Part 2: Hiking and Dining in the Desert (read Part 1 here).
It promised to be a busy day ahead, so we headed over to the Horseshoe Caf & Bakery for a hearty breakfast. Situated in downtown Benson, the Horseshoe Caf & Bakery has been a mainstay dining experience since 1936. The Caf offers an old-fashioned diner atmosphere along with delicious food and excellent service. The interior, with old west embellishments and the dark hardwood floors made the space feel cozy and relaxing.
The 3-page breakfast menu includes traditional items, such as Corned Beef Hash, Biscuits and Gravy, and Chicken Fried Steak. There are also some southwest favorites such as breakfast burritos, chorizo, and refried beans. Michael ordered the Stagecoach Burrito, a flour tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, beef chorizo, refried beans, and cheddar cheese. It was a knife & fork sized burrito and the homemade salsa was a great complement to the dish. My vegetarian omelet was three eggs, swiss cheese onions, mushrooms, spinach, avocadoes, and fresh tomatoes. It was served with some of the best hash browns Ive ever tasted. They had just the right crispy top, and again the homemade salsa was a great condiment.
The lunch and dinner menu also looked like you could easily hang out for the day and be more than well-fed but we had places to go and people to meet. I was particularly sad that we didnt have time (or room) for a piece of one of their amazing pies.
After breakfast, we took a stroll around the town to visit some of the Murals of Benson painted on exterior walls, which tell the story of this old west town.
In 2013, the nearly 40 murals were painted by Doug Quarles and depict the history, culture, and wildlife of the area. Some focus on the beginning of Benson as it was in 1880 when the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived. Some go further back in history to the Native American societies long before the Spanish explorers showed up. One mural features over 30 different animals that can be found in the desert around town.
Leaving Benson, and driving about an hour south, we traveled even further back in time to the Coronado National Memorial. Most of the National Memorials in the U.S. are comprised of a statue; some are bigger like the Civil War battlegrounds found in the East. But, this one is by far the largest covering almost 5,000 acres. Established in 1952 by President Harry Truman, the memorial commemorates the Spanish expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1540.
Our guide, Zach Palma was full of information, not just about the history, but also the wildlife and vegetation of the area. Located in the Huachuca Mountains, the area is the birthplace of the term Sky Islands.' The phrase refers to an area of mountains isolated by vastly diverse ecosystems. The park is at the confluence of four distinct and major biological areas: the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountain ranges. It has a richness of animal, insect, and plant species. There are around 20 different varieties of Evergreen Oak trees!
You can get up-close and personal with all this diversity by hiking trails found within the park. You can even catch a shuttle from the Visitors Center up to Montezuma Pass and then take the 3-mile hike back down to your car. You can also connect to the Arizona National Scenic Trail, which is 800 miles extending from the Mexican border north to the border with Utah.
Another popular stop in the park is the Coronado Cave.At this time, you do not need a permit to explore the cave, but its a good idea to check-in at the visitor center before you go.
After a few hours of exploring, we were ready for dinner! So we headed the short distance into Sierra Vista to the Tandem Upscale Dining & Lounge. Located in the Windemere Hotel, the name tandem refers to both the need for the restaurant to work in tandem with the hotel and (more important) how the owners Patrick and Ayana Malarchik successfully operate the best restaurant in Sierra Vista. Ayana takes care of the business aspects while Chef Patricks love of good food shines. And keeping with the bicycle analogy it bears mentioning that Patricks career has come full circle. A Sierra Vista native, his first job, at the age of 15, was a dishwasher in the Windemeres kitchen. Now 18 years in the food industry later, he owns the restaurant.
The menu offered us a wealth of choice. Everything looked delicious. We started with the mussels, steamed with house-made bacon, red pepper reduction, white wine, and herbs. They were delicious and a bit spicy. For our entrees Michael ordered the Honey Mustard Lamb, which was a marinated rack of lamb, served on a bed of scalloped potatoes and grilled asparagus. I had Peppered Crust Filet Medallions, also served with grilled asparagus. Both dishes were amazingly good! And this time we still had room for dessert (yay!).
The Apple Crisp was made with tart Granny Smith apples and cinnamon apple jam, with a crumbled almond topping. We had it with vanilla ice cream a great way to end a great dinner. And it was a great dinner to end a great day!
However, if you arent quite ready for your day to end, you can stop in for a nightcap at Hoppin Grapes for one of their beautiful Cheese Plates, consisting of three different cheeses, crackers, fruit, and chocolate, paired with a glass of local Arizona wine. This wine, beer, and retail store have a lot to offer!
Tomorrow had an equally challenging schedule so it was time for us to find our way to bed and rest up for more adventure.
Editorial disclosure: lodging, beverages, and food generously provided.