National Parks Counter: 17, 18
Trip number two of the 2021 year occurred in March. My Sidekick and I hopped on yet another Southwest flight out west! Our target this time: Arizona. Specifically we were planning on checking out Sedona for an afternoon en route to Holbrook, AZ which is the closest town to Petrified Forest National Park. From there we would head all the way down to Tucson and check out Saguaro and Mt. Lemmon.
After landing in Phoenix we picked up the rental and were very fortunate enough to have been upgraded into a 4 WD. Before heading toward Sedona, we were hungry and found a place called: Cold Beers and Cheeseburgers. It is not divey as the name would indicate! They had a nice dog friendly outdoor area, with heaters, and I think both of us had really good food, and they Alaskan Brewery beer on tap which made me quite happy:)
As we approached Sedona it started snowing. Now, I concede that there are spots of elevation in Arizona where weather may be sketchy even in mid March, but I was not expecting road closures winter weather in Central Arizona for spring break. Oops! We pulled into Sedona, which I might add does actually look very pretty in the snow. We stopped by to take a picture of that Chapel of the Holy Cross that is there. We then found a covered outdoor balcony for a beverage at the Vault Uptown, an upscale looking place with a pretty awesome view of Snoopy Rock, which was shortly renamed by us to Sadie Rock :). The snow started to clear a bit to give some really pretty views of the red rocks covered in the white snow. Unfortunately, when we left, the route I planned to take from Sedona to Flagstaff was closed. Then the other route, the interstate, was ALSO closed. The Best Western in Sedona was apparently on its game with this and offered a room, all at the sympathetic rate of nearly $500 for the night! So, I pulled out the ole Google maps and found a sketchy local roads route from Sedona to Holbrook. The drive was high elevation at times, looked like pretty much BFE and the roads were snow covered. EEK! While we should have pulled into our Days Inn Holbrook at around 8 PM, we actually got in closer to 11. I would say to plan your March Arizona adventures carefully around potential bad weather and road closures!
The next day we got up and headed for the store for snacks, then to the park which was about 20 minutes away. Holbrook is the closest town, so if you are overnighting it, this is the place. The Days Inn we stayed at was terrible, but the La Quinta in town looked brand new and fancy. The rest of Holbrook is a blighted, run down wreck of a town. Most of these parks towns are really soaking up that National Park exposure with merchandise and businesses…not so much here. No gift shops, no Petrified Brewing, No Petrified Cafe. Nothing like that at all. There is a heavy native population here and is very alarming to see first hand how dilapidated their living conditions are!
Anyway, now for the park! So we came in from the south entrance and made our way north to the Painted Desert entrance. The park road is not a loop so you will start at one end and leave the other. Coming in from the south was 0 traffic and 0 cars coming in. Granted this was a Sunday and the weather was SUPER windy, overcast, and not warm at all. In fact, the weather was pretty miserable! At least it wasn’t raining or snowing! After a brief stop in the visitor center (the apology letter on display from a child returning a stolen piece of petrified wood is great!) we did the mile or so loop through the petrified logs behind the visitor center called the Giant Logs Trail. Afterward, we did some short hikes, including the Agate House Trail, which was the longest we did, probably 2 miles out and back to a reconstruction of an old native house made of the petrified logs. A note about this one, is that it is right at the end of the visitor center parking lot and we missed it driving by and had to double back later on! Heads up! The other hikes we did were also short and really…once you’ve seen some petrified logs, I think you have kinda seen them all!? I will say the landscape, while particularly pretty, sure seemed unique and very alien to me. One spot that might have been a good pretty hike was the Blue Mesa Trail, but even that one is very short coming in at like a mile. The drive up to where that trailhead was was the only spot of elevation during the drive, not much, but it did afford some get views over the landscape. We did not do the hike. The weather was just too meh.
Before heading to the Painted Desert portion of the park we did stop and pull off and I went to an area of native ruins and some old petroglyphs marking the stones. That was pretty neat to see for sure. I cannot recall ever actually seeing any type of petroglyphs in person! It was a short drive to the Painted Desert. That part of the park is definitely something pretty to see. The colors are beautiful! And then it was back to Holbrook.
It was a quiet evening as there is NOTHING to do in that town. I thought Front Royal in Virginia was a little lackluster; this one is downright depressing! We did find some good juevos rancheros at a drive through at the Camaleon (that spelling is correct) Cafe. It looked like a native run place and it was good! And for an evening dinner, we were looking for outdoor options, which seemed nonexistent, but Nicki got a feeling and we stopped at this sad looking Italian place called Mesa Italiana Restaurant. Despite being in a small shopping looking building, they did have a hidden back balcony. The food was ho hum at best but we had a great native server who was doubling as the bartender and working her butt off it seemed, and she was very friendly and attentive, so I feel a shout out is necessary.
The next morning we started the trek to Tucson. We did the tourist thing, stopping at the big meteor crater off of the interstate. FYI, its 20 bucks to get in, and it’s cool and all, and probably worth the stop, but if you thought you could hike around the whole thing you are wrong. You only get a few spaced out platforms along the visitor center perched on the edge.
After a brief stop in Flagstaff (which looks like a potentially really cool town by the way) we were off on the long trip south to Tucson. We were staying in a hotel in North Tucson, an area called Marana. This spot was chosen for a couple reasons, one being that it is closer to Phoenix and two, that it is pretty close to the west side of Saguaro National Park.
There are two sides of the park: the west side, which is supposedly less visited, called the Tucson Mountain District and the east side called the Rincon Mountain District. Tucson sits between both sections. Upon getting to our hotel and dropping out stuff off we headed for the west side. The cactus are pretty stunning and amazing! It literally is like a cactus forest. I had never seen such a thing in my life and it was VERY cool. Also, the area is actually quite mountainy, so this cactus forest is on the flat stretches all the way up to the tops of these large hills and small mountains in this area. Very neat! After a stop at the visitor center, we did the initial little visitor center hike. Nicki posed with a cactus and promptly got stuck for her efforts! We did a dirt road loop, The Bahada Loop Drive, through the cactus which included a 1 mile out and back trail called the Valley View Overlook. Despite being a short trail, it has a beautiful view at the end overlooking a valley full of more cactus that you have ever seen in your life!
That evening we found a brewery called the Catalina Brewing Company and sat down for a couple beers and wines for the two of us. Cool spot with an outdoor area close to our hotel. The beer is good and I had a flight and then picked the best of the bunch. This place has a lot of inside game machines and what not, so it is probably a super chill spot after covid is gone!
The next day we planned to drive to the top of Mt. Lemmon, the large 9000 footer overlooking Tucson and then go into the eastern part of Saguaro. Bad weather in general that morning, and especially on the mountain, dictated going into the park first and then assessing the Mt. Lemmon situation later! We got into the park fairly early on that Tuesday. And heads up, whether covid or not, I don’t know, but the visitor center there is NOT OPEN on Tuesday or Wednesdays. Lame and random! Anyway, this part of the park is much larger and much more visited. It also seems to have much more hiking, more mountainous terrain to look at and maybe some more colorful flora. The road is a loop, about 8 or 9 miles long and does do a pretty good job of showcasing the park. I might add, that the park on this side is actually significantly larger than what the road shows you. We did the drive first, in the snow, in the desert of Southern Arizona, amongst thousands and thousands of cactus. I do not know if that’s all that common an occurrence or not, but I certainly was not expecting it. We stopped to do a short 1.5 mile hike, a loop that was part of what is called the Mica View Loop. It was nice easy flat walking. I will say, there are many many trails in this part of the park and they are all short little pieces that all kind of interconnect and this particular spot the trails are really not a whole lot wider or more trail looking that the normal paths through the wilderness, so it’s easy to lose track of exactly where you are, even if looking at a map, so heads up!
Eventually the weather turned sunny and pleasant so we did the road again, found a little rock scrambling photo spot, ate our packed in lunch and headed toward Mt. Lemmon. It was quite the drive up there, but not my first mountain drive! Mt. Lemmon came highly recommended. It does seem like the summit would be really cool! There are restaurants, trails, skiing opportunities, etc. Unfortunately, we came on a Tuesday and almost every single thing is closed on Tuesday. And due to recent snowfall, no trails were accessible. The little general store in the town up there was open, but very limited in what they offer. Unfortunately the trip up was more a go up, look around, throw snowballs at each other, and come back down situation. However, it was interesting being in the sun and desert with 70 degree-ish temps at one hour, then being sub 30 in blowing snow the next, only to be back to the desert life the following hour.
Our last evening of the trip found us at an early dinner at this super famous Mexican place downtown called El Charro. It is known for this meat called carne seca which is a beef that is left out in the sun hanging above the restaurant. I had some of that and it certainly was tasty! The restaurant came highly recommended and it was delish! Afterword we also found a rooftop bar overlooking the The University of Arizona called the Moonstone. It has some nice views of the city, the school, and Mt. Lemmon. I was hoping for a sunset view, but the outdoor deck was facing east, not west…so you get what you get! The next day was back to the FL and another trip in the books, and 2 more national parks off the list!
Overall impressions: Pros: Awesome scenery. Saguaro is super cool and unique. Some good stops throughout the trip. Cons: The weather was not great, so a march plan to Arizona needs to take that into account. Mt. Lemmon is not a stop other than on weekend. I did not have super high expectations for Petrified Forest, and yes it is a unique special place but there is not much to do, and the town offers very little to do as well.
The Adventurer Final Word:
Two ratings on this trip!
2.5 Stars For Petrified and environs. 5 Stars for Saguaro. Saguaro is a potential return visit, Petrified not so much!