Red Rock Country: Journey Through the Heart of Arizona

Route Details Length: About 79 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year-round. Nearby attractions: Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff. Tlaquepaque

Arizona Desert Wilderness
Vivid red rocks form the backdrop for this spin through the Arizona desert wilderness.

Route Details

Length: About 79 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Popular year-round.

Nearby attractions: Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff. Tlaquepaque district, Sedona (a four-acre architectural tribute to Old Mexico featuring gardens, fountains, courtyards, and galleries). Fort Verde Historic Park, Camp Verde. Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott. Phippen Museum of Western Art, Prescott. Smoki Museum, Prescott (a collection of Indian artifacts).

Visitor centers: Tuzigoot and Montezuma national monuments.

Further information: Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Chamber of Commerce, Box 478, Sedona, AZ 86339; tel. 800-288-7336,

When the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright first laid eyes on the town of Sedona, he declared that “nothing should ever be built here.” And Wright wasn’t the first traveler to be so transfixed by Red Rock Country; for centuries Indians and whites alike have gazed in wonder at these sandstone monoliths, shaped by the same patient forces that carved the Grand Canyon. Strung along the length of Arizona’s famed Rte. 89A, they form the vivid backdrop for this sinuous spin through some of the state’s most bewitching desert wilderness.
1. Oak Creek Vista Point
Road maps say the distance from Flagstaff to Sedona is only about 30 miles, less than an hour’s drive. But in fact, Sedona, tucked in a parched basin 2,600 feet below the cool alpine forests of the Coconino Plateau, seems a world away. To get there, Rte. 89A makes a dramatic descent down mile-wide Oak Creek Canyon, truly one of the most spectacular stretches of road in the entire state.

Pause a few miles south of Flagstaff at the Oak Creek Vista Point to get a sense of what lies ahead. A short trail leads from the parking area to a breathtaking overlook, where sheer rock faces of orange, red, pink, and chalky white plunge more than 1,000 feet to the canyon floor. (At Sedona, a half-hour drive to the south, the brilliantly dappled canyon walls stand nearly twice as high.)

2. West Fork Trail
Like a great winding staircase, the road descends from Oak Creek Vista Point in a series of dizzying hairpin turns to the canyon floor. Though each switchback brings a fresh perspective on this fabled gorge, the neck-craning view from below is just as dramatic. Near the bottom lies the Sterling Springs Fish Hatchery, which supplies Oak Creek with trout.

Along the canyon floor the road traces the west bank of Oak Creek for 14 miles downstream to the lovely town of Sedona. The eastern wall of the canyon is nearly as impenetrable as it looks, but to the west the Red Rocks Secret Mountain Wilderness — a maze of canyons, cliffs, and crystalline streams — is threaded with trails. One of the best, tracing the West Fork of Oak Creek, begins a mile south of Cave Springs Campground at the Call of the Canyons Day Use Area. Just three miles long, West Fork Trail leads through lush vegetation into an ever-narrowing canyon whose red walls tower hundreds of feet overhead. Pack your waterproof boots: in places the canyon becomes so tight you’ll have to wade through the ankle-deep stream.

3. Slide Rock State Park
Of the various stops along Oak Creek, there’s no such thing as a bad choice. Pause to fish the clear waters (trout flourish in the cool depths), picnic in the shade of cottonwoods and willows, or simply contemplate the red rocks, whose striking contours never grow tiresome. On a hot summer day, however, one particular spot shouldn’t be missed: Slide Rock. Snaking along a sandstone chute made slippery by algae, the creek drops suddenly to a frigid pool, creating an exhilarating ride for swimmers. Farther down the canyon, at the Grasshopper Swim Area, the creek curves through a narrow canyon pass and gathers in a series of still basins, where visitors can swim.

4. Sedona
Since Theodore and Sedona Schnebly settled there in 1902, Sedona (named for Mrs. Schnebly) has inspired more than one newcomer to linger. The town itself is pleasant enough, with a busy arts community, nearly flawless weather, and a handsome downtown of restaurants, hotels and shops. But what truly puts Sedona on the map is its stunningly beautiful landscape. In this grand geological garden, brightly banded mesas, buttes, and spires flank the town on all sides, thrusting to heights of more than 2,000 feet from the valley floor. If you stand and watch for a while, you’ll see a fresh array of colors almost hourly, as one mountain recedes into violet shadow and the next takes on a vivid orange glow.

Some take the spell of Sedona quite literally, believing that “vortices” of natural psychic energy occur here. Bell Rock, for example, is said to attract UFOs, while Cathedral Rock, in West Sedona, purportedly radiates a sense of well-being to all who approach within 500 yards. Whether you believe all this or not, it hardly matters; the vortices double as excellent picnic spots, as do Capital Butte, Chimney Rock, and Shrine of the Red Rocks, which looks out from the summit of Table Top Mountain.

South of town, Sedona’s best-known man-made structure, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, is hard to miss. Both sculpture and house of worship, the chapel — a wedge of concrete with a 90-foot cross bisecting its face — seems to emerge from the red rocks and point straight to heaven.

5. Schnebly Hill Road
A popular scenic route, Schnebly Hill Road winds for six miles up a series of steep switchbacks through Bear Wallow Canyon to the summit at Schnebly Hill Vista, where spectacular views take in the Verde Valley, Sedona, and the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon. To begin the climb, drive a half-mile south from Sedona on Rte. 179 and turn east onto Schnebly Hill Road. Though the road is less steep than the descent into Oak Creek Canyon, only the first mile is paved; where the road turns to graded dirt, it’s five more miles to the turnaround at Schnebly Hill Vista. Perched on the edge of a high precipice, the overlook takes in a sweeping view of Red Rock Country from Steamboat Rock to Mingus Mountain, which rim the Verde Valley to the west.

6. Red Rock State Park
Returning to Rte. 89A, head south for another three miles to Lower Red Rock Loop Road. Turn east again, and follow the signs to Red Rock State Park.

Straddling a 1 1/2-mile section of Oak Creek, this 286-acre park — the region’s newest — keeps a “hands-off” philosophy toward its natural surroundings. The wild creekside habitat, where sycamores and cottonwoods grow in tangled profusion and shrubs of poison ivy rise eight feet tall, is left in its natural state without man’s help or management. More than 150 species of birds have been catalogued (check at the visitor center for the latest sightings), and the many trails that wander through the property offer fine bird-watching. Try Smoke Trail, a half-mile loop beginning at the visitor center, or Eagle’s Nest Trail, a scrambling mile-long hike to an overlook above the creek. 7. Dead Horse Ranch State Park
When Calvin Ireys went shopping for a ranch in the Verde Valley in the early 1950s, he visited this spot, only to find that the owner’s horse had just died and the carcass was awaiting pickup. Later that night, when his family sat down to dinner, Ireys asked his children which ranch he should buy. Their reply: “the one with the dead horse.” Ireys did as they suggested, and the name stuck.

Today Dead Horse Ranch State Park occupies more than 300 acres along the Verde River, with excellent camping facilities and leisurely hiking trails that meander along the riverbanks and into the surrounding desert. The park’s lagoon is regularly stocked with panfish, bass, and trout, which are easy pickings for anglers.

8. Tuzigoot National Monument
Strewn across the Verde Valley are remnants of an ancient people, called the Sinaguas, who first appeared in this region about 2,000 years ago. Adopting the irrigation practices of neighboring tribes, the Sinaguas farmed the fertile bottomlands of the Verde Valley and began to build apartment-style pueblos, a practice they may have learned from the Anasazis. For some 300 years the Sinaguas thrived; then they simply vanished. Some archaeologists think a devastating drought was responsible; others cite tribal warfare as the cause. The mystery is deepened by the seeming permanence of the structures they left behind.

The hilltop village known as Tuzigoot housed as many as 250 Sinaguas at its peak, around A.D. 1300. Built almost entirely without exterior doors, the two-story pueblo was entered by ladders through rooftop hatches, giving credence to the theory that the Sinaguas were menaced by warring neighbors.

On the other side of the valley (about a 45-minute drive from Tuzigoot via Rtes. 279, 260, and 17) lies another Sinagua wonder: Montezuma Castle, a five-story structure tucked high on a sandstone cliff. It owes its romantic but misleading name to early explorers who mistakenly concluded that the dwelling was built by Aztecs of Montezuma’s army who fled north.

9. Sycamore Canyon
Paralleling Oak Creek Canyon roughly 15 miles to the west, Sycamore Canyon offers the same splendor as its neighbor, without the crowds. Only hikers and those on horseback are allowed within the area, and even so, a trek should not be attempted in summer, when temperatures on the canyon floor flirt with the 100°mark. To reach the canyon from Tuzigoot, take the national monument road and turn left after crossing the Verde River. The road dead-ends at the head of Parsons Trail, which runs the 21-mile length of Sycamore Creek. Yawning five miles wide in some spots, the gorge has been likened to a miniature Grand Canyon.

10. Verde River Canyon Excursion Train
No roads penetrate the upper Verde River Canyon, so it’s not surprising that this excursion train is so popular with visitors. Hugging the south side of the river, the diesel-powered locomotive chugs along at a lazy 12 miles an hour through the craggy canyon, past Indian ruins, across spectacular trestle bridges, and down one long mountain tunnel, making the 40-mile round-trip between Clarkdale and the ghost town of Perkinsville in 4 1/2 hours.

The valley is home to a variety of birds and mammals, and the train’s dawdling presence does not disturb them. Look for bobcats, black bears, bald eagles (the canyon is the winter home to a flock of these quintessentially American birds), and great blue herons, throngs of which nest in the cottonwoods near the end of the line.

11. Jerome
Clinging to the sides of Cleopatra Hill, Jerome looks like a city poised to jump. In fact, that’s exactly what has happened more than once, when dynamite blasts from nearby copper and silver mines shook buildings — including the town jail — right off the hillside.

Jerome’s history is no less interesting than its precarious placement. Named for mining financier Eugene Jerome (who never actually set foot on Cleopatra Hill), the town was born in 1882, when the United Verde Copper Company began operation. It quickly grew to become the territory’s fifth-largest city — and a veritable mecca of sin. At the turn of the century, so many saloons, gambling dens, and brothels crowded Jerome’s crooked streets that a New York newspaper tagged it “the wickedest town in America.” As if to purge it of its unseemly reputation, fires raged through Jerome so many times that people lost count. Somehow, the town always bounced back.

The mines are long gone. What remains is a picture-perfect, turn-of-the-century Victorian town located in one of the steepest places you’ve ever seen. Three museums invite visitors to relive the city’s past: the Jerome State Historic Park’s opulent Douglas Mansion, with fine views from its upstairs balconies; the Jerome Historical Society Mine Museum, featuring displays of old mining paraphernalia and ore samples; and the Gold King Mine Museum, sporting a replica of a mine shaft that visitors can enter.

12. Prescott
Cresting Mingus Mountain at a soaring 7,023 feet, the highway makes its final switchback descent into Prescott Valley, a wide basin of grass and ranchland. End to end, this soothing expanse stretches more than 25 miles, from the base of Mingus Mountain to the former territorial capital, Prescott. Nestled in the cool pine forests of the Bradshaw Mountains, the city exudes a mellow Western charm, especially around its central plaza, which was once home to the infamous Whiskey Row.

Prescott is wedded to the beauty of its surroundings, and a variety of wilderness excursions offer tempting choices for exploring the country. Among the most appealing is the Thumb Butte Trail — a loop hike that meanders through a dense ponderosa pine forest to vistas that extend all the way to the San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff. A few miles north of town via Rte. 89 lies another popular spot for hiking and picnicking: the Granite Dells. Sometimes called Arizona’s Garden of the Gods, this labyrinthine jumble of giant boulders attracts avid hikers and rock climbers. Nearby Watson Lake Park, just south of the Dells, is a fine place to swim, and campers drift off to sleep under the moonlight, fueling their dreams with memories of this dazzling journey through Red Rock Country.

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