If you thought Phoenix was surrounded by flat, sandy desert, you are in for a surprise. True, there is a desert here, but it is a lush desert where tall saguaro cacti tower over mesquite, ironwood, creosote, and many smaller cacti that bear vibrant blooms. Hillocks and mountains break the view, and distant mountains promise cool forests of ponderosa pines.
Arizona’s landscape is varied and beautiful, and you can see a lot of it in a series of day trips out of Phoenix. Here are six good ones.
Sedona exists at an impossible intersection of soul-nourishing wilderness and pampered luxury—where soaring red rock monoliths cradle an array of resorts, spas, art galleries and boutique wineries.
Start with scenery that makes your heart leap. Sedona nestles among a geological wonderland. Multi-hued stone formations jut upwards from the high desert floor creating a vivid, mesmerizing setting that changes hourly with the light. When USA Weekend compiled their Most Beautiful Places in America list, Sedona claimed the top spot.
The Mogollon Rim
This all-day adventure takes you through gorgeous scenery up to Arizona’s mountain country below the Mogollon Rim. Travel via Arizona Highway 87 and return via Interstate 17 to avoid rush hour traffic. Be advised that there is only one rest stop on Highway 87.
Highway 87 climbs up and down a series of mountains, winding through rugged, rocky terrain. Giant saguaros grow on steep south-facing slopes. In Payson, Highway 260 joins Highway 87. The rim looms above the towns of Payson, Pine and Strawberry. There are several good places to stop and explore.
Zane Grey fans: Stop to see a replica of the Zane Grey cabin on Main Street in Payson; the original burned in the Dude fire in 1990. (The cabin is closed Tuesdays.)
Stretch your legs at Tonto Natural Bridge (photo attached) State Park, about 10 miles north of Payson. Turn left off Highway 87/260 onto Forest Road 583. Hike down the Gowan Trail underneath the bridge or take one of the shorter trails above. If you pick up a sandwich in Payson before you go, you can have a picnic in the park.
To return to Phoenix, continue following Highway 260 west to Camp Verde, then take I-17 south to the city. The rest area at Sunset Point has good views; as you approach, you might even see some pronghorn antelope.
Historic Apache Trail
This loop takes you through spectacular scenery on Arizona Highway 88, the historic Apache Trail. Pick up the road in Apache Junction, 37 miles east of Phoenix. Off to your right are the jagged peaks of the Superstition Mountains, where the fabled Lost Dutchman’s treasure is rumored to be buried. Legend says it lies in the shadow of Weaver’s Needle, a majestic spire that dominates the skyline from this view. Find out more at Lost Dutchman State Park.
The Apache Trail was built between 1903 and 1905 as a supply route for the construction of Theodore Roosevelt Dam. Less than half is paved. Along the route, stop at the turnouts overlooking Canyon Lake and Apache Lake, or drive down for a picnic. Tortilla Flat is an old stagecoach stop with a museum and café. But the best part of the trip is the scenery. The road winds up, down and around rugged canyons abutting the Four Peaks Wilderness. The most spectacular stretch is the descent into Fish Creek Canyon. The road drops 1,500 feet over a short distance; sheer cliffs drop off on the outside (fortunately, you’ll be on the inside). Go slow and enjoy!
At the dam, the Apache Trail turns south towards Globe and becomes Arizona Highway 188. A stop at Tonto National Monument and a hike to the lower cliff dwellings makes a nice break. Continue on to Globe to pick up Highway 60 and return to Phoenix. The Globe-Miami area has several places of interest if you have time and energy.
Note: 25 miles of the Apache Trail is unpaved and includes a steep descent with sheer drop-offs. RVs not advised on the unpaved section.
Tovrea Castle and Carraro Cactus Garden
Tovrea Castle (aka The Wedding Cake House”) is a historic structure and landmark in Phoenix, Arizona. Originally intended as a centerpiece for a resort and later a private residence, the castle is now part of the Phoenix parks system and is designated as one of the Phoenix Points of Pride. Plans were to fully open the site to the public in 2009, but cost overruns delayed the opening. Currently the park shows over 5,000 individual cacti in over 100 different varieties, all maintained by volunteers of the Tovrea Carraro Society. Tickets for guided tours of the grounds, first floor, and basement have been offered since March 2012.
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park was named as an official national park in 1919, but the landmark had been well known to Americans for over thirty years prior.[ In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the site and said: “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled through-out the wide world… Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier del Bac is a historic Spanish Catholic mission located about 10 miles (16km) south of downtown Tucson, Arizona, on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation. It was founded in 1692 by Padre Eusebio Kino and named for a pioneering Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order), Francis Xavier. In 1700 construction began on a church at a site nearby the current Mission. It served the community until razed by Apaches in 1770.
Today’s Mission was built between 1783-1797 and is the oldest European structure in Arizona. Widely considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States, it hosts some 200,000 visitors each year.
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