans,” says Knuth.
If you’re looking to raft this summer, it’s not too late. “It’s a misconception that you have to book two or three years in advance,” Knuth says. “If you’ve got dates and a certain trip in mind, we’d love to have you down on the river.”
Story: Jake Poinier
Photo, Good Altitude: Southern Arizona Balloon Excursions
Photos, Rim Country Riding: Mark Lipczynski
Photos, Run the River: Mackenzie Wheatley / ChubbyFoot Photography