Travel Guide To the Best of Arizona

From cactus-studded deserts to snow-covered peaks, from vibrant cities to charming towns, Arizona defies description.

To the unfamiliar, its name invokes visions of cowboys and rattlesnakes, a land not for the faint of heart. The stereotype ignores the lush pine forests that carpet Arizona’s mountains, and the rivers and streams so plentiful that they have nurtured residents from ancient civilizations to today’s suburbanites.

Oak Creek and Cathedral Rock near the Red Rock Crossing vortex. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oak Creek and Cathedral Rock near the Red Rock Crossing vortex. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even longtime residents who think they know Arizona by heart can still find hidden gems if they know where to look.

Whether exploring the well-trodden (Sedona and Prescott) or the off-the-beaten-path (Native American lands), the information here will lead you to surprising places.

The home of red rocks and psychic-energy vortexes, Sedona features the state’s second-best scenery on a large scale and is way more convenient than No. 1, the Grand Canyon. Seriously, you could pump gas and still see some of Sedona’s most amazing sights.

Sedona is way less scenic on summer weekends. Avoid the rookie mistake of challenging the peak-season hordes. Instead, visit during the quieter times. Winter offers a slim chance of snow, and spring and fall provide nearly perfect weather. But if you head up on any Saturday morning from May to September and encounter traffic backed up to the Village of Oak Creek, imagine us texting, “Told you so.”

The 1916 Yavapai County Courthouse, constructed of white granite and ringed by towering pines, is the centerpiece of Courthouse Plaza. Whiskey Row, makes up the square's western edge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1916 Yavapai County Courthouse, constructed of white granite and ringed by towering pines, is the centerpiece of Courthouse Plaza. Whiskey Row, makes up the square’s western edge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head to Cathedral Rock, which provides an amazing backdrop and convenient parking. It’s a great scene for Christmas cards and Twitter posts.

Don’t miss a slow drive through Oak Creek Canyon north of the city. Feel free to pull off where it’s safe and venture to the water with picnic basket in hand. It’s very peaceful. (Except on summer weekends; seriously, we can’t stress this enough.)

Nestled in a stunning mountain bowl and surrounded by one of the largest ponderosa pine forests in the West, the beautiful town of Prescott is steeped in history with an authentic taste of western heritage.

The residents of Bisbee, a friendly town of roughly 7,000 are a lively blend of retired miners, world-renowned artists, artisans and writers, musicians, aging hippies, and retiring baby boomers from all over the country. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The residents of Bisbee, a friendly town of roughly 7,000 are a lively blend of retired miners, world-renowned artists, artisans and writers, musicians, aging hippies, and retiring baby boomers from all over the country. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike most towns in the West that occurred haphazardly by the promise of cheap land, the availability of water, or the craze of prospectors or speculators, Prescott was designed as a proper city from the beginning.

Miners prospecting for gold first settled this area. It was that presence of gold that prompted President Lincoln to designate Arizona as a territory in 1863. The cash-poor Union was two years into the Civil War.

Jerome and Bisbee, two hillside mining towns remind residents what life was like when men had no problem sinking precarious, poorly ventilated shafts in hopes of striking it rich—a very risky career choice. Today it would be like visiting Syria to buy lottery tickets.

At an elevation of 5,248 feet, Jerome hangs precariously on the 30-degree slope of Cleopatra Hill on the edge of Prescott National Forest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At an elevation of 5,248 feet, Jerome hangs precariously on the 30-degree slope of Cleopatra Hill on the edge of Prescott National Forest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towns are far less dangerous now, mining tourism rather than steep hillsides. Each has quaint restaurants, lovely galleries, and views that can be appreciated knowing you’re not about to descend hundreds of feet into unreinforced rock. The real question is, do you want to head north to Jerome or south to Bisbee? The weather may have a say.

The New York Post in 1903 named Jerome “the wickedest town in the West,” thanks to a certain reputation involving guns, women, and liquor, not necessarily in that order. There are so many former brothels in Jerome that the town hosts an annual “Peace and Hos” Christmas lighting festival. Take that, New York Post.

From the Visitor the scenic drive climbs over 1,300 feet Coronado Pass. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Visitor the scenic drive climbs over 1,300 feet Coronado Pass. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be ready to learn and explore when you arrive at Coronado National Memorial. The memorial is  situated in southeastern Arizona near the U.S.–Mexico border to commemorate and interpret the influence of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition of 1540-1542.

While Coronado and his expedition may have been unsuccessful in finding gold, the blend of cultures between the Spanish and the American Indians he came across helped shape what we know today as the American Southwest.

After you have spent some time in the visitor center, get ready to venture outside and explore the grounds. Coronado National Memorial is at the southernmost point of the Huachuca Mountain Range and a part of the sky island region. Isolated mountain regions tower over desert valleys, creating huge gaps in elevation and an array of habitat.

Southeastern Arizona is an incredible blend of mountains and grasslands and desert, hot and cold, and Coronado National Memorial is a great place to learn about it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southeastern Arizona is an incredible blend of mountains and grasslands and desert, hot and cold, and Coronado National Memorial is a great place to learn about it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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