Road Tripping Through Arizona’s Faraway Landscapes

It’s hard to describe the feeling of open space in Arizona. The feeling of being on another planet, where all the familiar scenery of home is missing. Instead you see red rock, blue sky, and a few scrubby plants. And if you drive a short way, you’ll see a completely different scene.

In May, I took a road trip through Arizona, and I was amazed at the landscapes we saw.

We flew into Phoenix and after a quick stop at In-N-Out Burger (a west coast delicacy for us midwesterners), we started driving north toward Petrified Forest National Park. Desert, pine forest, then desert again. At the park we explored part of the Painted Desert, a harshly beautiful expanse of rock and sand striped with warm colors. There are a few trails that wind through the stony landscape. Even on a short hike, it felt like exploring a distant planet.

The petrified wood was cool too. Maybe not cool enough to justify flying to Arizona and driving for three hours, but it was interesting to see pieces of prehistoric pine tree turned into a weird collection of quartz rock. There’s a museum where you can see what the forest looked like during the Triassic age, including the dinosaur-adjacent reptiles that lived there. 10-year-old me would have been crazy about the place.

We stayed in Holbrook, a small town that takes you back to the glory days of Route 66. It may not look like much, but beyond the town’s aging road signs we found some fun places. We took pictures with dinosaur statues at the Rainbow Rock Shop and checked out the Wigwam Motel, the sort of roadside kitsch you expect to see along a highway through the desert. We had dinner at the Butterfield Stage Co. Steakhouse, which was meticulously decorated with old timey photos, a lot of wagon wheels, and a touch of neon. Our steak dinner was a perfect celebration of road tripping out west.

We drove toward Flagstaff as we watched the desert morph back into pine forest. We stopped at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument for another planetary landscape. There the forest climbs up the slopes of an extinct volcanic cone and reaches a field of jagged, black lava rock.

Eventually we made it to the biggest sight of all, Grand Canyon National Park. This was my first time visiting, and it was every bit as magical as the pictures look. We drove to Desert View Watchtower, where you can see the Colorado River all the way at the bottom. The landscape is like an ever-changing painting of rock and sky, with the clouds drifting slowly and casting shadows on the twisting surfaces of the canyon. Standing at the rim feels meditative, almost like standing by the ocean. It’s a view that makes you want to linger forever.

The highlight of visiting Grand Canyon was hiking down below the rim along the Bright Angel Trail. After seeing things from above, we headed down the winding trail into the canyon and began to get a sense of the huge scale. We hiked for an hour or two, but the bottom of the canyon hardly seemed closer than when we started. And getting back up was a cardio workout challenge!

The area below the rim is a different place than up top. It’s hot and dusty, yet still full of wildlife. We saw lots of lizards basking in the sun. Birds flew both above and below.

Wildlife was everywhere up at the rim too—I saw a group of elk while I was eating breakfast! I can’t imagine coming to the Grand Canyon as a photo stop or even a day trip. There’s just too much to see.

Later on we drove south to Sedona, where we spent a few days hiking around the red rocks and relaxing. The scenery is hard to beat. Majestic rock formations rise up like natural skyscrapers high above the valley, glowing bright red with every sunset. (Probably with the sunrise too, but I never got up that early.) The trails are amazing, as long as you don’t mind a bit of rock scrambling.

The city of Sedona itself felt pretty touristy to me. Lots of your typical gift shops are mixed in with places selling healing crystals or weird southwestern art. There are a puzzling number of businesses offering psychic readings.

But Sedona made a good base for activities, like kayaking on the Verde River. We took inflatable kayaks and splashed our way through some easy rapids. It was cool and breezy on the river, and the banks were lined with bright green grass. It felt miles away from the desert where we started. Our kayaking trip ended at a winery, which was both convenient and unexpected in such arid surroundings.

When we made it back to Phoenix, we only had one day for activities before flying back home. How did I decide to spend it? Walking around in the heat looking at cactuses. Desert Botanical Garden is adapted to the climate of Arizona, with cactuses in every shape and size and flowers blooming in bright colors. It’s a must-see for fans of succulent plants.

Walking along the neat garden paths, I thought about the places we saw over the week. The wide open desert, the pine forest, the Grand Canyon, the valley of Sedona. I can play them back like scenes from a movie. Awe-inspiring, rugged landscapes shaped over millions of years, and all within a few hours of each other in the faraway world of Arizona.

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