Friday, May 29, 2009

Going Down South

The story goes like this - an early promoter of statehood for Arizona was trying to convince Gen. William T. Sherman to return to Washington and lobby Congress for the state's admission to the Union. Pleading his case, the man said to the General: "Why, all Arizona really needs is a better class of people, more water, and cooler temperatures....."

"Son" replied Sherman, "that's all Hell needs too"

I admit I rarely travel south. There are two reasons for this. First, after leaving Flagstaff the terrain begins to lose elevation until eventually you reach the Sonoran desert. Intensely hot and dry in summer and full of venomous creatures and spiny plants, the desert is a place best visited in the winter.

Second, the low country is home to one of the fastest growing cities in the nation - Phoenix. This sprawling metropolitan blight on the land has everything a world class city aspires to - arts, culture, major sports franchises, shopping, and all the other features associated with large populations. Unfortunately it also encompasses world class traffic, crime, pollution, and suburban sprawl.

Of course Phoenix is not all there is to central and southern Arizona - far from it. It's just that for my tastes there are more appealing places just north of Flagstaff where scenery and solitude can be found with relative ease. That said, there are attractions to the south within an hour's drive that are worth checking out.

Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon

High on travelers lists of things to see in Arizona should be Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon. This astoundingly scenic area is located at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, where colorful red rock canyons, buttes, and spires are carved into the soaring cliffs.

From Flagstaff take the scenic route - Highway 89A south is a twisting and meandering road that descends steeply into beautiful Oak Creek Canyon. Anyone in a hurry should avoid this popular drive, as other visitors often slow traffic considerably while they "ooh and ahh" over the scenery.

As Oak Creek cuts down into the plateau it reveals colorful layers of sandstone and limestone that form towering cliffs rising on either side. It is one of Arizona's rare and precious riparian environments, with lush vegetation and perennial water - something you really learn to appreciate in the dry Southwest.

On the way down, be sure to stop at Oak Creek Vista at the top of the switchbacks for a great view of the canyon. Here Native American vendors sell handmade crafts to throngs of tour bus passengers who make this a key stop on their route.

At the lower end where the canyon begins to open up, you emerge into the world renowned red rocks of Sedona. In any other state Sedona would be a National Park, but in a land of superlatives it's just another pretty place.

A large community has grown up in the midst of this spectacular landscape, detracting only slightly from the aesthetic appeal. Even so the area abounds with sweeping vistas and hiking trails of every description - from easy day hikes on slickrock to steep scrambles up talus slopes. The Red Rocks -Secret Canyon Wilderness has the best trails, but plenty of other options exist as well.

Verde Valley

Venturing further south, the now four lane Highway 89A cuts through the growing heart of the Verde Valley. "Verde" is spanish for green, and the anglo explorers were referring to the broad belt of cottonwood trees and shrubs that line the banks of the river, which also bears the same name. A warmer and drier climate here attracts many retirees, and the relatively low cost of living makes the Verde Valley an affordable alternative for much of Sedona's workforce.

The town of Cottonwood is the next on the map, and has the largest population in the valley. Nearby is Clarkdale, home to the Verde River Canyon Railroad and Tuzigoot National Monument. The railroad offers a relaxing trip upriver through the ruggedly beautiful Verde river canyon, where wildlife and scenery compete for the passengers attention. Tuzigoot displays ancient dwellings dating back to the 12th century, formerly home to native Sinagua (spanish for "without water") peoples who once lived and farmed the fertile river bottom.


Perched on Cleopatra Hill is the distinctly American mining town of Jerome. Much has been written about this "town on the move" (a sly reference to the fact that the slope where the town is situated caused buildings to migrate downhill) and the history of the area includes the boom and bust of rich ore producing mines, followed by the renaissance of the community due to an influx or artisans and craftspeople.

Nearby is the equally fascinating Gold King Mine, where you can view relics of the past arrayed around an old working mine. It would be easy to spend most of a day poking around the vast collection of machinery, vehicles, and buildings while enjoying the rustic atmosphere.

Perkinsville Road

Just before arriving in Jerome on Highway 89A, a road less traveled awaits the adventurous. Known as the Perkinsville Road (F.S. 318/County Rd. 73), this well maintained dirt backway travels 63 miles up and over the sides of Woodchute Mountain before dropping back down into the Verde Valley. Along the way you'll get great panoramas of the surrounding area, including the red rocks above Sedona.

The other end is known as the Overland Road, which traces a path used for centuries by ancient humans and cattle ranchers. It emerges high in the ponderosa pine forest near Williams, and makes a great loop for travelers heading back to Flagstaff after a day or more of exploration.

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