Arizona: how to road-trip like a pro
Think the Grand Canyon is Arizona’s only big thrill? Hannah Ralph heads into America’s great desert state on a road trip and finds it has other super-sized adventures to spare
“Crying: acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon,” said Ron Swanson, the no-nonsense libertarian from US hit series Parks and Recreation. Fellow characters April and Andy drive 30 hours just to tick it off their bucket list. And, though many out-of-towners pour from Phoenix Airport with just one thing on their mind, the Grand Canyon State is much, much more than its most famous wonder. Just as it did for the Wild Westerners who rushed here in the 19th century, the state still teems with the promise of undiscovered gold. Fortunately, we can offer a map of exactly where to find it.
Landing in Phoenix, many will swing south for Scottsdale, Tuscan and Tombstone. But, if you yearn for pine-coated forests, line-dancing rodeo towns and mountain-backed highways, take the I-17 north, instead. Just make sure you first stop for a fortifying slice of the world-famous pizza at Pizzeria Bianco, as seen on Chef’s Table and only six minutes from the airport’s rental car terminal.
VERDE VALLEY AND COTTONWOOD
There’s nothing like the sight of a saguaro cactus, its gnarled arms thirsting upwards in a prayer for rain, to let you know you’ve arrived in the desert. You’ll spy your first on the side of the highway not far outside of Phoenix. But, as this endless expanse turns from 50 shades of sawdust into a soft, juniper green, that’s when you know the Verde Valley is near.
An hour and a half’s drive from Phoenix, Arizona’s much underrated wine country serves rustic, riverside loveliness. From Alcantara Vineyard (which offers free tours on Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30), Verde Adventures begins its ‘Water to Wine’ kayaking experience along the Verde River. On these softly flowing waters, drooping willows hang as heavy as a theatre curtain while river otters laze belly-up beneath the reeds. Go as fast or slow as you like. The final act – a tasting at the winery, accompanied by live music and nibbles – is ready when you are.
Nearby Cottonwood has the kind of Main Street that Hollywood producers fight over: all Prohibition-era buildings, clapboard boutiques and old-timey diners. Beloved BBQ joint Colt Grill introduces you to the state’s Prickly Pear cocktail, made with the fruits from the native cactus, while Crema Craft Kitchen and Bar is the breakfast hotspot, serving warm pancakes to bleary-eyed backpackers. Motels abound, but Pines Inn and Suites, SpringHill Suites by Marriott and Best Western Cottonwood Inn are all especially friendly and fuss-free.
SEDONA AND FLAGSTAFF
Between Cottonwood and Flagstaff, the 89A vies for the title of America’s most spectacular highway. Just 30 minutes northeast of Cottonwood, you’re already deep in Red Rock country’s stunning resort town, butte-cious Sedona. But while Sedona is a place you want to spend the night, Flagstaff is where you’ll want to live.
Wrapped in ponderosa pines and a few crucial degrees kinder than blistering Phoenix, this cool college town is, to many, the gateway to the Canyon. For others, it’s the gateway to the stars. It started back in 1958, when the city became the first municipality in history to start clamping down on light pollution. It’s where, shielded by the San Francisco Peaks, hilltop Lowell Observatory first discovered Pluto. Then, in 2001, Flagstaff was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City for its protection of the starry night.
Lowell, which also conducted the first early Martian surface research, is open year-round for visitors, who come to interact with 19th-century telescopes, joyfully nerdy staff and packed events schedule. Afterwards, wander the brick storefronts and micro-breweries of Downtown Flagstaff (Dark Sky Brewing Company has 20 inspired craft beers and a meteor-glimpsing backyard) and up to Buffalo Park, a prime stargazing spot. If you’re lucky, you might encounter the men and women of the Flagstaff Dark Sky Coalition. Several of them are astrology fanatics since childhood and moved here just for the skies.
Boutique newcomer High Country Motor Lodge (above) is part of a new raft of trendy motel revivals across the US. Its ‘Cosmic Cottages’ are a nod to the hotel’s partnership with Lowell, but its classic rooms are the most spacious. Mix tapes and camping mugs lend to a summer camp nostalgia, but the outdoor fire pits, vibey cocktail bar and cookie-stocked general store are peak Americana. The hotel also has Arizona’s first Nordic Spa, perfect for when this high-altitude town welcomes the snow. As one local notes, Arizona is “one of the only places you can go skiing and sunbathing, all on the same day.”
THE GRAND CANYON AND WILLIAMS
The drive from Flagstaff the next morning is so breezy that you can be strapped into a helicopter, the Grand Canyon’s chalky concertina unfolding beneath the windows, by 9am. The whole thing will blow your mind, but if you are going, do it right. A Papillion helicopter tour is a great place to start, but a Buck Wild Hummer Tour is just as fun. Whisking you through a checklist of astounding viewpoints (think Moran Point and the famous Duck on a Rock – named so because, yes, that’s what it looks like), your driver is more than happy to play photographer for a fee. Either way, be sure to end your excursion with the signature French onion soup at El Tovar Dining Room on the canyon’s South Rim.
Ready for your first taste of Route 66? You can reach the 66 city of Williams by car (a one-hour drive from the canyon), by shuttle (Groome Transportation ferries tourists all around the northern part of the state) or, best and most Western of all, by train. The Grand Canyon Railway takes passengers from the national park on a 65-mile ride to the historic Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel in Williams, but not before gun-toting bandits storm the wood-panelled carriages as part of an entertaining Wild West re-enactment.
SELIGMAN AND PRESCOTT
Angel Delgadillo was born in Seligman in 1927 and enjoyed a simple life on Route 66 as a barber – until, one day, the cars stopped visiting this kitschy strip. With the induction of the I-40 in September 1978, Seligman’s traffic dried up: it was even erased from signage on the new interstate. Facing cultural destitution, Angel rallied local mom-and-pop businesses, working tirelessly until Route 66 was designated a National Historic Highway. At 95 years old, Angel can still be spotted pottering around his barber shop-cum-souvenir emporium. Grab yourself a T-shirt and head a few doors down to Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In. Run by Angel’s brother, its burgers and fries are pilgrimage worthy.
An hour’s drive off 66, Prescott has hosted the World’s Oldest Rodeo since 1888. But if anything sums up this good-time city, it’s The Palace saloon. In 1900, a fire swept through the city’s Whiskey Row, setting The Palace ablaze. Patrons carried the hand-carved back bar on to the other side of street and carried on boozing. After some frontier fajitas here, stop by Matt’s Saloon for a line-dancing master class and bunker down at Hotel Vendome, a beautifully restored boutique with a haunted room.
DUDE RANCH AND GLENDALE
Back in the late 19th century, well-to-do Eastern folk came to ‘play cowboy’ in cattle ranches around these parts and were, not so affectionately, nicknamed ‘Dudes’. Luckily, these frozen-in-time, all-inclusive Dude Ranches are no longer so judgemental. Between Prescott and Phoenix, Kay El Bar Guest Ranch is a mighty fine example. If you do one thing here, make a horseback ride through the Sonoran desert. Just hold tight – it’s bumpy.
Fresh from a trip back in time, it’s an hour’s drive south straight into Arizona’s dazzling future at Glendale’s Westgate Entertainment District – a mini–Las Vegas that’s all neon-lit boulevards, live music, sports bars and chic eateries (The Lola doesn’t serve a bad dish). The Renaissance Phoenix Glendale Hotel & Spa couldn’t be closer to the action, and yet, there’s not a peep to be heard from the rooms. From here, it’s either an early wake-up or an evening drive to the road trip’s last stop. On unsuspecting lane 30 minutes away in north Phoenix, you’ll find Rainbow Ryders, which operates smooth-as-butter, sunrise and sunset hot-air balloon rides into the desert skies. They’ll even give you a glass of fizz, so you can make a toast to all that treasure.
Hannah Ralph was a guest of Visit Arizona
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