When I started planning this trip, not a lot of nearby travel options were left on the table. It was about 15 minutes before a long weekend, and a good bit of New Mexico was on fire or smoked out.
After reviewing all the places I couldn’t go, I set my sights on Flagstaff, Ariz. Fifty miles over the Arizona border, I was bored and pulled into Petrified Forest National Park. I wasn’t planning on paying an entrance fee to look at more rocks, but I got sucked in by the visitor center’s promises of Crystal Forests, Blue Mesas, Long Logs and Rainbow Forests. Was this a national park or a life-size game of Candy Land?
The first 10 or so miles, until the Route 66 marker, offer fairly standard Southwest desert hues. The second half of the park is another story.
The hills here are pink and purple, gray and blue—cool tones in the middle of the hot desert that, much like a New Mexico sunset, are difficult to capture on film.
About 30 miles west of the Petrified Forest National Park stands Holbrook, Ariz. It’s an old-timey town, clinging to Route 66 nostalgia with giant concrete dinosaurs and kitschy motor inn signs that seem to fade in the sun right before your very eyes. One of the last inns (and the coolest) on the strip is the Wigwam Motel. It’s a grouping of cement wigwams with vintage cars parked in front them—a classic photo opportunity you shouldn’t miss.
Closing in on the last 100 miles till Flagstaff, the clouds rolled in and the terrain changed from desert scrub to Ponderosa pine forest. That was enough to keep me going until I saw Humphreys Peak rising out of a rain cloud, announcing my arrival in Flagstaff.
I discovered I’d made a small tactical error in booking my hotel because I was across the train tracks from downtown. This wouldn’t usually be such a big deal, except Flagstaff is the gateway to the Grand Canyon and has many motels and even more trains (seriously, they roll through with the frequency of the New York City subway). I recommend booking a room nearer to downtown, about a block or two away from the station.
As far as beer drinking goes, the depot area is the place to be. Within walking distance are Beaver Street Brewery and the Whistle Stop Café, Lumberyard Brewing Co., and Flagstaff Brewing Company. Lumberyard has the most interesting brews (an Imperial Red and a Black IPA, for example) and also serves better-than-average bar food. Lumberyard sells fresh six packs (in aluminum cans) of the beer they brew there, perfect to take along on my expedition.
I woke up early and then realized it’s even an hour earlier in Arizona, so I decided to visit the Grand Canyon. I’d always been given the impression it was far away and hard to get to, but according to my map, the South Rim entrance was fewer than 100 miles from Flagstaff.
Fueled by a delicious chai and a chocolate scone from coffee shop Late for the Train, I drove to the canyon. In the cool morning air, I made my way through the Kaibab National Forest up Route 180 and then on to Route 64. I reached the outpost of Tusayan right before entering the park at Grand Canyon Village. Because I had arrived so incredibly early in the morning, I didn’t have to wait to pay the $25 entrance fee. I highly recommend this tactic, as the lines were significantly longer when I left the park later in the day.
For all of the cheesy tourists, kiosks and gift shops at the Mather Point visitor center, once you leave the main viewing area on Desert View Drive, nature reappears. There were deer around the first turn. The whole trip from the western visitor center at Mather Point to the eastern one named Desert View is about 15 miles. Every few miles there are scenic overlooks for observing the soaring red peaks and treacherous long drops to the canyon below. In addition to hiking to the canyon floor, there are shorter (and even paved) trails at most of the overlooks. Even once you’re there, it’s really hard to fathom how incredibly grand this damn canyon actually is.
In an attempt to hold onto the intense experience of this place, I doubled back, trying to single out a favorite vista (Moran Point) and stopping to eat my lunch among shady pines. As if the day had not been perfect enough, the sky clouded over and a cold mountain rain began to fall on the way back into town. I got out of my car and rejoiced for the rain, the red canyons and the purple mountain majesties I had been so fortunate to experience.