Things To Do In Graham Country: Roper Lake, Dankworth Ponds, & Discovery Park

Black Hills ByWay Picnic AreaAbove image shows one of the many good picnic areas along the Black Hills Back Country Byway between Clifton and Soloman east of Safford.

The area near Safford has several worthwhile things to see and do: Roper Lake State Park, Dankworth Ponds, and Discovery Park. Just to the west of Safford is 10,000 foot-high Mt. Graham. At the top are some of the most powerful telescopes on earth. The road to Mt. Graham is about as steep, narrow, and windy as you’re likely to find in the United States. There’s a nice picnic area about 8 miles up this road from Rt. 191 a few miles south of Safford.

Getting To Safford and Roper Lake Via Duncan and Clifton
We started one early Sunday morning having driven the Black Hills Country Byway from Clifton to Solomon. By 11 AM we were hungry. Fired up ye ol’ mobile device and checked with TripAdvisor to identify the highest rated restaurants in Solomon, a little town a few miles east of Safford.

Dining Near Safford
TripAdvisor could not find Solomon, AZ. So we pulled out our other indispensible guidebook: Arizona’s Salsa Trail; A Foodies Guide To Culinary Tourism – Safford & Southeast Arizona by Christine Maxa and David A. James.

Bingo. Found one. La Paloma on Clifton Street. Also, highly recommended by Deborah Mendelsohn, the innkeeper at the Simpson Hotel B&B in Duncan where we stayed the previous night.

So, spoke the address into our mobile device and asked Minerva to take us there. Minerva took us the wrong way. When we finally got to the restaurant, there was a small sign in front that announced:  Closed Sundays.

(You may inquire as to why I call my GPS’s irritating computer-generated female voice ‘Minerva’. Simple. She has, on occasion, gotten on my nervas.)

No biggy. TripAdvisor identified a highly rated (5-Circles) restaurant right on the highway to Safford: Copper Steer Steakhouse. We arrived and were glad to see a neon ‘OPEN’ sign. They weren’t.

Manor House SaffordManor House & Rock ‘N Horse Saloon: A Review
Now we were really hungry and getting desperate. The next possibility would be Manor House & Rock ‘N Horse Saloon. One obvious problem is that this place is rated by TripAdvisor reviewers as not-so-good (2.5-Circles). Nevertheless, Manor House had the advantage of being open on Sundays.

The hostess led us past the confectionery at the entrance and into the large main dining room, richly decorated in Old West, including antique, full-size, wooden wagons danging from the ceiling. I made some inquiries as to why this place was rated poor on TripAdvisor.

I was told that the owners had lost the place, then got it back, then lost it again and just got it back again. There were suggestions that, at times, service and food quality had been, what shall I say, inconsistent.

Things were looking down. But as far as we could discern, if we wanted to eat now, this was the only open restaurant within 50 miles. We braced for the worst.

Our server, Melissa, brought us chips fresh-from-the-oven and salsa. We chatted a bit. This was her first day on the job. Red flags went up. That might indicate a service issue. On the other hand, besides the two of us, there were only three other tables that required servicing. The fact that this very large dining room only had four parties to serve suggested that the memos ‘dissing’ this establishment had been distributed well beyond just TripAdvisor. And while the chips were fresh, the salsa was bland. Not encouraging.

Ms. Karen ordered the Tostado and a side of spinach dip to go with the fresh chips. I ordered the Steak Fajita Platter with flour tortillas.

To our surprise and delight, once we got past the non-descript salsa, both of our meals were very good. And the service was both efficient and personable. The Manor House in Safford: Recommended. Just call in advance to see if the owners had lost it again. But our experience warrants a 4-Saguaro rating.

Roper Lake and Mt. Graham

A few miles south of Safford is Roper Lake State Park. This is a modern campground and picnic area with all the conveniences, including RV hookups, ramadas, cabins, and a 30-acre lake with a pleasant beach.

Roper Lake Hot springs Hot TubNatural, Stone Hot Tub
It also sports a natural, stone ‘hot tub’. We could envision campers on a crowded evening lined up to take a dip in this little hot pool. It might accommodate 6 bathers at a time. But I doubt the water temperature is hot enough to kill the trillions of germs attendant with such crowded use. The whole idea of being in this ‘natural hot tub’ is just unappealing to me. And I certainly wouldn’t allow my grandchildren to go in it for fear of the dreaded “creeping crud”.

Roper Lake Cabins for Rent

Nevertheless, both the tent and RV campgrounds are pleasant, particularly the ones closest to the lake. And the cabins, while Spartan, are quite nice. Each of the 8 cabins has a patio, large picnic table, a swing, outdoor sink, counter, and BBQ. They do NOT have bathrooms. You have to use the common shower and toilet facilities. About the only things you can do inside a cabin are change clothes and sleep.

Roper Lake is stocked with largemouth bass and rainbow trout. Here you can launch a canoe, kayak, or sail board. Small boats with electric motors are allowed.

A Really Good Picnic Area
The Park also has a day-use island that serves as a delightful picnic area with mature trees, picnic tables, grills, ramadas, and its own beach. Very pleasant.

The Park has 5 miles of hiking trails and offers occasional ranger program.

You can make reservations for the cabins and some of the campgrounds. Call 928-428-6760. Reservations must be made two weeks in advance of arrival. The cabins and campsite closest to the lake are clearly the most desirable, and for good reason: more mature shade trees.

Dankworth Ponds
A couple miles south of Roper Lake is a sub-unit of the State Park. Dankworth Ponds is a 15-acre pond surrounded by 150 acres of parkland. This was once the Dankworth family’s commercial catfish farm. Now the fish population is diversified: bass, crappie, bluegill, catfish, and trout.

Dankworth Pond Just South Of Roper Lake State Park

Dankworth Pond Just South Of Roper Lake State Park

If you go, you might also see waterfowl, migratory birds, and a typical sampling of local wildlife.

Dankworth has other attractions. The Dos Arroyos Trail begins at the east end of the pond. You can take this 1¾ mile loop trail to a re-created Indian village. This village contains replicas of dwellings, grinding stones, roasting pits, and other tools and artifacts used by a variety of southwestern tribes. The village demonstrates the changing lifestyles starting with the Paleo-Indians and going through to the Mogollon tribes. The area is often used to educate local school groups about Native American history.

Discovery Park
Just a little south and east of Safford is the Eastern Arizona College Campus called Discovery Park, an educational facility specializing in science, technology, engineering, and math. There’s ample directional signage along Rt. 191 as you enter Safford proper.

The Campus has exhibits and presentations open to the public and offers special tours that hopefully will stimulate interest among school-age children in both nature and outer space.

The EAC Discovery Park Campus is open to the public Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (except that shuttle rides are not given after 4:00 p.m.) and Saturdays from 4:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. If skies are cloudy, it is very windy, or the Moon is near full on Saturday night, we will close the campus early because it is not possible to safely and effectively use the Tinsley 20″ telescope.

Of Public Interest
The main attractions available to the public are conducted in the Gov Aker Observatory building. All of these activities are offered free of charge (except for special events). The Gov Aker Observatory houses a series of of galleries allowing visitors the opportunity to ponder the origins of the universe. The first exhibit explains various cultural interpretations of the beginning of life.

Other gallery exhibits demonstrate to visitors how light is composed of many colors and light waves. Visitors learn about the Sun and can enter a room to hear the sounds of space. Another exhibit demonstrates how telescope mirrors are constructed under the University of Arizona football stadium, and another explains part of the history of astronomy.

Space Shuttle Polaris at Discovery Park near Safford, AZ

Space Shuttle Polaris at Discovery Park near Safford, AZ

During the day visitors can see the image created by one of the world’s largest camera obscuras. Visitors can also look through the Gov Aker Observatory telescope to see the Sun through special filters.

The Space Shuttle Polaris takes visitors on a virtual tour through the solar system. This high-tech motional simulator blasts off from the Discovery Park Campus, over the 10,720 foot Mt. Graham, to visit each of the planets in the solar system. The on-board “computer” describes the journey to make it a very educational and entertaining experience.

On the Campus grounds are hiking trails in a natural Southeastern Arizona habitat.

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