Memorial Day 2021: Best Arizona Road Trips for the Long Holiday Weekend

Here are a few places to visit in Arizona as you plan your Memorial Day getaway

Memorial Day weekend kicks off the traditional summer travel season. This year there is even more pent-up yearning than normal. Everyone is eager to get out of town. Road trips are the hot new summer accessory.

Fortunately, Arizona is a road trip nirvana. The nation’s sixth-largest state by area, Arizona covers nearly 114,000 square miles. Most population centers are found in clustered bunches leaving vast tracts of backcountry for exploring. A number of small towns add character and keep travelers gassed up and well-fed.

Here are a few getaways to get you going on Memorial Day weekend and into the summer months.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Vibrant badlands of the Painted Desert spread across the northern portion of the park while trees turned to stone—trees that once shaded dinosaurs—lay undisturbed amid the hills and hoodoos of the southern half. Welcome to Triassic Park.

Crystal Forest Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fossils of the plants and animals unearthed here tell the story of a time when the world was young. Just as important to the casual visitor this area is set amid rolling plains and brilliantly colored badlands beneath a vast blue sky.

During the Triassic period, this was a humid forested basin. Crocodile-like reptiles, giant amphibians, and small dinosaurs roamed among towering trees and leafy ferns. As the trees died they were washed into the swamps and buried beneath volcanic ash where the woody tissue was replaced by dissolved silica eventually forming petrified wood.

Blue Mesa Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest lies a short distance east of Holbrook and can be accessed from Interstate 40 or U.S. 180. Take the 28-mile scenic drive that cuts north to south connecting park highlights from roadside vistas to historic sites to hiking trails. Don’t miss Blue Mesa, a short loop trail skirting colorful badlands. Some of the best displays of petrified logs can be seen along the short Crystal Forest Trail.

Grand Canyon, South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon North Rim

Make this the summer you visit the other side of the Big Ditch. The North Rim reopened on May 15 for its summer season. This isn’t your typical high country getaway. The North Rim is defined not just by elevation but by isolation. This is an alpine outback of sun-dappled forests of ponderosa pines, blue spruce, Douglas firs, and aspens interrupted by lush meadows and wildflowers.

Grand Canyon, South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve only visited the South Rim you may be surprised by the lack of crowds at the North Rim. A quiet serenity is normal on this side of the trench. It rises 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart and you’ll likely see more elk and deer than tour groups. There are no helicopter rides, no shuttle buses, and no bustling village. Of the millions of people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year less than 10 percent make it to the North Rim.

Even the journey is part of the adventure. State Route 67 from Jacob Lake to the park entrance is a National Scenic Byway as it traverses a stunning mix of broad forests and lush meadows. During your visit enjoy hiking trails, scenic drives, and forested solitude.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot national monuments

Follow ancient paths when you visit the national monuments of the Verde Valley amid remnants of Sinagua culture. The Sinagua were Ancestral Puebloan people who flourished in central Arizona from about 600 to 1425. They left behind art, artifacts, and architecture.

Sycamore tree at Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built into a high limestone balcony, the 20-room Montezuma Castle near Camp Verde is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the U.S. A paved trail meanders beneath the shade of graceful sycamore trees and leads to scenic viewpoints of the towering abode.

It was inhabited from about 1100 to 1425 with occupation peaking around 1300. The people farmed the rich floodplain nearby. Many of the original ceiling beams are still intact even though they were installed more than 800 years ago. Early settlers believed the castle was built by Aztec emperor Montezuma and the name stuck.

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to visit Montezuma Well, a detached unit of the national monument 11 miles away. The natural limestone sinkhole pumps out 1.5 million gallons of water each day from an underground spring. Several cliff dwellings perch along the rocky rim of the well and the remnants of a prehistoric canal can still be seen.

Tuzigoot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument is a more interactive experience since you can walk around the village. Situated between Clarkdale and Cottonwood the remnants of this Sinagua pueblo crown a hilltop overlooking the Verde River. The terraced 110-room village was built between 1125 and 1400.

Walk the loop trail to savor wraparound views of the lush Verde Valley framed by rising mountains. The National Park Service has restored a two-story room at Tuzigoot (Apache for “crooked water”) so visitors can admire the building techniques and materials.

Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Islands

Arizona truly is a land of extremes. Temperatures vary from place to place and even day tonight. Few geographic formations in the world illustrate this stark climactic contrast better than Sky Islands. Visitors to Southern Arizona are often struck by these vast mountain ranges rising suddenly out of the desert and grasslands. Saguaro, prickly pear, and ocotillo rapidly give way to a coniferous forest and a much cooler climate. Usually 6,000–8,000 feet in elevation these majestic mountains emerge from a sea of desert scrub.

Chirichua Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Sky Island is defined as a mountain that is separated from other mountains by distance and by surrounding lowlands of a dramatically different environment. As the mountain increases in elevation, ecosystem zones change at different elevations. Coronado National Forest protects the twelve Sky Islands of Southwestern Arizona. These Sky Island ranges include the Chiricahua Mountains, Whetstone Mountains, Huachuca Mountains, Galiuro Mountans, Dragoon Mountains, Pinaleño Mountains, Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Mountains, and Santa Rita Mountains. The tallest of these areas are the Pinaleño Mountains rising to 10,720 feet above the Gila River near the town of Safford.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to their rapid gain in elevation, Sky Island peaks remain temperate even in the fiercest summer heat. When Tucson’s mercury climbs above 100 degrees in summer months, the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon offers respite to overheated fauna (including the human variety) with temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

7 Incredible Ancient Ruins to Explore in National Parks

Here are my top 7 picks for the best places in America to see ancient ruins

Originally established to conserve and preserve some of the most beautiful and unusual wilderness places in America, the National Park System (NPS) grew to include archaeological and historic sites. The first park to preserve “the works of men,” as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, was Mesa Verde, established in 1906. Others followed, preserving and showcasing ancient ruins and archaeological sites throughout the country. Most are in the Southwest—and for good reason.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People of the Southwest built their homes and cities in stone, carving them in soft sandstone crevices or building structures up to four stories high from clay and mud bricks. In the bone-dry environment of the desert, these ancient structures baked in the sun but stayed preserved. Visible for miles in the wide-open spaces, they were easy to find, and as settlers moved into the area they started visiting them—without regard to their preservation. Vandalism threatened to destroy structures that stood centuries in the desert sun. To protect and preserve the past the NPS incorporated them to help preserve them.

The following are a few of our favorite national parks preserving ancient ruins in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Hundreds of cliff dwellings pepper the walls of the canyons and more stand-alone structures sit on the rims of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The best-preserved ancient ruins in the country, some of them date from as far back as 600 A.D. They not only started the preservation of ancient monuments in the U.S. but are also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mesa-top sites are easy to access and visit on your own. Older than the cliff dwellings, these are the sites where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before moving down into the canyon. You’ll find them at the Far View Sites Complex, the Cedar Tree Tower, and the Square Tower House and Sun Temple.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cliff dwellings are even more spectacular though you need to join a ranger-led tour to visit most of them. Cliff Palace is the most spectacular; others include Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Long House. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about each tour and sign up for the ones you want to join.

You can spend at least two days in the park, especially if you want to take multiple tours. Overnight lodging includes camping at the Morefield Campground and rooms at the Farview Lodge.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

If you wonder why an ancient archaeological site in the Southwest is named Aztec, you are not alone. The name is a misnomer; people who built this ancient city had nothing to do with the Aztecs. They were the Ancestral Puebloans, members of the same people group that built Chaco and Mesa Verde. The ancient city is in fact considered an outlier of Chaco and if you visit Aztec Ruins, you’ll see the same features on a smaller scale. However, from a visitor’s perspective, Aztec Ruins National Monument in the town of Aztec is much more accessible. All you have to do is drive to the end of a neighborhood street in town. Clearly marked signs point you in the right direction.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built and inhabited between 1100 and 1300, Aztec Ruins features a “great house” you can walk through and several other structures and kivas. The highlight of the site is the only reconstructed ceremonial kiva in the Southwest. Walking inside this kiva gives you an idea of what the originals would have looked like. Once inside, listen to a recording, adding to the ambiance. Even the Visitor Center is a museum here, set in the original house archaeologist Earl Morris who reconstructed the kiva lived in while he worked at the site.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande ruins sits in the middle of a surrounding flat desert in Coolidge just a short drive south of Phoenix. Part of a larger archaeological site featuring a few smaller structures and a ball court, this “big house” is part of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The largest known structure built by the Hohokam, the four-story-high “house” is protected from the intense Arizona sun by a metal roof.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here, and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

If you want to visit ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere without driving on dirt roads Hovenweep National Monument fits the bill. The word Hovenweep means deserted valley and that is exactly what you find as you drive to the site on the Colorado-Utah border in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The site is actually in both states but you wouldn’t be able to tell which one you are in.

Hovenweep features a few tall structures along a small canyon. The largest, called Hovenweep Castle, sits on the rim comprising a few structures. The two-mile round-trip trail leading to the ruins takes you along the rim of the canyon. Besides the castle, it passes several other structures and offers views of the Square Tower inside the canyon. The paved trail from the Visitor Center to the start of this trail is fully accessible and leads to Little Ruins Canyon Overlook. From here, you can see most of the structures.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument preserves a site on top of a hill overlooking the Verde River, cliffs and ridges in the valley, and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River.

The ancient village on the hill, the Citadel, inhabited between 1100 and 1400, comprised 110 rooms by the time its builders and those who lived there abandoned the site. A paved, fully accessible trail leads to and around it, giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed, and if you are there at the right time, you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things To Keep In Mind When Visiting These Archaeological Sites

The ancient people of the Southwest who built the structures mentioned above, made their home in an inhospitable environment and built civilizations here. For a long time, the view was that they mysteriously “disappeared,” leaving these elaborate structures behind.

In fact, they were all ancestors of the present-day Native tribes of the Southwest. When visiting any of the ruins, please be respectful of this. For some of us, these people’s stories may be an interesting piece of history, but for the descendants of people who built them, they are part of their cultural inheritance. By learning about their history and protecting and respecting these sites, we learn about the Native people of the area, and are richer for the experience.

Worth Pondering…

We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.

—Native American Proverb

National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

From the legacy of ancient peoples to Colonial times

“National monument” is a rather confusing designation. We most likely know what we’re getting into with a national memorial or a national battlefield but the monuments are rarely the statues or shrines their titles suggest. Most, in fact, are sprawling natural wonders that give national parks a run for their money. In fact, many do become national parks.

Still, several of the 128 national monuments actually deliver on their promise to commemorate and preserve history. Some are the sites that recognize Native American history and preserve ancient pueblos. They encompass celebration, cautionary tales, and hope. These are the national monuments where we can stop to reflect on the past as we look forward into the future with hope. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Aztec Ruins National Monument provides visitors an opportunity to explore ancient ruins built by the ancient Ancestral Puebloans in the 1100s. Aztec Ruins features ceremonial, public, and storage structures as well as the “Great Kiva”, the oldest and largest reconstructed Kiva in North America. The Great Kiva is a 40-foot diameter semi-subterranean structure which was the central religious site of the complex. Take a self-guided tour and explore the 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Step into the mysteries of history. At the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, you’ll find the Ancient Sonoran Desert People’s farming community including the preserved “Great House,” or “Casa Grande.” An estimation of dating puts the origins of this structure around 1350 and the abandonment thereof about a century later in 1450. It wasn’t until 1694 that written historic accounts were journaled by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino. Other explorers, philanthropists, anthropologists, and politicians banded together over the years to research, restore, and preserve the Great House. It was America’s first archaeological reserve in 1892 and declared a National Monument in 1918. Today, visitors can explore the extensive and fascinating compound with the help of guided tours and an interpretive center that offers answers to questions and leaves you to ponder a few more questions yet to be solved.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia

Three years after founding Georgia in 1733, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica to defend the fledgling colony against Spanish attack from Florida. The site, sixty miles south of Savannah, would become the military headquarters for the new colony. Fort Frederica combined a military installation (the fort) with a settlement (the town of Frederica). Georgia’s fate was decided in 1742 when Spanish and British forces clashed on St. Simons Island. Fort Frederica’s troops defeated the Spanish ensuring Georgia’s future as a British colony. By 1743, nearly 1,000 people lived at Frederica. The peace treaty that Great Britain and Spain signed in 1748 sounded its death knell. No longer needed to guard against Spanish attack, the garrison was withdrawn and disbanded. Today, the archeological remnants of Frederica are protected by the National Park Service.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Explore a variety of structures including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. By about A.D. 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep, planting and harvesting crops along the top of the mesa. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people. Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes, including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas. The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years. Though the reason is unclear, ancestral Puebloans throughout the area migrated south to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona. Today’s Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Discover this historic five-story Native American dwelling carved out of an ancient limestone cliff with twenty rooms. Begun during the twelfth century, it took about three centuries to complete. Montezuma Castle National Monument, considered one of Arizona’s best-preserved cliff dwellings, was built by a group connected to the Hohokam people of Southern Arizona. Explore the museum and wander the trails through a picturesque sycamore grove at the base of towering limestone cliffs. Afterwards you are able to have lunch in the picnic area along the shore of Beaver Creek.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Explore the legacy of ancient peoples in a desert hilltop pueblo. Discover endless views of varying desert habitats and learn about the Sinaguan people at the museum. Starting in A.D. 1000, the Sinagua built the 110-room Tuzigoot pueblo including second and third story structures. The tribe was largely agricultural and had trade routes that spanned hundreds of miles. These ancient peoples left the area around 1400. The museum features exhibits depicting the lifestyle of the Sinaguan Indians as well as an impressive collection of artifacts collected from the pueblo and nearby sites. A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail traces through the pueblo. The hilltop view offers expansive scenery of the Verde River and Tavasci Marsh.

Worth Pondering…

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thanksgiving Road Trip: See the Best of Arizona in these 8 Places

There’s a lot more to Arizona than the Grand Canyon which is why these eight places are the perfect excuse to take a Thanksgiving road trip

This Thanksgiving, be grateful not just for the four-day weekend, but how it allows plenty of time to see Arizona at its best—winter to the north, t-shirt weather to the south.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state’s scenic variety shines through as fall edges toward winter. Even as snow blankets the high country, the desert sun continues to warm snowbirds who bask in it on desert hikes.

The long Thanksgiving weekend provides the perfect opportunity to spend a day or two on the road, seeing areas that have perhaps escaped your view. Here are some suggestions to get you on your way.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Willcox

This up-and-coming town in southeastern Arizona is attracting visitors who come for its wineries and tasting rooms, but you’re here to hike in Chiricahua National Monument and see the sandhill cranes. The majestic birds winter in the Sulphur Springs area, and Willcox is the perfect hub. Thousands of cranes roost in Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, a shallow lake that is a flurry activity at sunup and sundown, when birds depart and return in a swirling cloud of feathers.

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac and Tumacacori

Head south on Interstate 19 to Tumacacori National Historical Park, where a stately though incomplete mission stands as a reminder of the Spanish Franciscans who settled in the area two centuries ago. After soaking in the history, head 3½ miles back north for lunch in Tubac, a charming arts colony. Stroll among dozens of galleries and studios where you’ll find pottery, jewelry, paintings, and works in all sorts of media.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

See just how lush the desert can be at this oasis of more than 3,000 types of Sonoran Desert vegetation. At 392 acres, Boyce Thompson is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden founded in the 1920s. There are 3 miles of trails and the most popular is the 1.5-mile main loop that offers a perfect overview. 

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

You’ve lost count how many times you’ve whipped past the off ramp for Montezuma Castle as you head north on Interstate 17. But go ahead, angle right at Exit 289 and be rewarded with a look at a work of ingenuity and architectural design, circa 1200. The ancient dwellers carved a 40- to 50-room pueblo into the cliff and lived there for 400 years. Visitors in the early 20th century scaled ladders and explored the rooms, but ruins are off limits today. No matter, because the view from below is stunning.

Cathedral Rock at Red Rock Crossing © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock Crossing, Sedona

Among the dozens of Instagram-worthy sites around Sedona, this is one of the best. Its official name is Crescent Moon Picnic Site but it’s commonly called Red Rock Crossing. Cathedral Rock soars in the distance, its two towers book-ending a slender spire offering the perfect backdrop to Oak Creek, which flows along rocks worn smooth by water and wind. It’s also said to be home to a powerful spiritual vortex. For something more palpable, pack a lunch and dine in one of Arizona’s prettiest places.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

For a few years, Bisbee was the “it” destination, named Arizona’s prettiest small town by a number of travel sites. That level of attention may have dwindled, but the former mining town is as beautiful as ever. A stroll down Main Street reveals buildings that look much as they did a hundred years ago, now occupied by restaurants and boutiques rather than miners and speculators. If you head 3 miles south to Lowell, you’ll find a strip of former service stations and garages repurposed as stores and restaurants.

Courthouse Plaza, Pewscott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whiskey Row, Prescott

Park the car and enjoy the kind of afternoon once experienced by cowboys, miners, and ranchers looking to blow off some steam around the turn of the 20th century. While the bars aren’t nearly as numerous as they once were, you can still duck inside one of Whiskey Row’s three saloons (Bird Cage, the Palace Saloon, or Matt’s) and revel in the history. Special treat: Just across the street, Courthouse Plaza will be decked out for the holidays one of the reasons Prescott is the Arizona’s Christmas City.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

To experience the magic of the giant saguaro cacti up-close, look no further than Catalina State Park near Tucson. There are easy nature trails here and also longer and more challenging trails for experienced hikers. The park spans 5,500 acres of foothills, streams, and canyons and is home to over 150 species of birds. RV camping is available.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

Absolutely Best Road Trip from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon

This road trips goes from Phoenix to Sedona to Williams to the Grand Canyon to Prescott to Jerome and back to Phoenix

Many visitors to the heart of the Southwest are surprised by the diversity found in the Grand Canyon state. From cactus strewn deserts and crimson canyons to swaying grass lands and towering ponderosa pine forests, there is so much to see and do. So, buckle up and prepare to be amazed by Arizona’s wide-open spaces and jaw-dropping natural beauty. You can turn this itinerary into a weekend getaway or take your time and spend a week or more exploring Arizona on this road trip.

Papago Park, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start in Phoenix

Begin your adventure in the capital city of the 48th state known for year-round sunny skies and reliably warm temperatures. Phoenix is the epicenter of a sprawling metro area (the country’s 5th most populated) known as the Valley of the Sun. You’ll find dozens of top-notch golf courses, scores of hiking and biking trails, and the well-regarded, family-friendly Papago Park and adjacent Desert Botanical Gardens.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 1: Montezuma Castle

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized four sites for their historic and cultural significance thereby naming the nation’s first National Monuments. Among these was Montezuma Castle. Today, visitors get a glimpse into the region’s past and the enduring legacy of the Sinagua culture through a visit to the well-preserved cliff dwellings. The 20-room, “high-rise apartment” embedded in limestone cliffs tells the remarkable story of the resourceful people who lived along Beaver Creek for more than 400 years.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 2: Sedona (via Highway 179 from I-17)

Whether you choose to stay for an afternoon or several days, spectacular Sedona will steal your heart. The stunning, red rock vistas are unlike any you’ve seen elsewhere.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore via more than 400 miles of hiking and biking trails that wind through a wonderland of colorful stone, forest, and creek beds. Consider a famous jeep tour, part thrill ride and a unique way to discover historic native sites in the area. Sedona is well known for its energetic vibe, so be sure to ask about the area’s vortexes. Considered a center for enlightenment, the vortexes are thought to be swirling centers of energy conducive to healing and personal exploration. Don’t miss scenic Oak Creek Canyon.

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 4: Williams

This northern Arizona town is located on the last stretch of Route 66 to be by-passed by Interstate 40. Historic highway memorabilia are featured in kitschy shops and restaurants. Old time western shoot outs are staged in the middle of Main Street. And bear, bison, and wolves roam in Bearzona, a drive-through animal park. The colorful town of 3,000 residents is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway where visitors can hop aboard restored rail cars and be entertained by musicians as the train traverses the scenic, high-desert plateau between the historic depot and the grandest canyon of them all.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 5: The Grand Canyon

Whether you drive to the Grand Canyon or arrive via the Grand Canyon Railway, you’ll soon understand why it’s a treasured wonder of the world. Carved by the mighty Colorado the multi-hued rock walls revealing millions of years of geologic history descend a mile deep and stretch for 277 miles.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From sunrise to sunset, the canyon is the main attraction. However, with so much to see and do a stop at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center can help make the most of your time while exploring Arizona’s most impressive landmark.

Note: A free shuttle bus operates on the South Rim.

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 6: Prescott

A Western history lover’s sweet spot, mile-high Prescott is home to more than 700 homes and businesses listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as museums that tell their stories. Stroll along Whiskey Row where saloons thrive alongside shops, galleries, eateries, and antique venues.

Watson Lake and Granite Dells, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Set amidst the Ponderosa Pines of Prescott National Forest, the western town offers more than 400 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Paddle on any of four pristine lakes in the area and enjoy a picnic lunch before getting back on the road.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 7: Jerome

On a return trip to Phoenix stop in the tiny town of Jerome perched a mile high on the side of Cleopatra Hill overlooking the Verde Valley between Sedona to the north and Prescott to the south. Once a mining boom town boasting bars and bordellos, Jerome earned the moniker Wickedest City in the West. Decades later in 1953 when the mines shuttered the Arizona camp soon became the largest ghost town in the west.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today the cliffside destination, a National Historic Landmark, is proud of its historic restoration and a quirky collection of art studios, galleries, wine tasting rooms, and specialty shops. Visit the Jerome State Historic Park and the Historical Society Mine.

Worth Pondering…

The limestone of this canyon is often polished, and makes a beautiful marble. Sometimes the rocks are of many colors—white, gray, pink and purple, with saffron hints.

—Major John Wesley Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons

Discover Arizona’s Extraordinary Verde Valley

Located in the ‘heart’ of Arizona, the Verde Valley is ideally situated above the heat of the desert and below the cold of Arizona’s high country

The Spanish word verde means “green,” so the name may seem like a misnomer for arid Arizona. Yet, in the central part of the state, approximately 90 miles north of Phoenix, lies Verde Valley with nearly 80 percent of its land set aside as national forest. The valley encompasses about 714 square miles of red rock formations and lush canyons fed by the Verde River.

In the Verde Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the shadows of Mingus Mountain and in the heart of the Verde Valley, Cottonwood offers a distinctive historic district lined with shops and restaurants on its Main Street. History is alive in nearby Clarkdale whose homes and buildings still reflect its early copper smelting heritage. Four specialized museums focus on Native American cultures, international copper art, and local railroad and town history.

Wine tasting in Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cornville/Page Springs offers wineries, tasting rooms, and a relaxed take on some of Arizona’s most pristine high-desert scenery. Camp Verde, located in the geographic center of Arizona, is rich in history and offers a variety of recreation and outdoor activities to experience and enjoy.

Looking toward Mingus Mountain and Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With so much to see and do, where do you start? Here are five attractions that are a sure thing. And, here’s a quick tip: The word “verde” is pronounced so that it rhymes with “birdie.”

Verde Canyon Railroad, Clarkdale

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park the RV and board the train as you embark on a spectacular journey accessible only by rail. Keep your eyes on the scenery as the engineer takes you on a four-hour, 40-mile round-trip excursion between two national forests, through a 680-foot tunnel, and past ancient ruins and towering red rock buttes.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gaze at the remote wilderness through large windows as you sit comfortably in climate-controlled passenger cars complete with rest rooms. Or choose to enjoy the open-air viewing car for fresh canyon air and an amazing 360-degree panorama.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Cottonwood

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Ranch State Park is located adjacent to and across the Verde River from the community of Cottonwood. Offering over 100 spacious sites, the campgrounds give access to the park features like trails, playground, lakes, and the Verde River. The campground consists of four loops that each have varying numbers of spots available for you to stay.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most campsites are RV accessible with hookups. Many of the pull through sites can accommodate RVs up to 65 feet in length. There are three lagoons within the park that offer great fishing and a place to watch the area aquatic wildlife and birds. Dead Horse Ranch is a great place to stay while you explore the natural beauty and rich history of this popular Arizona region.

Tuzigoot National Monument, Clarkdale

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua people began building the limestone and sandstone hilltop pueblo around the year A.D. 1000. They expanded the settlement over the next 400 years to involve 110 rooms housing more than 200 people. Then, in the late 1300s, the inhabitants began to abandon the pueblo. By the time the first Europeans arrived, Tuzigoot had been empty for nearly 100 years. It’s believed the citizens joined what are now the modern Hopi and Zuni tribes or stayed nearby and became the ancestors of people now belonging to the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name of this incredible settlement really is a misnomer. Montezuma Castle was named in the 1860s by people who mistakenly thought the Aztec emperor was somehow affiliated with it. Truth is it was built by the Sinagua people who lived in it and then abandoned it before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle, built directly into the side of a cliff, rests 50 feet above the valley floor. Standing five stories tall, the castle has 20 rooms and covers 3,500 square feet.

Montezuma Well, Camp Verde

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And as they say, wait—there’s more. A second, detached part of the park, known as Montezuma Well, is about 11 miles northeast of Montezuma Castle and has its own extraordinary features. First, Montezuma Well is not actually a well. The water in it is continuously refreshed by subterranean springs in an enormous limestone sinkhole measuring 368 feet across.

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An astounding 1.5 million gallons of water per day flow here. Even more amazing, the water fell as rain on the nearby Mogollon Rim between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago. For years, the water has been slowly seeping through the rock until it reaches an impenetrable layer of rock and then is forced back to the surface.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Apartment House of the Ancients: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Would your house look this good 800 years from now?

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The little oasis below the pueblo is an exception, a pleasant place to stop and have a picnic by the creek under the shade of white-barked Arizona sycamores. Listen for the descending trills of the canyon wrens while you gaze through time at the “castle”.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On December 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Montezuma Castle one of the country’s first national monuments, maintaining and protecting the cultural resource.

Our visit to the castle began in the cool modern visitors center which stands adjacent to the ruins, welcoming more than 2,000 visitors a day. The center offered us displays of Indian artifacts, a chronicle of the early discovery and preservation of the ruins, and information on desert wildlife. Southwest Parks and Monuments Association also runs a small bookstore in the Visitor Center.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We learned that Montezuma Castle was not an isolated structure where people lived generation after generation, having little contact with neighbors. The Castle instead was a small, but very dramatic, part of a larger community of people spread up and down the waterways of the Verde Valley. As many as 6,000 to 8,000 people may have lived in the valley in small villages no more than several miles apart.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail led us from the visitor center past the cliff dwelling, through a beautiful grove of Arizona sycamores and along spring-fed Beaver Creek, one of only a few perennial streams in Arizona. Benches along the path offered the perfect spot to view the massive structure.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soaring 100 feet above the desert floor, the empty dwelling fills a huge recess in the cliff wall. There is little evidence of conflict or warfare but perhaps people felt more secure living in the Castle. The series of long pole ladders used to climb from the base of the cliff to the small windows and doorways high above could be pulled in for the night. A small ruin above the Castle, on the top of the cliff, provides views of the entire countryside—a sentry would have advance warning of anyone entering the area.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking at the castle we theorized that the previous mode of entry provided protection from enemies but must have provided a challenge for both the youngest and oldest tenants of the ancient apartment building.

A few yards farther along the path stood a neighbor: Castle A. This lesser known ruin once loomed much larger than Montezuma Castle. However, the structure is badly deteriorated, and little remains except a few low walls.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We moved down the path to a large 3-D diagram depicting how the castle may have looked when occupied. An audio presentation told us how smaller functioned as individual family living quarters while the larger spaces served the entire community.

The white-barked Arizona Sycamore is one of the most distinctive sights at Montezuma Castle often reaching heights of 80 feet. This tree once blanketed Arizona 63 million years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the weather became drier these deciduous trees thrived only in areas close to permanent water, such as the perennial streams and canyon bottoms.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some amazing adaptations help the Arizona Sycamore survive from seedling to old age—at least 200 years. Each fruit pod contains an average of 667 seeds with a protective coating designed to withstand seasonal flooding.

No one knows for sure why the Sinagua left the two castles. Possible explanations for the exodus include farmland exhaustion, overcrowding, and conflict between families or neighboring tribes

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with people of other centuries.