Emerging from the darkness of a narrow, curved tunnel, the vintage train chugged along tracks perched high along a cliff wall. We passengers could almost reach out and touch the rock face as the sightseeing train headed deeper into Arizona’s Verde Canyon.
The afternoon sun highlighted the rust-colored canyon walls, a striking backdrop to the trees that carpeted the canyon floor along the Verde River far below us.
Pointing up the cliff’s face, the train attendant called out, “Up there …” to passengers who’d left the restored Pullman cars for the train’s open-air canopied viewing car. Swiveling our heads, we looked up to a cave that once was inhabited by some of the area’s ancient people, the Sinaguas, whose presence in the area is believed to have ended about 1500 AD.
For more than two decades, the Verde Canyon Railroad in north-central Arizona has carried visitors on a four-hour, 40-mile round trip from its station in Clarkdale to Perkinsville, a now-deserted train stop where in the 1960s some scenes in the classic film “How the West Was Won” were shot. We were traveling on a rail line built 100 years ago, when trains carried copper from nearby mines to market.
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We would have missed this historically — and geographically — rich area had my husband and I stayed with our original plans to fly to Phoenix. Opting to drive from our Kirkland home meant several days in a car as opposed to several hours in a plane, but it gave us a chance to explore new territory in the Grand Canyon State.
Our focus, however, wasn’t on the Grand Canyon. Instead, our road trip introduced us to other Arizona places. Among them:
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is a mind-boggling vast area in northeast Arizona. Its 280,000 acres include the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Not long after crossing the Utah border, those cinnabar cliffs — reaching heights of 6,500 feet in places — loomed to our north as we drove for miles on a seemingly deserted two-lane highway across the valley floor. The area, bounded on the east by Glen Canyon National Recreation area and on the west by Kaibab National Forest, enticed with hiking and backpacking routes.
Navajo Bridge, near the Vermilion Cliffs, is actually two bridge spans. The original opened in 1929 as the Grand Canyon Bridge and was billed as the highest steel arch bridge in the world. Now it’s used by pedestrians only. We joined other travelers at mid-span to gaze at the Colorado River, looking more like a stream than a mighty river 467 feet below as it cuts through Marble Canyon. The new, wider bridge has served motorists for nearly two decades. At one end of the original bridge there’s an interpretive center with a good selection of books, maps and souvenirs.
Prescott, once the Arizona Territory capital and now a vibrant college town and county seat, about two hours north of Phoenix, is where we nabbed a $99 deal at the Hassayampa Inn, a 1927 classic that’s been modernized without sacrificing its historical charm.
The hotel is just two blocks from the town square, Courthouse Plaza, with its centerpiece 1918 Yavapai County Courthouse. The treed, grass-covered plaza — where at the turn of the last century, they say, justice was dispensed with a hanging or two — is now a popular gathering place and the site of many community events. To the west, Whiskey Row was once lined with saloons filled with cowboys and outlaws. It is now home to restaurants, bars and stores.
Jerome, an old mining town high atop the 5,200-foot Cleopatra Hill, was once called the “wickedest” city in the West. In its mining heyday, Jerome’s 15,000 residents made it Arizona’s fourth-largest city. These days throngs of day-tripping tourists (Jerome is 35 miles from Prescott) descend upon the town’s numerous art galleries, gift shops, bars, restaurants and winery tasting rooms housed in Jerome’s century-old buildings.
South to the sun
Heading south to Arizona’s Valley of the Sun (as the Phoenix metropolitan area is called), we indulged in a three-night stay at the luxurious Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort thanks to a deal we found online: $135 per night, about half the season’s regular price.
The pampering began when two doormen swept up to the car and — in tandem — opened our doors, offering bottles of water as we headed to the lobby. Our bags were whisked to the back of a golf cart on which we would be driven to our room in a building on the other side of the sprawling grounds while a valet parked our car.
Our spacious ground-floor room had a king-size bed and large bathroom featuring separate shower and soaking tub. The only drawback was its location. The sun never reached the deck from which we had a view of the canvas-covered tennis court fence. But that really didn’t matter — we spent most of our time lazing by the enormous pool.
In the end, our road trip costs (lodging, food and gasoline) were about $100 more than Seattle-to-Phoenix airfare plus a car rental. And Arizona’s summer hotel deals — summer is low season in the Phoenix-Tucson area because of the searing heat — may just prompt us to head south again.
Jackie Smith is a
Kirkland-based freelance writer.