I had always dreamed of exploring the American southwest. Inspired by scenes of Arizona and New Mexico in the movie Thelma and Louise, scenic photographs in Arizona Highways magazine, and the starkly beautiful desert portraits by Georgia O'Keefe, I cashed in some USAir frequent flyer miles and booked passage to Phoenix for a 3 week sojourn. My focus was to be Arizona and New Mexico, but spontaneous side trips to Nevada and Utah showed there was much more to this part of the country than travel books or brochures could ever convey. The word "awesome" comes to mind and I use it often with no intent to diminish its significance or uplift it's status as a cliche!
Some good guide books for the budget traveler in the southwest are Ultimate Arizona (and New Mexico), Let's Go USA (though not as detailed), and Arizona Scenic Drives. One often overlooked but very useful option for excellent maps and tour books is the American Automobile Association (AAA). The tour books contain detailed information about sites to visit, important driving and road tips about specific areas, and lists of decent budget accommodations (even in more remote areas).
A car or van is really the best way to get around the southwest. While camping is the best budget option for accommodations, when you go may not be the season for it so there are plenty of budget motels to be found. Practically everywhere you go you will find a Motel 6 which is reasonably priced and clean. RV camps are also found in abundance.
After an initial few days in Phoenix, I hit the road. In no particular order is some account of that.
I found my dream off the beaten track on I-15 in Nevada and Scenic Byways 12 and 24 in southern Utah. Driving northeast on I- 15 from Vegas I encountered The Valley of Fire. VOF is not just a place you go or a thing to see, but a destination to discover the wonders of mother Earth; some of what the Natives find so sacred about this land. The whole area is home to eerie looking biomorphic shaped red rocks and cliffs. There are wonderful vistas of plains surrounded by high mesas of grey and almost black stone. Stop at the visitors center for a map. Nearby are camping and RV accommodations. Stop #10 on the tourist map, Fire Canyon and Silica Dome, is where they shot scenes from the recent Star Trek movie Generations. From here I journeyed northeast to Utah.
In southern Utah, after the fantastic Zion and Bryce Canyons, discover the hidden secrets of America in some of the most scenic and bizarre landscapes I've ever seen. I needed a way to get from Bryce to Monument Valley and discovered these routes by accident. Instead of taking the main highways I decided to go with some smaller routes denoted as scenic on the triple-A map. And that is what creates great travel adventure.
Scenic byways 12, 24, and 95 were the routes I covered but this is only a small portion of the unusual landscape of Utah. I missed other treasures such as Arches National Park. If you plan to travel these routes, I highly recommend that you stop when it gets dark. You don't want to miss any of the landscape.
Routes 12 and 24 (including the Burr Trail off Route 12 which I did not go on) are part of the most remote areas of the country, yet easily accessible through this system of roads. I drove for long stretches without ever seeing another car or person. The routes go through very small villages or towns, farming and cattle ranges to remote desert and a few forested areas. It's not unusual to see deer or free range cattle and horses off to the side or in the distance in the middle of nowhere.
Millions of years of geologic upheaval and erosion have formed the Colorado Plateau, a 190,000 square mile region that encompasses portions of Utah. (It's like going back in time to the Jurassic period in some parts including a stretch of 95 south of 24.) As a result this area contains some of the most awesome and breathtaking vistas of mesas, buttes, canyons, valleys, cliffs, badlands, and sedimentary formations of red, brown, tan, grey, and black rock found anywhere in the world. Routes 12 and 24 go through a good sampling of this and through what is known as the Waterpocket Fold, a low but very rugged and remote terrain. (Utah's National Parks, by Ron Adkinson) There are many pulloffs to stop and admire the views, and you'll want to use them often.
After Torrey, (which has several good accommodations) at the junction of routes 12 and 24 and near the Capitol Reef National Park, it took me 2 hours just to cover 50 miles and I had another 225 miles to go to get to Monument Valley by mid afternoon. Every few miles I would stare in amazement and awe and utter the words "Oh My!" or "Wow!". At one point I pulled off the road by amazing red rock cliffs, a crystal blue river running through and uneven white rock beds near the shore. It was very sunny with clear blue skies. I looked out over the valley and it was so quiet. No other cars or people. Just an incredible silence and a feeling of the overwhelming vastness and awesomeness of our planet. This is a place you can go to shut civilization out, and open up to the spirit of the universe and your own inner self.
From 95 south of 24, I took 161 south (261 would have been a more scenic choice) to 163 south to Monument Valley. The final stretch of road into MV is breathtaking. At one time the whole area was underwater and it looks like it. A vast sea of plains with the striking forms of the buttes in the distance. Everyone has at one time or another seen the famous set of 2 or 3 MV buttes in movies, commercials, or photos. As you approach you'll see that there are many more than that, all unique and stunning in their own way. The entrance to the Navajo Tribal Holy Lands of which MV belongs is accessed by a small road. The sides of the road house ugly pressboard shacks from which the Natives sell trinkets. It's almost like being in the third world.
You can park and get a great overall view of the valley and the buttes. Then drive down on the rugged dirt road that takes you around the area. If your vehicle is in reasonable shape do not worry about the road, it's not that bad. Just go slow. If you don't mind paying extra, some Native guides will be happy to take you around in their jeeps. I got there at around 2 or 3 in the afternoon and the light generated on the rock sides by the setting sun was wonderful. A truly enlightening experience.
Flagstaff is a nice little town at an elevation near 7000 feet. Here and in Sante Fe or other areas over 7K, take it easy the first couple days to get used to the altitude. For you Route 66 fans out there you can still find bits of it in Flagstaff, Kingman, or Alberquerqe. In Flagstaff route 66, or the business loop of Route 40 as it is known, has a proliferation of budget hotels. Same in Alberquerqe where route 66 is called Central Ave. There's not much left of it there that's recognizable but it's an interesting drive. The Route 66 Diner is scenic and has great food.
In Flagstaff check out the funky laundromat on the main street (what 17N from Phoenix becomes). It's decorated with nostalgic old trappings of hand laundry from decades ago as well as southwest paraphernalia, wood paneling, and plants. I've never been in a laundromat with more charm or personality. You can wash your clothes there too. Flagstaff is a good jumping off point for the Grand Canyon if you want to save money and don't mind driving two hours there and back. It's a great drive.
In the morning take route 89 north to 69 west. Along 69 you'll see numerous Indian trading posts selling cloth and pottery crafts. Chat with Natives about their life while perusing unique and beautiful pottery. Be careful about the Indian looking wool blankets Mexico" or some other south or central American country. But if you don't plan on going to those places soon, you might want to buy some anyway cause it's very nice. You can try bargaining but not all will go along. The authentic Navajo "rugs" will not be confused with other questionable items because they cost a small fortune.
I don't know what else I can say about the Grand Canyon that hasn't already been said. You'll be sharing the grandeur with many other tourists depending on the time of year. The north rim is supposed to be less touristy. It's scenic but my first love is southern Utah! After the Canyon take routes 180/64 south to scenic route 180 back to Flagstaff. You can also drive to Monument Valley in 3 to 3 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. But if that's too much of a drag you can probably stay overnight in Kayenta or Tuba City which are closer to MV.
One night from Flagstaff I set out on I-40 West for Vegas. In Kingman, AZ where there's a section of old route 66, I went northwest up Route 93 which goes past the Hoover Dam. It's very dark out there on the small road and from 50 miles away at least the night sky in the distance is illuminated from the lights of Vegas. As you approach from the southeast, suddenly the highway rises above the horizon and takes you down with a fantastic vista of the bright, sprawling landscape that is the wonderland of Las Vegas. In reality the wonderland is more of a film made fantasy. As the population around Vegas explodes, it's resources are stretched tighter than ever and pollution looms more and more over the area.
The strip itself is almost like Disneyland and the absolute coolest place is Luxor, the grand black pyramid hotel with its Sphinx. Failing the bucks to splurge there, Circus Circus is a good place for a decent budget choice from Sunday through Thursday nights (when all hotel rates are lower). Lets Go and AAA list more budget options. After checking out Luxor, go to the nearby Red Rock Canyon or take I-15 north to the Valley of Fire.
No offense meant to Los Angeleans of course but Phoenix is becoming more like LA every day. Phoenix's borders are being stretched by massive development on all sides. It's in a valley and pollution is getting worse as more people settle in and have to drive everywhere. You have to drive everywhere and it can take a while to get where you're going. You hardly see anyone walking and if you want to mail a letter forget about finding a mailbox; go to the post office.
All that aside, Phoenix and the surrounding area can be enjoyable. Fast and cheap food is in abundance. In fact one Saturday night at a Subway I watched two everyday looking cowboy dudes walk back out to the lot holding hands. Cheap hotels can be found on the west side of VanBuren near 7th Ave. but its not that safe. One morning I found my car's rear window busted open. I moved over to the Scottsdale Motel 6 which was safer!
For a fantastic view of Phoenix and the surrounding area go to the lookout point in South Mountain Park. You don't have to drive all the way to Tucson and the Saguaro National Monument to see Saguaro cactus. Take Apache Blvd. all the way out to the old Apache Trail also known as State Road 88. It's an incredible drive with magnificent, classic western Arizona scenery and plenty of Saguaro Cacti. After a few miles the pavement ends and it's a dirt road for another 25 miles. It's fine to drive if there hasn't been rain but the inclines can be treacherous. Going west to east from Phoenix puts you on the inside lane against rock walls away from the cliffs. From Globe you can take scenic route 60 back to Phoenix. An experience not to be missed! If you've never liked Western movies, this (and Tombstone) may give you a new found appreciation.
Tucson is a great little town with flavor and culture all its own. Much more manageable than its big city neighbor. I wish I'd had more time to spend there. Check out some of the cool coffee shops in the center of town. The bulletin boards are stuffed with leaflets of what's happening and who's into what. See Ultimate Arizona for directions to A mountain which gives a fantastic view of the area.
Sante Fe is a much balleyhooed, over-rated tourist trap. There are really no budget accommodations. The most budget place I found was the Park Hotel on the main drag, Cerrillos Rd. The Zia Diner makes the best milkshakes and malteds I've ever had. I spoke to some of the locals who worked in or owned various shops. All acknowledged they are at the mercy of the tourist trade. Many of them said Sante Fe is a wonderful place to live for awhile, don't expect to make much money, and then plan to move on. So aside from the people who are true locals or transplants, many are getting away from the grind for awhile or are artists. For artists the community and opportunity is challenging and inspiring.
There's plenty to see off the beaten track in New Mexico. Between Albuquerque and Sante Fe bypass the main highway and take scenic route 14 to get a real feel for the area. The little town of Chimayo hosts numerous individuals and businesses who hand weave colorful wool blankets, wall hangings, and cloth in various sizes. All over the state are Native pueblos, cultural centers (and casinos), and cliff dwellings. I visited the Puye Cliff Dwellings near Escalante, north of Sante Fe. I was going to go to the Gila Cliff Dwellings near Silver City but the bridge was washed out from heavy rains. Something to look forward to next time, along with Roswell, the UFO capital of the USA.
A few parting words of warning. Hiking at dawn and dusk in discouraged as that is when mountain lions hunt. A hiker in Phoenix was killed by one while hiking at sunset. Hiking off the main paths is asking for trouble. A news anchorman from Florida who was interviewing in Phoenix was killed when he slipped and fell 40 feet after leaving the trail. The signs at the Grand Canyon are very explicit about not going beyond the fences on the rim but plenty of foolish individuals flirt with death anyway. About ten people there are killed from falls every year.
Have a great trip!
David is currently based in Boston where he plays with computers for money when not traveling the globe. Future travels planned include Tibet, Colorado, Israel, and hopefully someday Mars or Alpha Centauri.
Copyright 1995, 1997 David Weinstein