The Grandest Drive in Arizona

Follow Highway 89A and hold on tight

Everyone has a favorite road, often some less-traveled stretch of curvy blacktop through an area of scenic countryside. What I consider to be one of the grandest drives in Arizona fits that bill and beats the heat is a federally recognized scenic byway that climbs tall mountains, traverses sweeping grasslands, encounters the grandest of vistas, and passes through historic towns along the way. 

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Also, get the latest information about your destination before proceeding. Check for fire restrictions and other closures.

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

Leaving Prescott, drive north on Highway 89 until you hit the intersection with 89A in the direction of Jerome. This piece of roadway was constructed in the 1920s as something of a shortcut over the crest of Mingus Mountain between Prescott and Jerome which was then a thriving copper-mining town. Again, it can be challenging, but in a good way.

Highway 89A climbing Mingus Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peaking at 7,000 feet, the 34-mile trek at higher elevations passes through tall-pine forest. The road twists through canyons and over crests with impressive climbs, dazzling drop-offs, and views that make you want to stop the car to get out and stare. There actually are quite a few pullouts for parking and enjoying the ambience with several of them in the narrow and absolutely stunning valley that you encounter while approaching Jerome. Look far ahead for a sighting of the red rocks of Sedona in the distance.  You’ll want to stop to bask in the glory of the view.

Highway 89A descending Mingus Mountain to Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The descent proves just as steep and curving as the climb up the mountain. But since you’re not hemmed in by a canyon the views are more dramatic. Take advantage of the pullouts to stop and marvel at the details. You’ll see evidence of mining activity as you get lower. Pass through a rocky cleft then wind around a few more curves and you’ll be pulling into Jerome. Now you can relax. 

Highway 89A through Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The entrance to Jerome happens suddenly; one moment you’re on this mountain road and the next you are on a narrow stretch of village streets. Small homes perch above you on the left and below you on the right with ancient concrete walls and curbs lining the road. Go slowly through here as there are homes and businesses packed close to the street and usually bands of tourists wandering around aimlessly. 

Highway 89A through Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One final curve to the right and you’re in downtown Jerome with its reclaimed century-old buildings, shops, art galleries, cafes, and bars including the Spirit Room, a longtime favorite for locals, out-of-town visitors, and bikers of the Harley-Davidson variety. 

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome has a boom-to-bust ghost-town history that builds on its charm. From the 1890s through the 1920s, Jerome was a copper-mining boom town fading through the Depression of the 1930s, coming back as copper demand grew during the war years, and then shriveling up in the 1950s from a peak population of about 4,400 to a low of fewer than 100. 

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To make things worse, soil subsidence on the town’s precarious incline on the side of Cleopatra Hill caused by deforestation, fires, and mine blasting made major buildings collapse and some homes slide down the hill. 

Cleopatra Hill, Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yet Jerome’s rugged historic beauty cast its spell on artists and offbeat souls who repopulated the town restoring its homes and its downtown as well a regular destination for a steady flow of tourists and shoppers.

Tuzigoot National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you leave Jerome, be aware that the town of Cottonwood in the broad valley below the mountain range is a nice place to stop. There’s also an incredible prehistoric pueblo ruin called Tuzigoot National Monument just to the east.

Highway 89A traveling from Cottonwood to Sedona Arizona 89A © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are still enticed, continue on 89A into Sedona with its towering red rock formations and popular downtown then through lush Oak Creek Canyon up an amazing set of switchbacks to the surface of Mogollon Rim above and on to Flagstaff which sits at 7,000 feet elevation. 

Highway 89A through Oak Creek Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

None of this lengthy trip on Arizona 89A will be in the least bit tedious, especially newbies who will be enthralled by the continuous and ever-changing array of remarkable scenery. I’ve been on this route many times and never tire of it.

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

Winter Hiking in Arizona State Parks

Arizona State Parks offers an amazing variety of hiking trails that range from easy to difficult and encompass a wide array of terrain.

Arizona has incredible surroundings waiting to be explored.

Arizona State Parks offers an amazing variety of hiking trails that range from easy to difficult and encompass a wide array of terrain.

Pay attention and be observant of your surroundings. Watching your feet can prevent an unfortunate encounter with a rattlesnake or other poisonous wildlife.

Look no further than Sedona’s Red Rock country for one of the best hikes in Arizona. Eagle’s Nest Trail at Red Rock State Park (photo above) supplies panoramic views of the colorful rocks and craggy formations. After hiking through the lush vegetation surrounding Oak Creek, follow the trail up to views only previously imagined.

Eagle’s Nest trail is only one of several options available at Red Rock State Park. The park offers hikes for every skill level, whether you’re going for a relaxed stroll or looking to break a sweat. Numerous bird species call Red Rock State Park home, pick up a current bird ID list at the park store; you’ll be amazed by the number of species that use the park. Be sure to take tons of scenic photos while at this epic destination, the park lends itself very well to creative shots.

Just up the road at Slide Rock State Park, trails lead into Oak Creek Canyon (above photo) and along the creek itself. Best known for its iconic natural water slide, this scenic hiking destination is bound to leave a lasting impression while creating lifetime memories. Birds and wildlife are common along Oak Creek.

The forested mountain views are accentuated by the gentle rumble of Oak Creek and add to the overall experience of this beautifully unique destination. Look up in awe of the jagged formations created by a combination of time and weather as you amble through this small, yet extremely beautiful park in the pines.

Southeast of Sedona, in the Verde River Valley near Cottonwood, Dead Horse Ranch State Park (photo above) offers a multi-use trail system for visitors to enjoy.

Choose between the higher desert scenery of the Lime Kiln trail, which follows a historic route between Sedona and Cottonwood, or the more densely vegetated Verde River Greenway trail. The trails within the Verde River Valley and along the Verde River itself, give hikers the chance of experiencing many of the birds and wildlife that call Dead Horse Ranch home. Deer, javelina, raccoons, and otters hang out in the thick riverside vegetation year-round. 

Lost Dutchman State Park (photo above) always offers an incredible adventure, like the Full Moon Hike every month to see the starry night sky over the Superstition Mountains. Walk an easy loop around the mountain or wind through Siphon Draw to see all Lost Dutchman has to offer. There’s a path for every view, timeframe, and difficulty level, so pick a trail and take a hike.

Picacho Peak (photo above) and the classic beauty of true Sonoran Desert landscapes is available for your enjoyment. Dive in to the Hunter Trail for a strenuous two mile hike up the rocks, twisting up the iconic mountain, or take a stroll up Calloway Trail for a less strenuous hike to a scenic overlook as you appreciate the scenery of the Sonoran Desert. 

Catalina State Park (photo below) just outside of Tucson is a well-known, incredibly beautiful and diverse natural area that creates a feeling of remoteness, despite the close proximity to Tucson’s metropolitan center. Hike any of Catalina’s various trails for differing levels of difficulty, from short hikes to an all-day adventure, on foot, on a bike, or by horseback.

You never know what you’ll run into at Catalina, from gorgeous Mexican gold poppies, to desert tortoises, to various desert creepy crawlers. Catalina’s landscapes are always showing off and waiting to be explored.

Remember, when you’re enjoying Arizona’s hiking trails to bring plenty of water and snacks, and be aware of the temperature. Arizona hiking destinations offer views of the desert and experiences you won’t find anywhere else. All you need to do is pick a trail and lace up your shoes.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

Beat the Government Shutdown: 4 Alternatives to National Parks

You had planned an RV trip to the Grand Canyon National Park prior to the recent government shut down.

With many of the amenities curtailed and garbage piling up should you cancel your campground reservations and make alternative plans? The answer is no.

And the same applies for numerous other national parks affected by the congressional gridlock. Whether you’re visiting Joshua Tree or Saguaro, it’s fairly easy to find nearby alternative destinations that will be equally enjoyable.

Here’s a rundown of the status of four popular winter parks, along with nearby alternatives:

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

National Park staff is unable to keep up with snow maintenance in this iconic park, possibly limiting access to many popular areas.

Alternative: Oak Creek Canyon

Oak Creek Canyon is a breathtaking stretch of beauty on a winding road that climbs 4,500 feet from Sedona to the top of the Mogollon Rim. A 14 mile drive along Route 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff, Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive has been recognized as one of the Top 5 Most Scenic Drives in America.

There are many places along the drive to stop and relish the beauty and enchantment Northern Arizona offers. At the top of the canyon, various Native American vendors sell hand-crafted authentic works of art at Oak Creek Canyon Vista Point. It is a great place to stop and enjoy the views into the canyon below.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The park service recently closed a campground and road leading to this popular Southern California location and is relying on volunteers to clean up much of the overflowing litter.

Alternative: Coachella Valley Preserve

Enjoy some of the 30 miles of trails, picnic areas, cool oases, wildlife, and wildflowers at Coachella Valley Preserve. Walk into the past in their rustic visitor center, the Palm House, a palm log cabin built in the 1930s. Although not as sprawling as Joshua Tree this expanse of lush palm trees features trails through fascinating desert habitats. Take a guided hike with an expert naturalist or go for a bird walk.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Park roads and trails are open to visitors, but there are no NPS-provided services, like public information, restrooms, trash collection, and facilities or road maintenance. Both visitor centers are closed.

Alternative: Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. Commonly encountered species of wildlife include javelin, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and various reptiles.

Arches National Park, Utah

Heavy snowfall, in combination with the ongoing government shutdown, has closed Arches for the foreseeable future. The road remains open to the visitor center, at which point a closed gate prevents further travel by vehicle. The NPS posted on the Arches website, “It is unknown when the road will open. Access to the park will not occur until conditions improve or the National Park Service receives funding to maintain the roads.”

Alternative: Dead Horse Point State Park

Planning a trip to Arches National Park? Dead Horse Point State Park is just up the road, and offers some of the best scenic views you can find anywhere. Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs about 6,000 feet above sea level. Two thousand feet below, the Colorado River winds its way from the continental divide in Colorado to the Gulf of California, a distance of 1,400 miles. The peninsula is connected to the mesa by a narrow strip of land called the neck.

Worth Pondering…

Happy is the man who can enjoy scenery when he has to take a detour.