Go Stake Your Claim

DESERT

The pitchfork horizon of Arizona     Photo: PhotoDisc

UNLESS YOU SIMPLY covet a plot of earth to call your own and have zero thoughts of ever spending more than a night or two at a time there, your prime concern in casing out desert property should be—steady yourself—water. Specifically, how much there is, if any, and whether the county health department has declared it potable. You can survey for botanical clues to its presence: Cottonwoods, mesquite, and other phreatophytic species won't grow without subsurface moisture. But assuming you're too remote to tap a municipal pipeline, there's no substitute for quizzing local well drillers to find out how deep they usually probe and what it will likely cost. If the seller won't document the water supply, some buyers pay to have the well drilled before closing, with the option to decline if the drillers strike out. And to meet part or all of their energy needs, many aspiring desert rats, logically and admirably, try to harness the abundant free sunshine.

COCHISE COUNTY, ARIZONA
"THE BEST YEAR-ROUND CLIMATE IN ARIZONA" is the local brag (midnineties in summer, midthirties in winter). Altitude does the trick. Bisbee, a mining-turned-tourist burg 90 miles southeast of Tucson, and Sierra Vista, a hillier, oakier shopping hub, are both about a mile skyward, and peaks in the nearby Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains exceed 9,000 feet. Hiking on BLM and Forest Service land and world-class birding along the San Pedro River corridor round out the boasts.
RECENT LISTING: A level 73-acre spread of undisturbed desert, with a mountain in your backyard and ocotillo, mesquite, and prickly pear in every direction, $88,614. Bisbee Realty Inc., 520-432-5439, www.bisbeerealty.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Jogging along the San Pedro, looking for javelinas, hummingbirds, and yellow-billed cuckoos.
FORGET IT IF: You thrive on long walks in the rain: Half the year's precip falls during the July-August monsoon.
SAN JUAN COUNTY, UTAH
IT'S TRICKY COMING up with an outdoor sport you can't pursue in southeastern Utah. Let's seeÉthe surfing is lousy, and the dogsledding's spotty at best. Oh, well. The near-infinite range of options available in Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments, the Colorado River, Lake Powell, and the Abajo Mountains will have to suffice. People arrive from other hemispheres to sample the local slickrock, rapids, sandstone routes, cross-country trails, and tent sites. Approximately 8 percent of San Juan County is privately owned, but the isolation—along with Moab, 40 miles to the north, hogging the spotlight—keeps demand from overwhelming supply.
RECENT LISTING: Twenty acres in Montezuma Canyon near Monticello, with peach orchards, well, house-ready solar setup, and—get this—several stabilized caves in the canyon walls, $210,000. Century 21 Red Rock Real Estate, 435-587-3166, www.southeasternutah.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Grinding up to 9,000 feet in the Abajos and then riding a vertical mile of glorious downhill.
FORGET IT IF: You can't live without Macy's: Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas are all at least six hours away.

HARNEY COUNTY, OREGON
"WHEN BURNS IS FILLED UP," says a broker about Harney County's metropolis of 3,000, "there'll be no place else to go." If you're looking for the precise coordinates of the middle of nowhere, look no further (Burns is 290 miles southeast of Portland). But there's a surprising abundance of Big Outdoors in this Big Empty: 9,733-foot Steens Mountain and its streams, canyons, and wildflowers; the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, whose vast, shallow lakes lure sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, and thousands of pairs of binoculars; and such mammalian novelties as elk, pronghorn antelope, and mustangs.
RECENT LISTING: Southern-exposed hills on 318 acres, a mile from the refuge, $54,000. Jett Blackburn Real Estate Inc., 800-573-7206, www.jettblackburn.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Hammock-bound, reading about how black-necked stilts nest here in summer, while eagles indicate it's winter.
FORGET IT IF: You need a medical specialist and don't like driving; your closest shot at one, in Bend, is at least two hours away.

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