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Three Rocking Road Trips
eep red earth, wild geologic formations, Ponderosa pine forests and an iconic National Park await you here—as does the opportunity to reenact a song that’s on every essential road trip playlist. Hint: You’ll almost certainly be Instagramming a shot of yourself standing on a corner.
The Grand Canyon
Canyon de Chelly
et the fastest-growing big city in the nation—with all the implied cosmopolitanism—against the stark beauty of the Sonoran Desert, and you get a real rarity: an amazing arts, culture and dining scene paired with immediate-access hiking, mountain biking and general desert escapism. Welcome to the Phoenix metro area.
Meet a state so road trip-worthy that for the last 100 years, its thoroughfares have been the subject of an entire iconic magazine with readers around the world. Of course, the beauty immortalized in Arizona Highways by the likes of Ansel Adams is just the start of what makes this state your next great drive. At practically every turn, there’s something for everyone, whether you want to dive into ancient history or zone out to surreal scenery… to rekindle the flame or to score parenting points… to adventure or to luxuriate. For some of the best ways to do all of the above, read on. You’ll find three Arizona road trip itineraries—one northern, one central, one southern—that build in fun for everyone.
Arizona’s defining feature—as almost every local license plate will tell you, you’re in the Grand Canyon State—this mile-deep abyss tops bucket lists for a reason. Or more accurately, for a number of reasons: the imponderable dimensions (277 miles long by 18 miles across, more than enough room for the entire state of Rhode Island); the unrivaled recreation ops—hiking, biking, rafting, even mule-riding if you’re so inclined (inclined being the operative word on these trails); and the gorgeous layers of rock representing millions of years of history and endless gradations of pink, red and purple. Little wonder the Grand Canyon National Park is also a World Heritage Site.
As you’ll quickly start to suspect, canyons are something of an Arizona specialty, and while all are worthy in their own right, there’s something magical about Canyon de Chelly. This National Monument is actually a collection of canyons and side canyons, where—for nearly 5,000 years—there’s been continuous civilization (“longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau,” according to the National Park Service). Among the Navajo families who live here today are guides who can lead you on stellar tours of the canyons’ surreal scenery and human history, from the soaring red sandstone walls to the ancient cliff dwellings.
If you’re traveling as a couple and you’d prefer a posh, romantic retreat, head to the state’s most dramatic red rock region and check into L’Auberge de Sedona on the banks of Oak Creek. Though all the rooms are lovely, arguably the dreamiest for two are the Creekside Premiere Cottages—tucked away downstream for maximum privacy. If you decide you can leave your wood-burning fireplace, private deck, four-poster bed or outdoor cedar shower, be sure to book the couple’s suite at L’Apothecary Spa for the bliss-inducing Desert Flower Massage, Sacred Stone Massage, L’Aromatherapy Essential Massage—or the treatment of your choosing. You should also check out what’s happening on the resort’s events calendar, where you’ll find classes on everything from hiking to yoga, sound healing to stargazing.
Somewhere between the ages of Thomas the Tank Engine and the Hogwarts Express, seemingly every kid has a dalliance with train obsession—or at least with the idea that riding the rails is epically fun. So if your travel party includes anyone in the locomotive-loving stage (or any adult rail fan, for that matter) the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel in Williams is a must. Set right next to the historic (and still-functioning) depot—and across a lawn from the historic Fray Marcos Hotel (a onetime home of the famed Harvey Girls)—these recently renovated lodgings pack plenty of fun in and of themselves: Think heated indoor salt-water pool, pinball, video games, basketball court, horseshoe pit and playground, for starters. But then there’s that train next door, which runs all manner of day trips between Williams and the Grand Canyon’s South Rim year-round.
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If you’re passing through Flagstaff when you need to caffeinate (i.e. always, for some road-trippers), stop into Macy’s European Coffee House and Bakery for the Macy’s Special—espresso with steamed hot chocolate and whipped cream—as well as house-made treat. And when you get to Winslow, have a meal at the Turquoise Room, not only for the James Beard-nominated Southwestern offerings, but also for the history: Known as the Fred Harvey Dining Room at La Posada during the rail travel heyday of the early 20th century, this was another fabled Harvey Girl hangout.
With world-renowned museums that range from the Phoenix Art Museum and its beloved Yayoi Kusama infinity mirror room to the Heard Museum—home to one of the most comprehensive collections of Native American art in existence—the local art scene has long been impressive. But over the last several years, a city-wide open-air museum has sprung up, with amazing street art seemingly everywhere, including alleys that feel like treasure hunt discoveries. Case in point? 1½ Street, which you can find by going to
The Churchill (an eating, drinking and shopping space in the downtown Roosevelt Row arts district) and heading around back. There, an entire alley’s worth of vibrant and thought-provoking murals awaits thanks a dozen
acclaimed local artists.
If you told any serious foodie in your life that you’d passed through Phoenix without stopping at Pizzeria Bianco for some of the legendary wood-fired pie, unfriending might ensue—so don’t make that mistake. Nor should you fail to try the chile en nogada (and check out the iconic street art) at Barrio Café.
South Mountain Park
One of the nation’s largest municipal parks (which could hold about 19 Central Parks), this 16,283-acre expanse not even 10 miles from downtown Phoenix boasts three mountain ranges, 58 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding and a viewpoint—Dobbins Lookout—that’s 2,330 feet up, where the views of the valley are worth the climb (though in fact, you can drive up to Summit Road to get there, too). South Mountain Park & Preserve is also home to a celebrated barrier-free trail: the Judith Tunnell Accessible Trail, an ADA-approved half-mile loop that takes you past everything from saguaro-spiked foothills to Hohokam petroglyphs and works for
wheelchairs, walkers and strollers.
An ancient melting pot, the Tonto Basin was by turns home to the Ancestral Puebloan, Sonoran and Mogollon Peoples, who collectively gave rise to the local Salado culture between the 13th and 15th centuries. Today, two cliff dwellings—both about 700 years old—remain the best-preserved architectural remnants of that phenomenon. Tucked into caves and protected by the National Park Service, these onetime residences are the highlight of the visit to Tonto National Monument, where the lower dwelling is accessible without a guide or tour, but the upper one requires that you book a guided tour at 928-467-2241 (on offer Fridays through Mondays from November through April). The hike—which is three miles roundtrip and takes three to four hours—is popular, so reserve as soon as you know you want to go. And while you can’t overnight at the monument itself, you may want to consider booking a campsite on the shores of neighboring Theodore Roosevelt Lake in Tonto National Forest to experience this International Dark Sky Park. And while you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll also want to drive the famously windy, wondrous roads of the 40-mile Apache Trail through the Superstition Mountains.
The mural alleys of Phoenix
U.S. Highway 66, aka Route 66, gained fame and immense popularity almost a century ago as the nation’s first all-weather roadway between LA and Chicago—or more to the point, the shortest route between the West Coast and the Midwest. Though there were initially gravel and dirt portions, U.S. 66 hit another milestone in 1938 as the nation’s first fully paved highway. And though this “Mother Road,” as Steinbeck dubbed it in Grapes of Wrath, was removed from the U.S. Highway System in 1985, a National Scenic Byway now links the longest remaining portions, some of the most famous of which run through Northern Arizona. In fact, you can take Historic Route 66 from the Petrified Forest National Park through Winslow (where, yes, you’ll find a literal Standin’ on a Corner Park and photo backdrop to commemorate the Eagles’ greatest contribution to the national road trip playlist)—and then onto Flagstaff and Williams, the famed gateway to the Grand Canyon.
For a more decadent (and grown-up) variation on the water park theme, head to the award-winning Castle Hot Springs in a mountainous oasis about an hour northwest of Phoenix. A historic hideaway where everyone from the Vanderbilts to the Rockefellers used to take the waters, the resort has recently been reimagined as a 21st-century wellness sanctuary. While ancient hot springs remain the centerpiece—and the best place to soak up both salubriousness and sublime scenery—other offerings now include the state’s first via ferrata, a trek on a private trail, sustainably farmed hyperlocal fare—and a massage with a custom-blend of essential oils from the resident Aroma Design Bar. But good luck choosing between a Spring Bungalow—with its spring-fed outdoor stone tub—and a Sky View Cabin (think outdoor claw-foot tub and telescope).
The fact that the Great Wolf Lodge is a water park and resort in one is reason enough for most kids to want to move in. But to seal your fate as parent of the year, you’ll want to note that Discover Salt River’s Great Wolf Lodge (near Scottsdale) is also home to, in no particular order: minigolf, bowling, a ropes course, a climbing wall, an arcade, a Build-a-Bear workshop, a gemstone-mining activity—and MagiQuest (a live-action adventure game starring your wand-bearing child). Ravenous from all that activity, everyone will make good use of the seven family-friendly food outlets—especially the Hungry as a Wolf restaurant, where the family-sized pizzas are perennial crowd pleasers. At day’s end, the pack leader will find other den mothers and fathers at the two onsite bars.
Tonto National Monument
Mercado San Agustin is something between a food hall and retail space where feasting is essentially one-stop shopping: Don’t miss the tacos and horchata at Seis; the coyotas de piloncillo, cajeta or piña at Dolce Pastello and the orejas at La Estrella.
The Sky Islands
Their very name suggests a not-of-this-realm appeal—and these isolated mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico can rise more than 6,000 feet above the desert floor. “Plants and animals living in the mountains could never survive in the surrounding deserts,” explains the US Forest Service: “Thus by analogy, the mountains are ‘islands’ surrounded by deserts that are ‘seas.’” Some of the most stunning examples: Tucson’s Mount Lemmon, which actually has seasonal skiing (be sure to download the corresponding app for an audio driving tour by—among others—the University of Arizona College of Science and Calexico front-man Joey Burns) and the Chiricahua National Monument about two hours to the east (not for nothing, via Wilcox Wine Country). The high point here, Chiricahua Peak, rises 9,795 above sea level and about 6,000 feet above the Sulphur Springs Valley—and the entire scene verges on the extraterrestrial.
Saguaro National Park
Carnegiea gigantea, aka the saguaro, is the nation’s largest cactus. And though it’s become a visual shorthand for the entire American West, the truth is that this cactus grows in only a specific swath of the Sonoran Desert that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, with Tucson sitting at the heart of that habitat. So you’ll find saguaros all over town, but some of the greatest concentrations and most dazzling displays occur in the eponymous national park—a preserve in two parts: Saguaro National Park West in the Tucson Mountains, and Saguaro National Park East in the Rincon Mountains. For a lovey moderate hike through the eastern portion—particularly if you’re in town late winter into early spring, when the mountain snowmelt is feeding the streams, or during the summer monsoon season—head to the Bridal Wreath Fall Trail. And for a longer and slightly more strenuous hike through the western portion check out the Wasson Peak via King Canyon and Hugh Norris Trail, all leading to one of the prettiest panoramas in town.
In the Mule Mountains about 95 miles south of Tucson—maybe 30 minutes past Wyatt Earp’s old stomping grounds of Tombstone and 20 minutes before you hit the Mexican border—sits Bisbee. Established in the late 1800s as mining outpost, the so-called “Queen of the Copper Camps” also yielded some of the planet’s most notable quantities of gold, silver, lead and zinc—and by the early 1900s, had reportedly grown into the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. During that mining and migration boom, Bisbee built what some say is still the nation’s oldest ballfield, as well as the state’s oldest golf course and community library, among other turn-of-the-century holdovers you can still visit. Many of the architectural gems have been lovingly restored and repurposed as restaurants, pubs, shops and galleries by the vibrant, artsy community moved in when the mines closed in the 70s.
hen Tucson was designated the nation’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2015, the world began to realize what locals had long since known: Southern Arizona is worth getting to know for not only its hallucinatory landscapes (“sky islands” and larger than life saguaros, for starters) but also its standout foodscapes.
As you may have gathered from the Central Arizona itinerary, the Vanderbilts—among other members of the early 20th-century American elite—really gravitated toward this sunny, salubrious corner of the country. Little wonder they established a Tucson ranch school for their daughters in 1929. By the mid-40s, Hacienda del Sol had evolved into a guesthouse for the Hollywood elite—think Hepburn and Tracy, whose gorgeously refurbished casita you can still book, with its dual patios, romantic fireplace, full-sized kitchen and desert panoramas. And while there are other lovely historic rooms you can book as well, the new wings (which blend beautifully with the heritage portion of the property) come with sweeping desert views and outdoor showers, for starters.
In a town where school kids still have off for Rodeo Break in February, cowboy culture is simply a part of life. But to kids visiting from elsewhere, the fact that you can check into a working dude ranch for some riding, roping and rodeoing is almost imponderably cool. The award-winning White Stallion Ranch offers hours of daily horseback riding and ranch skill-learning ops, plus hiking, archery, rock-climbing, fat-tire biking, weekly rodeos and nightly entertainment that ranges from stargazing sessions with large telescopes to moonlight bonfires with cowboy singers. For superfans of the lifestyle, there are even lodgings that offer corral views (others rooms come views of the cactus garden or mountains from private patios, many with outdoor fireplaces).
photo credit: Discover Salt River
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