Best Road Trip Ever: Arizona

I was tasked with creating an all-inclusive great American Road trip for myself, my partner Brent and my good friend visiting from Germany. It should include Page, Arizona and Horseshoe Bend, the Grand Canyon and Sedona wine tasting. Beyond that, I was free to share whatever aspects of my beautiful home state I wished. In the end, it highlighted some of my favorite aspects of Arizona’s rich and diverse history and magnificent topography. We also had a Jeep to do it in.

We started in Phoenix, Arizona with our gear packed tightly in back of the enclosed Jeep Wrangler early on a Tuesday. Hank, our trusty adventure companion had to sit this trip out and stay with Grandma because it was too hot to sit in a car unattended during this time of year (August), and we were going places that weren’t dog friendly.

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The five and a half hour drive from Phoenix to the border of Utah, Page Arizona is long and diverse. It is the longest stretch of driving throughout the trip. It offers a sample of all of what Arizona has to offer – the searing and fervid heat and cactus-filled Sonoran desert to the bosky mountains and pine trees as you go through Flagstaff, to the towering red rocks and deep red valleys of around Page and Utah. The full trip was roughly 14 hours, and 765 miles.

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Page, Arizona – 273 miles from Phoenix

While driving the 5 hour stretch up to Page with Dany, who was my exchange student in high school and now basically my sister, I couldn’t help but think about how my this one American state was almost as big as her entire country, and populated by quite a few less people.  Germany is 137,903 square miles shared by a population of 80 million, where Arizona, with around 113,998 square miles has a population of 7 million. Wide open spaces anyone?

Dany is always amazed at things in the U.S. that don’t have strict laws regulating them. This includes renting and driving a boat without proper training or a specific license or really even previous boating knowledge. Or how there are parts of the U.S. where one can literally camp anywhere. These free-camping areas are also designated areas however. Around Sedona there is no free-camping within a certain radius of the town, all in all, Arizona has lots of unregulated camping areas. For the government to regulate all of our massive wild areas would be a tough task.

I was excited to pull the Jeep into the Wahweap Campground at Lake Powell that afternoon around 2:30pm. If you’ve never driven an old Jeep Wrangler, and this one has been lifted and modified, I’ll warn you it is hard to keep straight after 60mph (this one even more than most). It garnered the nickname “The Drunken Bat” during the trip and long stretches of driving were tedious, especially over the hills in Flagstaff in the jeep.

It was mid-day when we set up our instant tent and camp chairs then cruised over to the beach area, mainly full of French, German and a few other European tourists. August is their most popular time for vacation and so many love to adventure out to the great American west to experience a journey, history and lifestyle so different from their own. Without being able to rent a boat, nor having one of our own, we brought our inflatable river tubes and took turns tugging each other around in the great lake as the sun began to set. Although Page does offer plenty of boat and various watercraft rentals.

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The campsites here are large. We could have set up a volleyball between camp sites in the sandy expanses that separated them. One nearby neighbor brought their dog (yes, they are dog friendly!) and was very respectful of the space and everyone around them. There were families scattered around most of the other sites near us. Two girls to our left were on a summer road trip from California.

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Brent and I had pre-planned both of our camp night dinners in advance. I found some fantastic vegan Italian sausages and he’d been craving hamburgers – the perfect American camp food, and Brent is a master-grill chef. We went all out on the car-camping comforts for this trip. I unenthusiastically left my ultra-lite investments at home, but did bring my splurge memory foam sleeping bag pad cover. Worth every penny.

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Our new instant tent (which Brent purchased just for this trip via Amazon) passed it’s first night’s test with flying colors.  We packed up early the next morning after a hearty scrambled egg breakfast to head to Horseshoe Bend. Apparently later than we should have.

We arrived no later than 8am but the parking lot was already teaming with tourists and we snuck into one of the last few available parking spots in their large parking lot. When we left, there were police ticketing those trying to park out on the street and cars hovering for the next available spot. It was a far cry from what it was when I visited some 8 years ago, a serene and awe-inspiring marvel of natural wonder. This time we were dodging tourists so into their cell-phones they were walking into us, or swinging around their selfie-sticks trying to get the perfect shot. I didn’t even want to try and get another decent picture.

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Horseshoe Bend circa 2011

Grand Canyon, AZ

It was my turn to maneuver the dodgy road and pothole-riddled road between Page and Grand Canyon National Park. There are some great climbs and scenic views along this famous stretch of the great American West. It was 142 miles from Page to the Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins where we would stay that night. It is currently $30 (2018) to enter the park for one vehicle, regardless of how many people are in it, which is up $5 from the last time I visited. I believe all the national parks made this increase. Our first stop was Mary Coulter’s Desert View Watchtower. The tower was created with the notion that,

First and most important, [she] was to design a building that would become part of its surroundings; one that would create no discordant note against the time eroded walls of this promontory.”

 

 

I had also been here before, and as I spied through the looking glass out to the painted desert below, I remembered all of the women who I visited with.  In 2012 I embarked on a journey across the great American Southwest in search of the women who sculpted it. I was asked to be part of the Whiskey Sister HerStory Tour and was to play a crucial role in planning the event. At our stop at the Grand Canyon during the tour we also stopped at the tower to learn about Coulter’s architecture of the desert Southwest.

Another 30-40 minutes past the Watchtower we arrived at our hotel. When I purchased our reservation online nearly two months before, I read the description “Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins” and quickly reserved one of the last few rooms for the Wednesday night we would be there. I wasn’t even sure if we would be in a historic cabin or a lodge room but even if the view was bad, we were a few steps from the rim of the Grand Canyon and the price was right.

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We could actually see the Grand Canyon from our room. Success. There is an ice cream shop just beside our cabin building where we picked up our coffee the next morning, before making use of the Bright Angel Lodge Restaurant for a great American breakfast. While Dany and I opted for breakfast that morning, Brent set out to hike down one of the trails into the Grand Canyon for a better view. He came back up with two twisted ankles and a bloody knee. Not for the faint of heart, I imagine any of the Grand Canyon hikes are not for the ill-equipped or ill-prepared and will test even the greatest of hikers. (Which is exactly why we’re planning to hike down into it next spring!)

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I visited for the first time as a kid growing up in Arizona, the quintessential trip for any child here. I paid my homage to this spectacle that played such a great role in shaping my home state’s history as well as my love for this state. It’s impossible not to sit on the canyon rim and become lost in the curves and canyons of it as the sun sets, or rises. Even on that particularly smokey morning that “great hole in the ground” left me speechless and wondering what other great feats our world might be capable of.

Brent showered off his Grand Canyon dust and we again piled into the Wrangler and head the next 80 miles of hills and trees down to Flagstaff for lunch. We had just enough time for a wander around downtown and grab a quick bite and brew at Lumberyard Brewing, situated in a great old lumberyard off the railroad tracks, which actually was a lumberyard until 1990. There are pictures of the renovations from lumberyard to gastropub located inside and true to gastropub nature, amongst the brick walls you can see the tanks in the back where the beer is brewed.

Our camp dinner that night for our next stay along Oak Creek near Sedona was of course pre-planned, so while we skipped lunch and were trying to save our appetites for dinner, we ordered two, unknowingly large, appetizers at Lumberyard Brewing. Brent ordered the Chili Fries, and I, of course, ordered Poutine. It’s a weakness of mine. Either of the fry dishes would have been sufficient for the three of us!

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It had been a cloudy day in Flagstaff that afternoon and large drops of cold rain began to fall on us as we waited for two trains to cross the tracks on our way back to the Jeep. It rained harder as we head towards Sedona. But while we made the steep decent on the twisty and narrow road down the mountain we could see the sun was out in the West. It is a serious climate change between the short half hour drive from Flagstaff straight down into Sedona and we were extremely glad it was warm and we wouldn’t be rained on at our camp.

Oak Creek, Arizona

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It is really by pure luck that I secured my reservation at the highly coveted Manzanita Campground on Oak Creek. It has the best social media reviews of any camping spot in the Sedona area and was fully booked when I looked online two months prior to our stay.  I had decided to wild-camp somewhere out around Sedona that night instead peeked onto the Recreation.gov website a last time for some odd reason. Low and behold campsite number 12 had opened up, as if some miraculous cancellation had occurred. Site 12 is one of the closest sites to the water and is separated by a small water gulley to the left and a decent chunk of earth the right from the other sites. We could hear the water running along the creek and the slight rumble of cars along the highway beside us.

The camp is very close to the road, but is well maintained and currently run by a kind man who will greet you at the gate when you check in. He’ll warn you about the resident skunk and raccoon, apparently there is just one of each, who are skilled thieves and did it fact both make their presence known that evening as we slept. We took his advice though, and secured all of our food away from the clever little prying hands of five-fingered wild creatures.

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The next morning we set out to find our next adventure, the quick hike up to the famous Devil’s Bridge in Sedona. I have been to Sedona at least a dozen times and never made it up to this gorgeous attraction. I was excited for this one because it had a little bit of an off-road component so we could flex the Jeep some, too. You can park at the trailhead parking at the bottom with your Red Rocks pass and walk about a mile or so along a very rocky road, or, if you have a good 4×4 with high clearance you can off-road the first mile and park at the bottom of the actual hike-path trailhead. We had fun with the Jeep for the first time since we bought it, on the mile trail up and then even more fun in the early morning sun on the walk up to the natural bridge.

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It gives those with a fear of heights some terrible nerves, even standing near the 54 feet tall, 5 feet across natural creation is a hair-raising experience. I, with little fear of heights marched out for my photo on the small ledge of the bridge. Dany was first, and stood in the short line that people begin on their own to allow each and every person their chance for the picture above. There are those who sit on the side and in bleachers made of red rocks to watch the photos, and take them for others, and even some who helped us cheer on Brent to go out for the most epic Sedona photo op. We were told the view from below is just as neat, but it was late in the morning and heating up quickly,  and we were ready to re-visit the Devil’s Backbone Trail.

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The Devil’s Backbone is located in the Broken Arrow Trail. The trail is frequented by the Pink Jeep Tours who set out hourly and slip and slide their jeeps across the treacherous hillside of smoothed red rocks. A few years ago the off-roading feat broke both front axles on Brent’s H2 Truck (pictured above).

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Jerome, Arizona

With the Jeep successfully baptized by the red rock dust of the Broken Arrow Trail we head back to the highway towards Jerome. We had a date with some old high school friends at Caduceus Cellers, Grapes and the Hotel Connor. My beloved Hotel Connor is located on top of Caduceus Cellars and boasts individualized unique rooms, complete with a slight slant that gives a slight hint towards their age. We rented out two new rooms that I hadn’t stayed in yet and spent the evening “out on the town” in the few blocks wide, artsy hill that I hold so dear. This of course included a stop at my favorite hole-in-the-wall stop- Wicked City for some Provisioner Red and locals beers on tap. We completed our evening at the Spirit Room located just under our hotel rooms for a quiet (band-less) Friday night with the dance floor to ourselves. So we made use of the juke box for our kicks for the night.

The following morning we made a quick stop at Jerome’s old Gold King Mine & Ghost Town up the hill to explore some of the rusty machines and history of Jerome. Perhaps the greatest gem of this old ghost town are the historic cars tucked into each corner of the property.  It’s a playground for gear-minded folks, mechanics and engineers with a mind for old machines (but there’s a few old goats, some great big chickens, and other critters to view, too!)

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Jerome and the ghost town are certainly worth a day visit during your travels. You could continue up the road through town into Prescott, where you could visit the old Whiskey Row and historic downtown, or, as we did, make our way back towards Phoenix via Pine, Strawberry, and Payson.

For a stop we wish we could have made, along highway AZ-260 on the right you’ll see an exit for Fossil Creek, the wild raging desert river. This is an attraction I’m told is not to miss! It boast waterfalls and wonderful waterfalls and is so popular in fact that increased travel to the area led to heightened supervision by the U.S. Forest Service. You have to purchase permits in advance to visit during the summertime and through September 30th. We didn’t have a purchase, so we’ll have to save the wild river for another day.

The drive down through the pines and into Strawberry is a gorgeous one. You can quickly forget that you are in Arizona as you gaze off into the sea of trees and green. We made a short sojourn at the Old County Inn in Pine for some pizza. The wood fired pizzas caused quite the stir for the little town. Their patio was perched on a prominent intersection in the little town, and seemed a popular destination not just for locals but visitors as well! The salad I ordered was easily one of the best I’ve ever had. So much texture!

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The wait for the pizza would be over 45 minutes, and we had to continue on our way. We passed on the pizza (sadly!) and continued another 10 miles or so south towards Payson, and to the Tonto Natural Bridge. This natural wonder doesn’t receive near the marketing and attention it deserves. It’s a rare site tucked away in another state park (with an entrance fee) and has grassy lawns with picnic tables and shades, and then a maintained little trail that goes down under the natural travertine bridge. The hike is steep but easily worth the walk. At the bottom you can soak in the blue pools just before the entrance of the bridge, but park rangers retain strict rules of no swimming under the natural bridge itself.

Tonto Natural Bridge Dany LOVE

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We continued our way down AZ-260 for a visit with a friend in Payson and then on to Phoenix. The 765 mile, 5-day journey isn’t by any means an all-encompassing view of Arizona but it will certainly give you a quick glimpse at each of Arizona’s unique topographical wonders from the Sonoran Desert, to the highest peaks high altitude peaks of Flagstaff. The great state leaves much to be explored!

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