If you have a burning desire for a road trip along winding roads with hairpin turns that climb to 7,000 feet, set against jaw-dropping rock formations and desert scenery, then look no further than Arizona – northern Arizona, to be exact.
Recently my family and I had the opportunity to visit friends in Scottsdale, Arizona; taking the quickest flight route from Grand Cayman to Phoenix via a stop in Houston. From Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport, we rented a car and drove the 30 minutes to Scottsdale, a city of about 227,000 just northeast of Phoenix.
Whether browsing the galleries and stores of Old Town, hiking trails or shopping and golfing, Scottsdale has something for everyone. If you have children, I suggest a visit to the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, which has model railroads, a mile-long railroad, a mini reproduction of a Colorado narrow gauge railroad, museum, playgrounds and an antique carousel.
Having never been to this particular part of the U.S., I was lured by a few preconceived notions gleamed from popular fiction. For one, I didn’t realize how pleasant – and how different – the weather would be from Cayman.
Although both Scottsdale and Grand Cayman experienced the same temperature within a degree or two while we were there during spring, the humidity in Cayman hovered at 87 percent, while the humidity in Scottsdale was around 7 percent. My hair, normally curly, went poker straight and my lips and skin were more chapped than a cowboy’s leg, but the cool mornings and evenings were a breath of fresh, desert air.
Sedona, farther north, is usually 20 degrees cooler due to its higher elevation. So if you plan to take a trip there, make sure you check their weather forecast, because depending on the season, you may need to wear layers.
I was also surprised that the desert does not necessarily mean flat terrain and miles and miles of rolling dunes and cacti. Making our way to Sedona for our three-day road trip, we were amazed by how textured the terrain is, from sparse gray bulbous mountains and valleys, to majestic pine trees nestled on mountains, to the red rocks of Sedona.
Suggested driving route
Our hosts encouraged us to visit Prescott and Jerome along the way to Sedona, which added another hour and a half to the drive, but the detour was well worth it.
Starting off on Loop 101 north from Scottsdale, we the took Highway 17 north exit, passing Phoenix along the way, before merging onto the scenic State Highway 89A north to the little town of Prescott.
We stopped for a bite to eat at the Palace Restaurant and Saloon. Established in 1877, it claims to be “the oldest frontier saloon in Arizona,” according to the literature on the menu, and was known for its beer, whisky, and cowboys, who spent many nights there drinking, gambling and enjoying the “ladies of the night.”
Inside, a rockabilly band played to a mixed lunch crowd, of tourists, older people, and some bikers and cowboys. With its tin ceiling and impressive oak and cherry mahogany bar and wood-plank floors, the Old West seemed to be alive and kicking.
We then continued along route 89A until we arrived in the charming town of Jerome. Perched high on a steep hillside in the Black Hills of Arizona in Yavapai County, the area reaches elevations of more than 5,000 feet.
The historic copper mining town – which turned to tourism after demand for copper slowed dramatically in the post-war 1950s and ore deposits were exhausted – Jerome is now a popular area for visitors, artisans – and ghosts. Many of the hotels on the main strip are said to be haunted.
As we strolled the eccentric and off-beat shops and took in the magnificent views of the Verde Valley below, and the spectacular red rock cliffs of the Mogollon Rim far into the distance, we could feel the weight of the town’s history – the sense that many illicit things happened here.
In the 1900s there were many thriving businesses associated with alcohol, gambling and prostitution, encouraged by a 78 percent male population. In fact, in 1903, the New York Sun newspaper once proclaimed Jerome to be the “wickedest town in the West.”
Next, we headed down the winding road where homes hung off the hillsides, before making our way to Sedona. It was sunset and the city glowed brilliant shades of red, amber and orange due to the way the light hit the signature red rocks.
Situated about 120 miles north of Phoenix, Sedona has a population of about 10,000. It is part of the Colorado Plateau and sits at 4,500 feet above sea level. Nestled between thousand-foot-high walls of stone in lushly forested Oak Creek Canyon, it is considered “high desert climate,” and is blessed with sunny weather almost 300 days a year.
All the famous red rock formations were formed by eons of erosion. There are no actual mountains here; the rocks get their deep red color for which Sedona is famous due to the presence of hematite (rust) that stains the sandstone of the Schnebly Hill and Hermit Shale layers.
Because of their rare and signature look, the red rocks have been a fixture for major Hollywood productions throughout the years.
People travel to Sedona from all over the world for a myriad of reasons, including its hundreds of hiking and mountain biking trails, hot-air balloon rides, rock climbing spots and Jeep tours. Pink Jeep Tours are considered the best of the bunch and a heart-racing adventure for those who do not mind bumpy rides – unfortunately, with our toddler in tow we couldn’t go, since the minimu age limit is 5.
Sedona also attracts those drawn to esoteric and spiritual pursuits. Steeped in native history (from 11,500 B.C. until 1876, many Native American peoples and tribes lived in the region in and around the Verde Valley) the region still holds the traditions of its ancestors, such as pottery, basketry and masonry.
Many believe it is sacred land, and of the more than 4 million visitors each year, at least 60 percent are said to actively search out a spiritual experience. The area is world-renowned for its vortex energies and its reported ability to transform, awaken and heal the soul. As such, there are numerous guided tours – covering anything from analyzing ancient rock art to hiking to metaphysics and yoga classes. There are also a large number of spas.
Oak Creek Canyon
On Day 2 in Sedona, we set out for the Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive to get a closer look at those majestic red rocks. The drive is just 14 miles long, along Route 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff, but it is a breathtaking stretch of beauty on a winding road that climbs 4,500 feet from Sedona to the top of the Mogollon Rim. We decided to ascend the canyon from Sedona, passing picturesque forests and rich foliage of oak trees and evergreens against the backdrop of red rocks and cliffs.
I had to convince my husband on more than one occasion to slow down, as the hair-pin turns gave me slight anxiety. On the way up to the peak, we passed by campsites and the West Fork Oak Creek trail, considered one of the most popular hiking trails in Arizona, which runs alongside the crystal clear Oak Canyon Creek at some points. We also passed the Slide Rock Park at the mouth of the Canyon – a popular recreation spot with a natural water slide in the summer months.
Once we reached the Oak Creek Canyon Vista Point at 7,000 feet above sea level, we stopped to peruse the handcrafted authentic works by Native American vendors, and took in the vista of the deep forests and canyon below. On the return trip, we headed to the Chapel of the Holy Cross just south of vibrant Sedona “uptown,” with restaurants and shops, off Highway 179.
Rising 70 feet from a 1,000-foot red rock cliff, the Roman Catholic chapel was inspired and commissioned by local rancher and sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude, who h
ad been inspired in 1932 by the newly constructed Empire State Building in New York.
As we climbed the steep incline from the parking lot to the chapel, the views were spectacular from every turn. The chapel is a stunning example of modern architecture.
We ended the day at Tlaquepague Arts & Crafts Village, tucked away a short distance from uptown Sedona. Modeled after a traditional Mexican village, with its vine-covered stucco walls, cobble-stone walkways, dramatic archways, and sycamore trees, Tlequepaque (meaning the “best of everything”) feels like it has been there for centuries.
Filled with art galleries and more than 40 eclectic shops, it is a treasure-trove of one-of-a-kind art, décor and sculptures, as well as handcrafted jewelry – you could easily spend an entire afternoon here.
After our amazing dinner at a quaint Mexican restaurant called El Rincon, we were informed by our waiter that most of Sedona’s uptown establishments close at 6 p.m.
When I asked why, he quite matter of factly stated that bobcats and javelinas (wild pigs) come out after dusk and can be quite aggressive. I didn’t believe him until I Googled it later and found out that indeed, his story about a “bobcat walks into a bar” a few years back, was not a joke after all (it ended up mauling three bar patrons).
The next day, on our way back to Sedona, we decided to set aside a few hours to experience the Out of Africa Wildlife Park, just off Highway 89 in Camp Verde, along Route 260. At this park, animals roam in a natural and spacious habitat that mimics the wild, and many are rescue animals, including lions, a white rhino, grizzly bears, panthers and zebras.
The highlight for me was an open-air safari bus tour that stopped long enough for me to feed a giraffe celery sticks with my bare hands.
Driving back to Scottsdale, we took Highway 17 before merging onto the 101 Loop – a much quicker route (an hour and a half) then the scenic route we took to get to Sedona a few days before, but we couldn’t resist stopping at the Outlets at Anthem to shop until our heart’s content.
After all, it’s not always about getting back to nature when a 50 percent sale sign is calling your name.