Desert character. It can’t be conjured, landscaped or kindled with twinkling bulbs. John Ford knew that. So did Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis L’Amour. Spend a few days in Greater Phoenix and you’ll understand, too. America’s sixth-largest city still has cowboys and red-rock buttes and the kind of cactus most people see only in cartoons. It is the heart of the Sonoran Desert and the gateway to the Grand Canyon, and its history is a testament to the spirit of Puebloans, ranchers, miners and visionaries. This timeless Southwestern backdrop is the perfect setting for family vacations, weekend adventures or romantic getaways. Each year, 14 to 16 million leisure visitors travel to Greater Phoenix. They enjoy resorts and spas infused with Native American tradition, golf courses that stay emerald green all year, mountain parks crisscrossed with trails, and sports venues that host the biggest events in the nation. The best way to learn about America’s sunniest metropolis, of course, is to experience it firsthand. The following information will give you a snapshot of what to expect before your visit and provide sound reference material after you leave.
Greater Phoenix encompasses 2,000 square miles and more than 20 incorporated cities,including Glendale, Cottsdale, Tempe and Mesa. Maricopa County, in which Phoenix is located, covers more than 9,000 square miles. Phoenix’s elevation is 1,117 feet, and the city’s horizon is defined by three distinct mountains: South Mountain, Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak.
Arizona is often described as a land of contrasts because of its changing scenery and activities. You can swim and play tennis in the morning in Phoenix, then spend the afternoon fishing, hiking or sightseeing in the cool pines of the White Mountains. In March, you can even snow ski in Flagstaff the morning then don shorts for a spring training game in Phoenix the same evening. With its central location, Greater Phoenix is ideally positioned for day trips around the state.
The following driving tours are easily accessible from the heart of the city:
Grand Canyon One of the world’s seven natural wonders, the Grand Canyon offers spectacular vistas of canyon walls that have been sculpted from the earth over the millennia by the mighty Colorado River. The shifting sun creates a palette of constantly changing colors, from deep russet to pale pink, from washed granite to golden brown. The South Rim is open year-round. Experience it through nature walks and mule rides into the Canyon, or by driving around its scenic edge. The North Rim is open from mid-May through October, depending on weather conditions, and lodging is available. The Grand Canyon is a 3½-hour drive from Phoenix. Take Interstate 17 north from Phoenix to Flagstaff. From Flagstaff take Route 180 northwest to the Canyon.
The cultural community of Sedona is a mecca for art lovers and collectors. Surrounded by the towering red sandstone cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona’s deep red-rock buttes provide a beautiful backdrop to boutiques and art galleries selling authentic Native American and Southwestern arts and crafts. Visit Tlaquepaque (pronounced Tah-la-key-pock-ee), a shopping village named after a small Mexican town that was once that country’s leading producer of crafts and glassware. While in Sedona, explore the area via an airplane or helicopter tour, a hot-air balloon ride or a jeep tour. Sedona is a 2-hour drive from Phoenix. Take Interstate 17 north from Phoenix to Junction 179. Exit for Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon and enjoy the pure, breathtaking beauty of the Oak Creek Canyon area.
Prescott, founded after the discovery of gold in 1863, was the first permanent capital of the Arizona Territory. While in Prescott, stop at the Sharlot Hall Museum complex. See the first territorial governor’s mansion, the historic 1857 John C. Fremont House and the restored 100-year-old Bashford House. Yavapai County Courthouse is a must see attraction in Prescott. The courthouse is located in the charming town square and conveniently surrounded with antique shops, restaurants and hotels. But, the most famous section of the square is Whiskey Row, located on Montezuma Street. Whiskey Row got its nickname during the mining days when nothing but saloons occupied the street. The fastest route to Prescott from Phoenix is north on the Black Canyon Freeway (Interstate 17) to Cordes Junction, then northwest on State Route 69. Prescott is approximately a two-hour drive from Phoenix
Flagstaff is home of Northern Arizona University and located 146 miles north of Phoenix on Interstate 17. A visit to the Lowell Observatory atop Mars Hill, where the planet Pluto was discovered in 1930, is recommended. The Museum of Northern Arizona features an extensive exhibit of Native American art. Snow skiers will find great conditions Arizona Snowbowl, located in the majestic San Francisco Peaks. For some unique hiking try Lava River Tube, a short three-fourths mile underground cave. Bring your own flashlights and have fun exploring. Flagstaff is just 2 ½ hours from Phoenix.
Arizona’s White Mountains, located in the eastern part of the state, offer a variety of attractions in a climate 30 degrees cooler than Phoenix. With an elevation of 9,000 feet, summer activities include golfing, camping, fishing, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding and just relaxing. In winter, the White Mountains become just that — white. Sunrise Ski Resort offers outstanding ski runs and other winter sports opportunities, including snowmobiling, ice fishing and cross country skiing. Much of the White Mountains area is on Native American land, including the Hon-Dah Casino. Rodeos, cultural festivals and parades are common events in the White Mountains region. The White Mountains area is a four-hour drive from Phoenix with a wide range of accommodations available.
This world-famous trail was used by Apache Indians as a short-cut through the mountains to reach early Salt River settlers. The trail twists through the back of the Superstition Mountains from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake and the town of Globe. The majority of the trail is unpaved but can be easily driven by most vehicles. The trail features volcanic debris, cliff-sided canyons, sparkling lakes, towering saguaro cacti and a vast array of wildflowers. The mountains are generally uninhabited, so take along plenty of water. The ghost town of Goldfield, the Old Western town of Tortilla Flat (population 6), the Boyce-Thompson Arboretum, Tonto National Monument and Weavers Needle Lookout are a few interesting points along the trail. Other scenic stops include The Lost Dutchman State Park (perhaps you can find the legendary lost gold mine) and Roosevelt Dam. The Apache Trail is a four-hour round trip from Phoenix. Directions: Leave Phoenix via U.S. 60 to the Apache Trail. Turn left on Arizona Highway 88 to the Apache Trail. After passing Roosevelt Dam and Tonto National Monument, make the return loop to Phoenix via U.S. 60.
This magnificent geological fault, named after Jean Ignacio Flores Mogollon, governor of Mexico (1712-1715), is referred to locally as the “rim.” The dramatic face of the rim is a multi-colored wall of rock, dotted by pine, manzanita and shrub oak. This giant wall of rock jutted upward a mile above sea level when the earth’s surface shifted thousands of years ago. The rim was made famous by author Zane Grey who hunted and fished in this beautiful area. It served as inspiration for many of his novels. From Phoenix the rim is a two-hour drive. Take Highway 87 northeast of Phoenix to Payson. Just beyond Payson, turn right on Highway 260. Continue 31 miles past Tonto Creek (a great place to picnic) to the Woods Canyon Lake exit. Turn left at the sign and you’ll be on the Old Rim Road. The road becomes an unpaved forest highway and frequently winds within a few feet of the fault line, providing a breathtaking view of the rim.
Located 282 miles from Phoenix (about a five-hour drive) is Lake Powell. While a bit farther from Phoenix than some destinations, the drive to Lake Powell is well worth the time. The lake is 186 miles long and claims 1,960 miles of shoreline, more than the entire Pacific Coast of the United States. The lake is held back by Glen Canyon Dam, which has enough concrete to build a four-lane highway from Phoenix to Chicago. Water sports of all kinds are popular on the lake — fishing, water skiing, boating, swimming, etc. Although Wahweap Lodge and Marina provide outstanding accommodations with spectacular lake views, adventurous types may opt for a houseboat rental. Houseboats range from 36-foot vessels with basic amenities to 56-foot crafts with everything you’d find at a resort hotel. Lake Powell is one of the most-popular attractions in the National Park Service system, attracting 3.5 million visitors a year.
This impressive ancient Native American cliff dwelling is nestled high above Beaver Creek and is more than six centuries old. The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, for whom the castle is named, never saw the famous structure. The Sinaguas, Pueblo Indians who moved into Greater Phoenix during the 12th century, built the dwelling from limestone and adobe. When white settlers saw it years later, they concluded only Aztecs could have designed the castle and named it accordingly. The structure was built on a steep cliff to protect the Native Americans’ property rights. About seven miles northeast of the castle on the Park Service Road is Montezuma Well, a limestone sink hole with a natural spring used by Native Americans for irrigation. The well still provides nearby Beaver Creek with a daily water supply of more than a million gallons. The well is 55 feet deep and 470 feet wide. From the parking lot at the well, follow the trail to the surrounding plateaus – the result of volcanic lava flows. To get to Montezuma Castle, take Interstate 17 north to the Montezuma Castle turnoff just past Verde Valley. This is a three-hour round-trip.
Just 111 miles south of Phoenix, amid rolling foothill terrain, is Tucson, affectionately known as the “Old Pueblo.” Where Pima Indians, Spanish conquistadors and adventurous Mexican settlers once lived, stands a culturally rich city that celebrates its past with colorful festivals and fiestas. Among the intriguing excursions enticing visitors are a drive to Sabino Canyon and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. South of Tucson is the San Xavier del Bac Mission, the “White Dove of the Desert.” Built almost 300 years ago by Spanish missionaries, the statuesque white church is still used as a spiritual center for the Papago Indians. Visitors are welcome to explore this remarkable blend of architectural styles that is considered one of the finest Spanish colonial structures in the United States. Tucson is two hours south of Phoenix on Interstate 10.
3 ½ hours south of Phoenix is the small town of Bisbee. Formally the largest city between San Francisco and St. Louis in the early 1900s, Bisbee was home to one of the most profitable mines. Travelers from all over come to Bisbee to savor its unique charm … an uncommon blend of creativity, friendliness, style, romance and adventure — all wrapped in the splendor of the Old West. Stop by one of Bisbee’s museums such as the Museum of the Bizarre or the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum. If you are looking for an exciting and heart racing tour, try a ghost tour through some of Bisbee’s most haunted buildings and allies.
Tombstone was a mining boomtown in the 1880s. The town was named by Ed Schieffelin when his friends told him he would find his tombstone instead of his fortune. The mine was only open for seven years before water levels forced the mind to close. Even though the mine was not open long the town still remains, complete with historical buildings and artifacts from the late 1800s. There are a number of gunfight shows in town and stagecoach and wagon tours as well as a wealth of unique shops.
Travel down to Kartchner Caverns State Park and enjoy a memorable cave tour. The cave was only discovered in 1974 by two young spelunkers at the base of the Whetstone Mountains. The cave features one of the world longest soda straw stalactites, the tallest and most massive column in Arizona, Kubla Khan: 58 feet tall, and the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk. There is something for children of all ages to do. The Cave is open year round for tours.
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