“Arizona in August?!” That’s what I heard from many friends when I told them where we were headed. Normally we would have been in Europe for a few weeks in June or July, but agent Covid had other plans. I had fond childhood memories of criss-crossing the country with my driving-addicted grandparents, but my husband had never seen “The West.” Sedona had been on my bucket list for decades, and I had never made it to the top until this year. I soon discovered that northern Arizona has a higher elevation than Phoenix and Tucson — 4,350 feet for Sedona — and the temperatures were about 10 to 20 degrees cooler. It was also monsoon season in Arizona.
Fortunately, one of our neighbors is an Arizona native. When I told her that I had found a house outside of Sedona in Cottonwood, she cheerfully said that Sedona was “over,” and that Cottonwood was “authentic.” Sounded good to me. The original plan was to visit the Grand Canyon, but when we learned that there was a two hour-plus wait to drive into the park we decided to explore some of the numerous smaller National Parks in our neck of the woods. There were so many of them; and it was hard to narrow the choices down.
Sedona is surrounded by its famous red rock formations. The rocks have been shaped by wind and water over the centuries into an amazing variety of shapes. These composite rocks were at one point at the bottom of a sea. Scenic drives through the canyons are a must. Hiking trails are everywhere. The area is also known for its energy-filled vortices, or centers of energy.
New Agers have appropriated what the ancient Native American knew. Cathedral Rock, one of the major vortex sites, is full of people meditating, practicing yoga and more. There are also hiking trails here. All this human activity results in jammed parking lots. Although I found the area so beautiful, the tour groups and the rent-a-shaman mentality were sort of off-putting. As Joni Mitchell wrote years ago, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Fortunately, there are so many other magical places all over this part of Arizona.
This stunning Catholic church was built in the 1950s. This too is the site of a prominent vortex. Funnily enough there is a very large synagogue at the bottom of the road leading to the chapel. The canyons are filled with multi-million dollar homes.
Another vortex site is located near the Sedona airport on a huge mesa overlooking the city. There are trails that lead from the parking lot into the vortex. The views are spectacular.
Aggie enjoyed being out and about on the Sedona trails and sites. She discovered all new sites, smells, animals and insects, including a huge fuzzy tarantula.
The airport is open only for private aviation. I found it a bit odd that the airport is located right next to a major vortex. I wonder if the planes disrupt the energy flow? We headed for lunch at the Mesa Grill. It has a doggie menu along with great views. Aggie had a wonderful time rolling around on the lawn, what with lawns being in short supply around here.
The first site we went to was Tuzigoot National Monument (Apache for crooked water). It comprises remnants of a village built between 1000 and 1400 A.D, once inhabited by the Southern Sinagua. It is a tiny Park, and we pretty much had it to ourselves.
The landscape is lush and green as the Verde River flows through. This is also the heart of Arizona wine country. Yep, there are vineyards. The Southern Sinagua grew vegetables and cotton centuries ago.
There is a small, interesting museum at the Visitor’s Center. The pueblo had one- and two-story buildings with views of the Verde Valley on one side and views towards the Black Hills and Cleopatra Mountain.
A short drive, and many centuries away, is Jerome. Perched at over 5,000 feet on Cleopatra Mountain, the town overlooks the Verde Valley. This building houses an Airbnb apartment with views that extend for miles. In the 1870s it was a thriving copper mining town with a population of 15,000 people.
The mines closed in the 1950s, and the population shrunk to about 50 people. It was pretty much a ghost town. Artists and hippies discovered the town in the ’60s and ’70s. The population is now at about 450-ish.
Sitting with its back to the valley, The House of Joy, once a bordello, is now an art spot with video games at the back. The town is a bit touristy, with ghost tours, but it does have a staggering view.
The town consists of three winding steep streets. Along with some small shops there are restaurants like The Bordello of Jerome and The Flatiron.
We headed back to Cottonwood to explore the small historic center and have lunch. The Merkin Vineyards Osteria had handmade, delicious pasta, and grows all its own produce.
There were more tasting rooms along a short stretch of North Main Street. It was completely low key and less glitzy than Sedona.
Papillon II had a great selection of jewelry, clothing, bags, hats, table wares, shoes, cowboy boots and tons of other things. Thrifting is big in this part of Arizona.
There were also some casual clothing stores where the vibe was wear here now. Galleries were big, too.
At the end of the shopping strip was a large store offering all things hippie, including Navaho jewelry, tie-dye clothing and patchouli and incense. They also offer musical events with local artists.
At the other end of N. Main was a vintage gas station converted into a fun burger joint. Nearby was the Colt 804 Grill, which has a huge smoker, and serves Southwestern BBQ.
Our next park was the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert. It was a long drive. We meandered through the vast Coconino National Forest enjoying views of pygmy forests and its many canyons.
Our drive led us to a short stretch of Route 66 in Winslow. It still ambles through small highway towns. Most people use the large Interstates that skirt the towns.
I had visited the Petrified Forest as a child. It has been expanded, and now contains the Painted Desert. The park is huge. It was a prehistoric rainforest during the Triassic Period, 225 million years ago. As the trees fell, they were covered by sediment. They soaked up the ground water and chemicals. As the centuries wore on, they crystalized into quartz. The ancient rainforest is now a desert.
Agate comes in over ten colors, and you see the different colors around the park. There are over 15 different areas with formations and ruins along the 28-mile park road. Some have hiking trails, and some are scenic outlooks. The Park Service has signage and learning tools everywhere. The Rainbow Forest Museum is a must-visit.
The Agate Bridge is a 110-foot petrified whitish log that rests over a 40-foot gully. Tourists used to stand on it 100 years ago. The Park Service reinforced and protected it. Nearby are petroglyphs, a Crystal Forest and ruins of Native American dwellings.
Another stop was the Blue Mesa. These are badlands with petrified logs scattered about. The best time to be there is at sunset when the hills, or haystacks, turn opulent colors.
The Painted Desert is at the North end of the Park. This is Kachina Point. The orange marker indicates the start of the trail to Tawa Point and Painted Desert Rim Walk.
The trail takes you to the entrance to the park. Again, sunrise and sunset are spectacular, with the red colors glowing vibrantly. And it is so quiet you can hear yourself breathe and your heart rate coming to rest. Wilderness camping and hiking permits are available for those who want to brave the elements. That night, back in Cottonwood, we experienced our second monsoon.
The next day we headed to two small National Parks near Cottonwood. Montezuma Castle is another Southern Sinagua site. When we got to the Visitor’s Center the door was locked. As we walked around the park we heard rustling in the leaves. Aggie wanted to go investigate. Not a good idea.
The castle was a five-story apartment building 100 feet above the valley. It is one of the best preserved prehistoric structures in Arizona and the Southwest. Built between 1100 and 1300, it was badly named by early American settlers who thought that it was an Aztec ruin. There were some very helpful volunteer Rangers, a married couple, who explained the history of the site. And the rattlesnakes. Snakes are plentiful around here. Scientists from Tucson were in the process of capturing the snake to measure and chip it, so this one could be traced over the years. The snakes like to make themselves at home here.
There was another apartment building remnant that originally had about 45 rooms. It is not in as good shape as the Castle, but is interesting. There is a nearby creek that supplied the residents with drinking and farming water. There was an exhibition in the visitors’ center, but the snake was the main attraction.
Montezuma Well was a short drive away. It is a limestone sinkhole that formed centuries ago, and is fed by a large active spring. The Ranger showed us where the Sinagua irrigation ditches were located.
In the center of the photo are some small cliff dwellings. These date from about 1050. There are also traces of Sinagua pueblos here. The well contains about 15 million gallons of water, forced up from underground springs by volcanic basalt. About 1.5 million gallons of new water flows into the well daily.
We then headed into Sedona, through canyons lined with fir trees.
The visuals got a little dicey as we entered the town. Daily life and rocks and buttes do not necessarily mix well. Uptown and West Sedona are two areas with stores and restaurants.
The Shops at Pinon Point is a collection of boutiques and restaurants. Sedona has too many art galleries featuring the work of local artists, and a gazillion stores selling crystals. I found it all a bit kitschy. A friend of mine said that the Force of the vortex probably goes to sleep in the presence of this merch.
This boutique sells rock and roll themed clothing and accessories. Do you want a kitchen cutting board in the shape of a Fender guitar? You can get one here.
Always on Vacay has clothing to wear in Sedona, too. Plus a lot of bags and gew-gaws for the home.
I find it interesting that a town with so many wealthy people and very expensive resort hotels does not have any designer boutiques. Boutiques named The Victorian Cowgirl and Dahling It’s You sound a bit cheesy, and have clothing to match. There were better things in the vintage stores in Cottonwood.
However, the tiny mall does have a spectacular view. The darkening skies indicated that monsoon weather was coming. It is quite humid in this part of Arizona. Monsoon season is June through September. I had been warned, but did not really take it seriously. We had had heavy rain most of the nights we were there, but sunny skies during the days.
The next day we headed up to Flagstaff to visit two more parks. The first was Walnut Canyon. The canyon has the remains of more Sinagua cliff dwellings. They grew their crops on the rim of the canyon. The canyon rim is at nearly 7,000 feet. There is a trail that takes you down past 25 of the dwellings.
We were going to hike down, but our phones started blasting Severe Weather Alerts. The skies turned dark, and the wind whistled. So much for the hike. The Park Rangers invited everyone into the visitor center, even Aggie (who became a Bark Ranger). The monsoons bring very heavy rain, and dangerous flash floods. The floods can sweep across roads dragging cars away, and fast rivers spring up in washes.
As the air cleared we headed north to Sunset Crater Volcano. We were welcomed by more volunteer Rangers. The retired couple live in an RV that they move from National Park to National Park year round. The cone of the volcano blew about 1,000 years ago. The peaks in the background are also blown volcanos. The Bonita lava flow above is only just starting to be broken down by plant life.
Further along there are fields of cinder in different colors. The squeeze-ups were caused by partially cooled lava pushing through cracks into wedge shaped mounds. The lava killed everything it touched. Nature is in your face in Northern Arizona, and it is awesome.
We drove home skirting more monsoons. When you run into a monsoon, the temperatures can drop 20 or 30 degrees within a few minutes. It turns out that while we were at Sunset Crater on the east side of Flagstaff, there had been a huge flash flood on the Museum Mountain on the west side of town. There was major damage, and it was all over the local network news. As we were driving down the inspiring Oak Creek Canyon we passed little puffs of cloud vapor created by the storms, bidding us goodbye.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.