The first time I spent a little time in Northern Arizona, it stole my heart. It was early springtime, and the trees were budding and blooming and smelling more beautiful than any trees I had ever known. The hiking trails were numerous, and lined with boulders, multi-colored sandstone, red cliffs, huge ponderosa pine trees, alligator junipers, small cactus shrubs, and aspen groves. Some trails featured Native American cliff dwellings, mud-walled structures, and petroglyphs. Other trails crossed creeks or lead to lakes, big and small. The most interesting trail I hiked, Cathedral Wash (a workout for both the body and mind due to the trail dropping between 5 and 30 feet in areas, leaving you to figure out how to descend) ends at the Colorado River, just outside the Grand Canyon.
I find that a great number of people are unaware of Arizona’s elevation changes, the presence of trees, and the dramatic climate differences in the state. If you think of a featureless, sandy, flat state with no water, trees, flowers, or beauty when you hear someone speak of Arizona, this post is for you.
You may have heard of the lovely red rocks of Sedona, or read the posts I’ve written on the area. Before beginning my big road-trip adventure years ago, a few people suggested I visit Sedona due to its incredible beauty and reputation as a spiritual hub. I took that advice, and they were right: its beauty is extraordinary, and with a guide, I was able to access a remote area that felt very sacred. But, did you know that Sedona is located 4000 feet above sea level? And have you heard of Oak Creek? It’s a big, beautiful stream that runs through the little desert town, much of it recreation-accessible. During the late fall and winter, trees along the creek turn spectacular reds, oranges, and yellows. When snow falls on the red rocks, the sight is nothing short of glorious.
Speaking of snow, the highest point in the state, Humphreys Peak, topping out at 12,633 feet in elevation, sits among The San Francisco Peaks to the north of the small town of Flagstaff. At about 7000 feet above sea level, Flagstaff is one of the snowiest areas in the country, getting an average of 100 inches annually. Each of the seasons could not be more beautiful in “Flag,” as the locals call it. After winter covers Humphreys Peak with a bright white blanket, a lovely springtime arrives, bringing with it happy meadowlarks, woodpeckers, blue jays, hummingbirds, ground squirrels, and white-tailed deer. When summer takes over, there are a couple weeks of 90+ degree temps, but most days are cooler. It is possible during the summer to need a jacket at night, as high desert summer temps can drop into the 40s. Beginning around the first week in July, the area gets super-saturated with rain as a result of monsoon season, which lasts through September. The heavy precipitation encourages a myriad of wildflowers to pop up in meadows & canyons, alongside roads, and on hiking trails, once again transforming the beauty of the little mountain town. And then, fall arrives, causing local leaves to sing with vibrant colors.
The drive north from Flagstaff reveals an other-worldly topography. Most of the land in the northeast corner of the state belongs to Navajo Nation and is largely undeveloped. About 90 minutes north of Flagstaff, you will see the turn-off to the Grand Canyon, which of course is a must-see. Carved by the Colorado River over millions of years, the Canyon is immense, sporting an elevation change of 8000 feet between its highest point and the mighty Colorado.
About an hour farther north, you will discover Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and Antelope Canyon. A boat tour on Lake Powell (located in both Arizona and Utah) offers spectacular views of the red, orange and white sandstone cliffs surrounding the water. With a Navajo guide, a walk through the narrow, beautifully formed Antelope Canyon will astound you. The slot canyons are the happy result of flash floods causing erosion of the soft sandstone.
As for the rest of the state, points farther south are uniquely interesting as well. A drive south on I-17 just north of Phoenix yields a plethora of saguaro cactus plants at a certain point, and although I’ve never witnessed it, I’m told their beauty is astounding when they’re all in bloom. Tombstone, made famous by outlaws like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, is a cool little town where gunfight reenactments are performed in the unpaved streets. It has been designated one of the best-preserved rugged frontier towns of the late 1800s. And Tucson offers an extensive Botanical Gardens network, Saguaro National Park, and Mt. Lemmon, a jewel that rises over 9000 feet out of the Sonoran Desert.
If you have always pictured the entire state of Arizona as hot, sandy, and drab, I hope this essay has forever changed that image. Its diverse and unique terrain is explorer-friendly, and the state is reopening, with restrictions, of course. Experience its unique beauty and natural history, and let me know how much you love it, too.
Blessings for Southwestern Beauty,