Arizona is the ultimate road-trip state. Why? Well, because it has great roads, including sections of the old Route 66. It also has awesome places to see along the way – including Monument Valley, the backdrop to many great Westerns, and the Grand Canyon, arguably America’s most awesome landmark.
Travelling north from throbbing Phoenix, passing through pine forests, canyons and parched, painted deserts, and then backtracking through a petrified forest and friendly Winslow, you’ll get the very best out of this remarkable US state.
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Phoenix And The Tonto National Forest
Phoenix is a great place to start an Arizona drive. Some would say that’s because you can get away at top speed. But while this 500-square-mile sprawl with a metropolitan population of around 4.2 million is not the prettiest city in the US, it does boast some very cool bars, boutique hotels and smart dining around Scottsdale, a fine opera house, the acclaimed Phoenix Art Museum and the Heard Museum’s collection of Native American art.
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You should also pop into Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden, not least to prepare you for a visit to the Tonto National Forest – which begins inside the city limits and then goes on – an on – for three million acres, making it the fifth largest forest in the United States. With altitudes ranging from 1,300 to 7,900 feet above sea level, its diverse landscapes include Sonoran desert studded with Saguaro cactus, shady Ponderosa pine forests, open plains and deep canyons, where can hike, swim, abseil and camp; look out for bald eagles, coyote and – above all – grizzly and black bears.
Have you found your Vortex yet? What does your latest Psychic Reading indicate? Is that an Aura you’re wearing under your Afghan coat? Unless you’re a New Ager, these questions probably mean nothing to you. Every year, thousands of people come seeking spiritual re-invigoration from the red rocks of Sedona. The red sandstone formations at the southern end of the 16-mile Oak Creek Canyon have the visual allure to satisfy even the most scientifically-minded travellers, while the town of Sedona offers fine art (surrealist Max Ernst lived in Sedona, long after he’d painted imaginary landscapes that might have been inspired by it) as well as lessons in the art of living.
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There’s hiking and mountain biking hereabouts, too, as well as gourmet eating, suggesting that the Vortices can suck in money as well as peace of mind.
Rising to prominence from the 1880s as a vital railroad town, Flagstaff is a convivial base for exploring the great outdoors; among nearby landmarks are the Wupatki National Monument – which abounds in Native American ruins – and the stark but photogenic Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. In Flagstaff itself, the Museum of Northern Arizona is widely regarded as an essential pit-stop for visitors to the region, and is good on flora and fauna and particularly strong on documenting Native American Life.
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The San Francisco Peaks, north of the city, are one of the state’s key adventure playgrounds. In summer, miles of trails attract hikers and mountain bikers, and the chairlift affords a breathtaking vista over a vast horizon that stretches to the Grand Canyon. In winter, they’re the location for the Arizona Snowbowl ski centre.
Arizona’s biggest hitter is easily accessed from the South Rim, just off Highway 64. Here, Grand Canyon Village is a sort of mini-town, with hotels, restaurants, shops, and a train depot. From the village, Desert View Drive runs for 25 miles to the Desert View, overlooking the park’s southeastern edge. You can pull over along the way and ogle the multi-hued rock strata and peer down into the shadowy bottom of the canyon.
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It’s a 210-mile (or around four hours) drive along Highway 89A to the North Rim, taking in dramatic formations at the Marble Platform – where the Grand Canyon begins. The edges at the canyon’s western end are lower, more rugged, and more remote than those in the central areas. Only a few roads cross here, and the canyon suddenly ends at the Grand Wash cliffs, where the Colorado flows into Lake Mead. To drive from rim to rim around the western end of the canyon, cross the Colorado River at the Hoover Dam, just a dime-toss away from Las Vegas.
Monument Valley Tribal Park
From The View hotel you can lie in your bunk and watch a John Ford Western on the TV – and compare the backdrop of the film with the real-life view, just beyond your window. For The View sits on the edge of Monument Valley, a landscape that is both weirdly familiar and yet as strange as any on earth. The ‘monuments’ are towering sandstone buttes that take the form of steeples, castles, hands (two of the most famous rocks are called ‘Mittens’) and mountainous mesas.
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Whether approaching on Highway 83 and seeing the whole panorama in a sweeping view, or even standing beneath one of the buttes, close to the warm stone, you feel you have one foot in a John Wayne movie and another in a Navajo dream – the park is inside the Navajo Nation, and is known as Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii in the indigenous tongue. Before leaving the area, pop over the border into Utah to visit Goulding’s Lodge and Trading Post Museum – where Wayne and other cowboys stayed while filming here.
Canyon De Chelly
Where the Grand gets the crowds, Chelly – a name derived from a Spanish corruption of “tsé-yi”, the Navajo word for “canyon” – is a comparatively little-known crack in the earth’ crust, with sheer sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, a number of scenic overlooks and many well-preserved Anasazi ruins.
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You’re more likely to bump into an artist doing Navajo rock art here than coachloads of selfie-stick wielders, and Navajo communities still live on the canyon floor. There are several scenic drives around the canyon, as well as some fantastic hiking trails – which can only be done with a Navajo guide.
Petrified Forest National Park
Around 225 million years ago, Arizona was swathed in lush green forests, with conifers up to 200 feet tall covering the slopes of active volcanoes – until these erupted, felled the trees and entombed them. Following millennia of floods and erosion, the trees became petrified and now form the centrepieces of the remarkable landscape of the Petrified Forest National Park, 25 miles east of Holbrook.
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Petrification has given the rock-solid logs and tree fragments a gnarled, ghostly appearance; set against the featureless desert, the tableau has something of an art installation about it. Fossilised plants and the fossils of armadillos and reptiles have been found at the site. The Painted Desert is adjacent to this national park, making it easy to tick off both while passing through.
You may well know the name of this town from the famous Eagles’ song, ‘Take It Easy’. Written in 1972 by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey, it tapped into the cultural heritage of this small, laid-back town. For the iconic Route 66 highway ran through Winslow – signage records the old route – as does the Santa Fe railroad. Wedged between the two is the Posada Inn, a hotel full of cosy hideaways and fascinating antiques.
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As is the way with culture, the Eagles song is now even more famous than the old road, and some 100,000 visitors come to Winslow every year to have their photos taken beside the life-size bronze of a guitar-toting guy named “Easy”, who is sort of lazily hitch-hiking while standing in front of a trompe-l’oeil mural depicting a flatbed Ford and other images from the song.
Fancy doing the route for yourself? You can find it here.