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Arizona Travel Tips

At first we thought Arizona was just another New Mexico; the landscape seemed the same . . . deserts, pine-covered mountains, canyons, albeit the Grandaddy of 'em all, the Grand Canyon. But Arizona is different. It's got an entirely different "feel" to it. The very air is unique. Entering Tucson from the east, a cavalcade of green, fuzzy Saguaro, descending from the desert hills, limbs outstretched to their sides, welcomes us to this strange new land. Beyond Phoenix, heading into northern Arizona, the landscape departs from the hot desert to cool, pine-laden hills and snow-covered mountains as we approach Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks. To the east is the pastel wasteland of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. In the northeast is fabulous Lake Powell, a manmade Lapis Lazuli lake with peach colored crowns of jagged rock projecting from its depth; and northwest is the Grand Canyon, for which the state is known, a gorgeous landscape so spectacular, so massive, so vast, that it's almost incomprehensible to the human mind. Words fail to describe the spiritual power of this magnificent scenery. Arizona is Nature's Wonderland.


ARIZONA CAPITOL MUSEUM, Phoenix (602) 542-4581

Designed by James Reily Gordon of San Antonio, the Arizona Territorial Capitol (and later State Capitol) was completed in 1901. Made of native Arizona tufa and granite, the capitol is capped with a brilliant copper dome donated by the state copper industry. Adorning this shiny, new-penny crown stands the chalky white statue/weather vane, "Winged Victory."

At first we were disappointed to learn this is not a "working capitol," but a capitol-turned-museum.(Official state business takes place in the modern buildings flanking the museum.) But once inside we were thrilled to find that as a museum, it has the privilege of preserving the building's authentic antiquity. Because it wasn't used as a statehouse serving a growing population of state employees, it escaped the blows of 1960s modernization and maintained its turn-of-the-century atmosphere. It is quintessentially quaint. For example, the spittoons in the Congressional Chambers recall a more rough-hewn governmental body, and the old-fashioned wrought-iron elevator cage throughout the building's four floors reminds visitors of the early days of the clunking-clanging Otis invention. Little treasures like these appear every so often, reminiscent of simpler, slower times. Furthermore, nosy tourists get to peek and poke around much more openly than in a functioning statehouse with its state secrets and all. For example, you can visit the preserved 19th century Governor's office (complete with wax figure of the first state governor, Governor Hunt), the Secretary of State's office, the State Veterinarian's office (very interesting) and the Mine Inspector's office (also very interesting, especially the 19th century mining caps with little kerosene lamps on top that miners had to set aflame and wear on their heads before flashlight-equipped hard hats were invented.)

Don't miss the various exhibit rooms throughout the capitol/museum, such as:

The USS Arizona room, an exhibit of items salvaged from the sunken battleship, as well as personal accounts and memorabilia from survivors of the devastating Pearl Harbor attack. Dominating the room is a display of the USS Arizona Silver Service donated by Arizona citizens at the ship's launching in 1915, and decorated with scenes and themes of Arizona. Some of the pieces are accentuated with Arizona copper.

The "Merci Train" room is an exhibit of artifacts collected from the 1948 "Merci Train," a train of 48 boxcars (one for each state at the time) filled with gifts to the American states from the people of France in appreciation for the 1945 "Friendship Train" of boxcars filled with food, given by the American people to war-ravaged France and Italy. Some of the exquisite French gifts were family heirlooms and the accompanying notes will rip your heart out. Drew Pearson, an American columnist came up with the idea for the American Friendship Train, and French railroad worker and war veteran, Andre Picard, came up with the idea of the reciprocal Merci Train. It's an emotional and touching exhibit, and a side of WWII rarely mentioned in history books. . . the mending.

Check it out . . . Look for the Vietnam War memorial in the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza. It's one of the most moving sculptures we've ever seen. The detail of the three soldiers is heartbreaking.


The main strip of Flagstaff is the historic Route 66. Vintage 1950-style motels line the Mother Road along with strip malls and other modern conveniences. But the small side streets and city blocks off Route 66 present a charming town of old-time 1920s brick buildings with elegant windows and elaborate window casings. On a hill above town, a cherry and cream colored Gothic church presides over the city square dotted with delightful sweet shops, outdoor cafes, restaurants, clothing stores, gift shops and microbreweries. Even tiny alleyways are lined with old-fashioned gas lights.

Lowell Observatory (520) 774-2096

Went to see the Lowell Observatory on Wednesday, but it was closed to the public cuz First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was here promoting, "Save our National Treasures." She had just arrived after visiting the Grand Canyon 80 miles up the road. So we sacrificed our microbrewery bar-hopping plans for Saturday night and came here to do a little star-gazing. Lowell Observatory was founded by Percival Lowell who was convinced there was life on Mars. Although the martians never materialized, the observatory did come up with the theory of the expanding universe, and in 1930 discovered the planet Pluto. The museum is full star-gazing apparatus and astronomical, hands-on games that will entertain both parent and child. The night tours offer a lecture and a peek through the telescope at the night sky.

Tip: Arrive early for the night tours. Doors open at 8 o'clock, but lines form at least a half-hour before.


Erupting about 900 years ago, Sunset Crater is considered a relatively young volcano. The crater got it's name from Major John Wesley Powell when he explored the San Francisco Peaks. He wrote, "when viewing the mountain from a distance the red cinders seem to be on fire." The fiery-topped cinder cone divides a landscape of charcoal lava, minty green, feathery pine trees and delicate pastel wildflowers, creating a palette of hues and emotions.

Tip: The best color displays are at sunset (fewer crowds, too).


About 800 years ago (only 100 years after the eruption of Sunset Crater) the Wupatki Indians, ancestors of today's Hopi Indians, set up an agricultural, condominium-style community, complete with high-rise buildings, a ballcourt and a community room. Unlike the cliff-dwellings of the same period which were built into existing stone, these towering 3-decker homes were built by masons, using native reddish colored stone, giving the appearance of brick buildings. The guidebook comments that it was unusual to find a ballcourt this far north, as it was typically a Mexican Indian custom. Another unusual, and thrilling feature (do not miss this even though you have to walk to the end of the hot trail) is the Blowhole. A little chimney about one foot from the ground, doesn't look like much, but bend over the hole and a blast of cold air shoots up your shirt like the classic Marilyn Monroe scene in the movie, "Seven Year Itch." The scene that ticked off husband Joe DiMaggio for eternity.

Tip: The best time to go is early morning or evening (too scorchingly hot otherwise).


South from Flagstaff on Highway 89A is a spectacular scenic drive that spirals down an evergreen mountain into Oak Creek Canyon, toward the fantastic red rock formations of Sedona.The town was named after the wife of a man who petitioned to get a post office stationed here about 100 years ago. Situated near Oak Creek Canyon, two hours south of the Grand Canyon, Sedona dishes out a plate of cayenne colored rock formations and foamy white buttes.The town is a draw for New-Agers who claim the area as the earth's locus of "psychic vortices." Advertisements abound for "aura photos," psychic readings, phone readings and invitations to "sit under a pyramid." In addition to the natural and supernatural scenery, the town boasts a bevy of art galleries. Many loop roads and side roads usher you into all the different rock formations with names like Cathedral Rock, Chimney Rock, Bell Rock, and even a Snoopy Rock.

Slide Rock State Park (520) 282-3034

A waterslide designed by Mother Nature herself. Kids of all ages don their swimsuits and slide the red rock that descends into Oak Creek.

Chapel of the Holy Cross (520) 282-4069

In the 1930s a Catholic sculptor assigned herself the task of building a modern church to worship God in modern terms. She lamented that the Gothic cathedrals such as St. Patrick's in New York City made God seem too old-fashioned and too removed from everyday life. Her belief was that a modern church would show that God transcends time. "Lloyd Wright was struck by my idea," she wrote. Her search for an ideal location ended here in Sedona, and her church now sits embedded in the landscape of rock formations overlooking two rock spires called "The Two Nuns." She gave the architects a rendition of how the structure should look, working with materials that would blend in and not interfere with the natural beauty. The church was finished in 1956. Peach and cream colored like the rocks and buttes around it, the chapel stands proudly among one of God's most inspiring landscapes. An altar is lain before a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on a clear blue sky above and a sea of hot red rocks below, like the condition of mortal man existing between heaven and hell.


About 225 million years ago in the late Triassic Period, this arid land was a floodplain where tall, stately, now-extinct pine trees washed ashore, like the hydraulics of a massive lumber mill. Over the years, silt, mud and volcanic ash covered the logs as tightly as a zip-lock sandwich bag, keeping oxygen out and slowing its decay, while silica seeped in, replacing the wood tissue with minerals that crystallized into quartz. Imagine something that looks like a tree trunk, filled with quartz crystal and amethyst. What remains today is a "forest" of cylindrical stone that look like tree stumps. Massive fragments of tree trunks abound, appearing as though they suffered under the hands of a deranged Paul Bunyon. Rarely is a tree intact, but rather scattered about in this dusty, desert land; large stone chunks lying helter skelter like a disturbed and haunting graveyard.

Newspaper Rock

Two of the Park's lookout points, namely, Newspaper Rock and Puerco Pueblo, show the ancient etchings of earlier natives. You can view these petroglyphs through the Park's high-powered binoculars provided free of charge. Farther up the road, however, is the Puerco Pueblo lookout where you can get a closer view, and possibly a photo (if the sun cooperates).

Tip: The name, "Newspaper Rock," led us to believe that a story chronicling some event or public happening was being told through these petroglyphs. But we were disappointed to read on the markers that no one knows what the symbols mean. If we hadn't arrived with such high expectations, the etchings themselves would be rewarding enough. (Perhaps they should call the place "Petroglyph Point" or something like that.)

Check it out . . . In addition to getting a closer view of the petroglyphs, Puerco Pueblo Lookout contains the 600-year old ruins of a 100-room Pueblo.

Painted Desert (520) 282-4069

North of the Petrified Forest lies the Painted Desert,a similar landscape to the pleasing soft pastels of the Dakota Badlands. But here, the peaks are lower, rounder, and softer, forming rows of colors that look like giant scoops of sherbet piled one behind the other into a distant horizon.

Painted Desert Inn

At the end of the Park road is Chinde Point, offering the most expansive view of the Painted Desert. The overlook is behind the Visitor's Center, housed in the former "Painted Desert Inn,"which itself is a manmade marvel with a fascinating tale of its own. In 1924 Herbert David Lore built the two-story inn from petrified wood and other native stone. Rooms were let for as low as $4 a night. Lore sold the property to National Parks Service in 1932, and it was painstakingly restored by the capable hands of FDR's renowned Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1947 it was redesigned by the famous Mary Colter, known for her preservation in southwestern culture. She hired Fred Kabotie, a famous Hopi artist to paint murals depicting scenes of the Hopi culture. Over the years, the Inn fell into disrepair and was scheduled to be demolished in 1975 but was saved by a public campaign. It reopened in the Bicentennial year of 1976 and remains today a museum and information center. Because of it's exquisite examples of Southwestern architecture, the incredible detailed work of the CCC, and Kabotie's murals, the site is now a National Historic Landmark.

Check it out . . . Mary Colter was a 19th century and early 20th century schoolteacher-turned-architect. In addition to remodeling the Painted Desert Inn, she designed almost all of the historic buildings at the Grand Canyon Historic District (described below). She got the job working for the famous restauranteur and hotelier, Fred Harvey, by going into one of his gift shops in her hometown and showing the manager some of her ideas. It's an amazing life story that's depicted in a small museum at the Bright Angel Hotel in Grand Canyon.


The immensity and depth of these colorful, craggy, canyon rocks that were here long before the dinosaurs and will remain long after our last breath bestows upon the tiny tourist mixed feelings of hopeless insignificance and reverent awe. An incredible 277 miles long, about 10 miles rim-to-rim, and anywhere from 4500-6000 feet deep, the canyon is embedded with a fantastic geological tale of prehistoric life. No matter how you spend your time at the Grand Canyon, whether just a day tour, a mule ride, or a strenuous three-day hike, you'll go home a different person.

Tip: Private vehicles are not allowed in Grand Canyon Village along the western rim to some of the trails. Shuttle buses carry passengers to whatever lookout points they desire. We were able to hop on and off these shuttle buses as easily as if we had our own private chauffeur. However, in the summers months, the lines are six deep and go all the way up a hill, so you may wish to visit Grand Canyon in the shoulder seasons as we did.

Check it Out . . . A surprise to us was the historic district of nine old structures, each with a fascinating tale of it's original owner in the early days of the Grand Canyon, when it was first opened to hearty tourists. There's the old Kolb Photography studio, trembling on a cliff overlooking Bright Angel Trail; the old Santa Fe train station, the Bucky O'Neill cabin, the Hopi House, and Bright Angel Lodge, the "rustic" hotel for rich eastern tourists. All nine building have an interesting tale about either the occupant or the architect.

Tip: If I had to do this over again, I would plan way in advance and take a train from Williams to the historic Bright Angel hotel (surprisingly not expensive), where I would rent a room and pretend I'm a rich tourist from the early 1900s. I would take a mule ride down the trail (like Teddy Roosevelt) and I would hike the rest of the week and just immerse myself in the canyon's immensity.


The Colorado River once surged through a marvelous canyon named "Glen Canyon," by Major John Wesley Powell, the one-armed schoolteacher and Civil War veteran who, in 1869, was the first white man to navigate the entire Colorado River, with eight other men and three little cigar-shaped boats. Almost 100 years later, the Glen Canyon Dam was built, taming the red-silted Colorado River, and filling the canyon with one of the clearest, cleanest, coolest manmade lakes you'll ever see. An icy blue pool of water that reaches to an abysmal depth, is crowned by the tips of what was once the canyon crests. Alabaster sandstone beaches and rock outcroppings present great natural diving boards. Swimmers, boaters, water skiers, picnickers, and hikers share this unique landscape along the shores of this glorious 186-mile lake.


Greer's Pine Shadows, Flagstaff (520) 526-4977

This place sits at the foot of Mt. Elden and the Coconino National Forest. It's a lovely, peaceful park full of Ponderosa Pines (the evergreens that smell like butterscotch), with a fantastic view of the mountain. We got here early enough to choose what we deemed the best site on the grounds, Lot #61. It's a corner lot with a magnificent view of the National Forest and Elden Mountain. Hiking trails leading to the top of the mountain or to the Elden Indian ruins are right outside our kitchen door. The campground is off scenic Highway 89 and around the corner from the historic Route 66. Can't imagine a better place to stay for location and beauty. Convenience, though, is another story. There are no public restrooms or showers and you have to make an appointment to use the laundry room. But there is a "lending library" cottage, and the hosts are friendly and outgoing. I like how they "corral" the RV's into little white fences, presenting a ranch-like appearance. There's even something nice about the lack of public facilities as it seems to attract a quieter group of RVers. Nature-lovers, not tourists. So we do feel more like we're in a rustic cabin in the woods, rather than a modern, noisy RV Park with its planned activities.

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