“Nowhere on this planet is the desert as fascinating as it is in Arizona.” Joseph Stacey
Our drive from Newberry Springs, CA to Flagstaff, AZ was marked by two things – altitude and weather. Newberry Springs is at an altitude of 2,000 feet but 123 miles later when you reach California’s border with Arizona and cross over the Colorado River you have dropped to 495 feet. All this has been done while passing through the Mojave Desert’s solitude. There is much sand for sure, but as if to prove it’s not just one giant sand box, there are mountains and mesas that break up the horizon and canyons to peer into. And, to keep things interesting, by the time you reach Flagstaff another 200 miles up the road you are sitting at 6,909 feet in the northern reaches of the Coconino National Forest surrounded by Ponderosa pines! If nothing else traveling through the Southwest has taught me, it is that while the landscape is generally forbidding, it is rich in diverse topography, colors, and flora.
Now for the weather. About half way through our drive to Flagstaff, we encountered remnants of what was left of Hurricane Lorena that had hit Mexico earlier. Fortunately for us, this meant only heavy rain and some lightning with a few gusts of wind for good measure. We arrived at our campground in a monsoon and hunkered down in the RV for an hour more waiting for the rain to stop before hooking up. Also, with temps only in the mid 50’s it was quite chilly and in fact, Humphrey’s Peak just north of town received its first dusting of snow! We did learn later that the Phoenix area about 140 miles south of Flagstaff had sightings of a tornado, some flooding and golf ball size hail. So glad we didn’t drive through that!
After the drama of our arrival into Flagstaff we treated ourselves to a nice Mexican dinner at a place that was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-In’s and Dives. It was a very tasty way to finish off the day and if you’re ever in the area, check out Salsa Brava – you won’t be disappointed!
On our free day, we acted the part of a tourist and drove south 25 miles to visit the town of Sedona. Known for the beauty of the sandstone bluffs and formations that ring the city, the view did not disappoint. In fact the drive alone was quite beautiful as you made your way between canyon walls and through the Coconino National Forest. The Sedona area offers a wealth of activities for visitors but with just a few hours to kill, we took the tame route and just spent our time window-shopping along its main street. Meanwhile, vendors hawked jeep tours, helicopter rides, and for those wanting an otherworldly experience the Sedona UFO night tour!
Leaving Sedona we headed back to Flagstaff to grab a late lunch downtown and walk about some of its historical district built along what would later become Route 66. The city’s history is founded on ranching, lumber, and the railroad. By the 1880’s it was the largest city on the railroad from Albuquerque to the West Coast and by the 1890’s a reported 80-100 trains passed through the city each day. When Route 66 was completed through the city in 1926, Flagstaff became a popular destination partly due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon. It still boasts a thriving tourism rate and its downtown is filled with cafes, restaurants, and shops to accommodate them.
Our last two nights in AZ were spent in Tucson and the drive there was much less dramatic – even navigated through Phoenix without a hiccup! After chilly days in Flagstaff, we are back into the region of warmer weather. But rain still threatens the area, breezes are blowing, the desert nights are dropping into the 50’s, so we find it quite mild and comfortable for our sightseeing! The stop in Tucson was for the purpose of checking out the area as a possible winter destination and to visit Saguaro NP. So, with maps in hand we left bright and early stopping first at Saguaro NP East and then driving through the communities that line the Catalina Foothills before turning back southwest to navigate our way through the downtown area. Saguaro NP is divided into two locations – east and west. We opted for the east since it fit in better with our plans for the day AND it had a paved road to loop through the Sonoran Desert. The road is an 8 mile one way loop that on this day was pretty much empty. I think we found Art’s perfect national park! We were able to pull over in many of the turnouts and view the various flora carpeting the desert floor including of course, the Saguaro itself. Against the backdrop of the Catalina Mountains, it really was quite striking. We were even fortunate enough to find the barrel cactus blooming so amongst all the sage greens you would see pops of orange adding wonderful contrast!
Saguaro are incredibly slow growing. According to the NPS brochure, “…they grow an inch or so during their first six to eight years. It may be 70 years before they sprout branches, or arms. They reach full height, 40-50 feet, at about age 150.” That’s crazy! They are an important part of the desert habitat offering food from the fruit they produce and places to nest in the trunks and limbs. Their bloom is even Arizona’s state flower! This area of AZ is ideal for them to grow and often you will see a “forest” growing under what they call nurse trees where the seedlings have a better chance of survival.
All-in-all, we found Tucson to be quite vibrant and in a lovely setting. Is it viable for us to winter here from NC? At this point, probably not…but maybe someday. This visit certainly did not rule it out!