Several years ago, I submitted a travel article about northern Arizona to an auto club magazine where a friend of mine worked as an editor. But before I could complete the second draft, I realized I didn't actually WANT people traveling into my state! After some soul-searching, I graciously withdrew my submission. It's a pretty bad piece of travel writing (no family bargains are revealed), but it serves as a decent enough accompaniment for the beautiful postcards you'll find below.
At five million visitors a year, Arizona’s Grand Canyon ranks as one of the most popular – and populous – attractions in the country. Its spectacular views and awesome scale make it an ideal destination for both casual tourists and serious outdoor enthusiasts. Let’s face it: if you’re visiting the state, you gotta see the Canyon.
But the Grand Canyon is not the only thing worth seeing in the area. Ask any native Arizonan: the northern part of the state is full of exciting, beautiful and interesting destinations. If you’ve got another couple days, it’s worth it to budget the time to experience Arizona via the back roads that wind their way up from Phoenix to the Canyon.
The trip north really starts at Wickenburg, an innocuous little town on Route 60, the Carefree Highway. A painless 40 miles northwest of Phoenix, Wickenberg also commences State Route 89. This relic from before the days of modern superhighways winds its way north following the old stagecoach trails, which in their time followed even older Indian trails. What you lose from interminable switching back up and down the mountains, you gain in historic resonance and off-the-beaten-path scenery.
At the top of your first set of switchbacks along Table Top Mountain is Yarnell, sitting at an elevation of 4700 feet with a population of 1300. An abandoned mining town, Yarnell is the home of the Shrine of Saint Joseph of the Mountains. Commissioned by the Catholic Action League of Arizona, the shrine depicts in white washed concrete statues the Garden of Gethsemane, the Last Supper and the Stations of the Cross. A perfect leg stretch after an hour of driving, the shrine offers a short hike through the Weaver Mountains and an exceptional view across the valley of the bucolic, homespun neighborhoods nestled among the boulders that make up the natural terrain.
The trip from Yarnell to Jerome takes you through Prescott National Forest and into the town of Prescott. Happily, our trip takes then takes us north, and over the Mingus Mountains, thus avoiding the grim reminder that Prescott Valley is one of the fastest growing areas in northern Arizona. East of town, the natural landscape has been rolled back to make way for more highways, strip malls and housing developments that serve the population’s urge to escape the rat race in Phoenix by building another rat race an hour north.
At the summit of the Mingus Mountains, you get a gorgeous view of the Verde Valley basin with San Francisco Peak looming behind it. And just when you think you’re going to be sick from traveling back and forth over steep, hairy switchbacks, right around the next corner you suddenly find yourself in the town of Jerome.
Nowadays, Jerome is an arts community entirely dependent on tourism, but a hundred years ago, it was one of Arizona’s boomingest mining towns. It’s hard to imagine the area in its opulent heyday, out in the middle of nowhere, mud streets jammed with early automobiles. But, perched precariously on the side of a mountain wormy with mining tunnels, Jerome is without a doubt the richest historical landmark in the state.
For most of the last half of the Twentieth Century, Jerome was a ghost town. When we were teenagers, we loved to wade through the rubble of the dangerous abandoned buildings isolated amidst the crumbling foundations perched cliffside on the outskirts of town. The Jerome of today has received somewhat of a makeover, but its funky picturesque beauty remains. Today you can spend the night in any number of the town’s accommodating bed and breakfast facilities, all of which will transport you back a hundred years as you awaken to a spectacular Verde Valley sunrise.
Recently, the town’s famous Jerome Grand Hotel was renovated and reopened after a fifty-year dormancy. Originally built as a sanitarium for miners suffering from to black lung disease, it was on the cutting edge of engineering back in its day. Designed to withstand both fire and nearby dynamite blasts, the hotel stands at 5240 feet above sea level. The Jerome Grand also maintains the country’s oldest self-service elevator still in operation. This elevator was one of the very first of its kind, and remains as it was when it was installed eighty years ago.
Our abrupt return to the present is just minutes away, along a newly completed highway connecting the burgeoning towns of Cotttonwood and Sedona. Once a mere fork in the road where one could gas up and get a cup of coffee and not much else, Sedona is now a veritable tourism Mecca, as well as haven for the new age movement and wealthy expatriates from Phoenix. The town itself sprawls throughout some of the most beautiful red rock formations in the state, rivaling the Grand Canyon itself.
The road from Sedona proceeds north through still more breathtaking natural splendor along yet another old stagecoach trail, as State Route 89a winds upward through Oak Creek Canyon. The road levels off at Oak Creek Canyon Vista, where travelers can soak up the awesome view before continuing on to Flagstaff. From there, it’s just an hour’s drive to the Grand Canyon itself. Let’s face it: you gotta see the Canyon. But for my money, it’s what you'll find along the way that makes it worth the trip.