I was expecting all of Arizona to be a desert because….well, I don’t know. Watching the Today show always made me assume that Arizona perpetually exists in 100+ degree weather. Turns out I was very wrong, and year round warmth is true for Phoenix but not the rest of the state. Our second week here, we went to the Mogollon Rim, a 200 mile long range that stretches to New Mexico. It was just an hour and half drive from Phoenix, but we were in snow and pine tree forests! I was astounded that there was such a change in weather and climate in such a short distance.
To get a bit of a vacation away from all the family time, we planned a trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon so I could see more of Arizona and this amazing change in environment.
As we drove to Sedona, the landscape changed dramatically as we climbed in elevation, from desert and saguaros to more familiar pine forest. Once you had the red rocks into view, the drive was gorgeous with the contrast of the blue sky, green trees and red rocks.
Sedona is known for its hiking trails, which we took full advantage of. Through Couchsurfing, we connected with a local legend, 74 year old Peter, who took us up Bell Rock. He has the mission of bringing 2,222 people to the top of Bell Rock by the 2018 solstice. He broke it into two groups of 1,111 so we were numbers 842 and 843 in his second group. Though there is no actual trail to make it to the top, Peter was an expert guide and got us up there without a hitch (he’s even taken a one-legged man up once). The views were spectacular and Peter knew the best spots for pictures.
We felt that we were lucky on our trip since several serendipitous things happened to us. We got in late to Peter’s so the only restaurant around the area open for dinner was a Chinese restaurant and the owners were actually Chinese Malaysian. I was telling them where I had been teaching, and their home town was just 40 minutes from me! The next day we went to Buck Thornton’s Jerky shop, so I could pick up some for my dad and the owner generously gave me another pack free, so we had snacks while we were hiking. And finally, we got a free helicopter ride to see Sedona from above because we sat in a timeshare meeting.
(or We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Head Lamps)
Our luck didn’t exactly leave us once we left Sedona, but we hadn’t planned so well for our Grand Canyon leg. So just saying…I wouldn’t do what we did. It turned out to be an adventure and nothing bad happened, but we would have been a lot more comfortable if we had planned better. So some tips if you’re planning your journey in the winter, before I go into details:
- Gas up in Flagstaff: There are gas stations up closer to the Canyon, but since you’re miles away from anywhere else, the gas prices are sky high
- Get food in Flagstaff: See point above
- Bring flashlights: It gets dark in the Grand Canyon!
- Buy hand warmers: It’s cold in the Grand Canyon!
- Bring cold weather clothes, like gloves and hats: see point above
- Download maps and print off important info, because there isn’t much cell service
We left Sedona later in the afternoon, but it was just a few hours to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. We did gas up in Flagstaff, so we were lucky, but even though we had brought trail snacks for our hikes, we didn’t have anything substantial for dinner. We ended up stopping at McDonald’s in the town before you hit the Canyon, but prices were hugely inflated; we’re talking $7 just for a Big Mac, not even the meal. To compensate, it was just $30 per vehicle to enter the canyon for 7 days, and $60 for a year round pass, so it’s a sweet deal if you live in the area.
Hoping to save some money, we went in search of dispersed camping, free camping that’s just outside of the Grand Canyon National Park. We found the road and the camping site but it was snowed over because like I said, Arizona can get snow! Luckily we had a bit more of a hearty vehicle, otherwise we would have had a difficult time on those unpaved roads.
The next day we woke up early to see the sunrise, which I think is one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen. The colors are more muted than you might see on photographs, but photographs can’t communicate the sheer size of the canyon. We were at Grandview Point, where you could “hike” down a bit so it seemed like you were in the canyon.
After sunrise we got breakfast at one of the lodges and sat down to plot our day. We decided to take the Bright Angel trail because a man we had met in Sedona told us we would be able to see Indian art at certain points (unfortunately we didn’t find what he was talking about). It’s a bit longer because it’s mostly switchbacks, zigzagging back and forth, but it turned out to be a worthwhile hike. It wasn’t too steep, which was nice, especially coming back up.
Like the change from Phoenix to Sedona, going down the canyon had its change in environments. At the top it was probably only 30 degrees, and the beginning of the trail had snow and some ice. Halfway down the canyon it suddenly changed. We got to a point called Indian Garden because there was a natural spring that allowed grass, plants and trees to easily grow. At this point it was probably 50 degrees and we were warm enough to take off our jackets and hats. We knew we couldn’t possibly reach the bottom of the canyon and get back to the top, so we went just a little further to Plateau Point. As we walked, the landscape changed back to desert grass and cactus, and I must have brushed against something because I got pricklies stuck in my jeans and they hurt! At Plateau Point we had a 360 degree view of the canyon and down below you could see the Colorado River.
We met a ranger on our way out to Plateau Point, who asked us if we had headlamps or flashlights or anything because she thought we would be hiking up in the dark, even if we turned around after the point. She was doing her job and it’s good that they have people warning hikers about such things, but we wished we had met her up at the top so we could rub it in her face that we made it up by dusk! There are signs all over the park cautioning that it takes double the amount of time to go up as it took to go down, which is probably a good rule of thumb, but we made it up and down in about the same amount of time. We were definitely patting ourselves on the back because the trail map estimated 9-12 hours round trip for the hike we took but we did it in 5 ½ hours. On the downside, we were already feeling our legs getting sore so even though we were fit, we knew we would be hurting the next day.
For our final leg of our trip, we drove about two more hours north to the Utah/Arizona border. There were three things we wanted to see, but Antelope Canyon and Havasu Falls both required advance reservation and guides since they’re on Indian land. Instead we went to Horseshoe Bend, right outside of Page, Arizona. The surrounding area is all made from sandstone, giving it a unique layered look. Though really cool to go out and stand close to the edge, you could see spots where the rock could probably just slide off.
On our way back to Phoenix, we took a rest stop at Montezuma Well. It’s a few exits away from the more famous attraction, Montezuma’s Castle, but this was well worth going to (pun intended). It’s a natural well located, amazingly, in the middle of the desert, and has been cycling through 1.5 million gallons of water a day for thousands of years. That’s right, 1.5 million gallons of water! It’s fed by water that has been trapped in limestone from prehistoric times. It was an literal oasis in the desert, and there are remnants of Native American homes surrounding the well. The well hosts four unique species that only exist in this well, and have evolved to survive in the high carbon dioxide levels in the water. The CO2 levels are so high that fish are unable to live in the well.
That sums up my almost two months in Arizona! I don’t think I’ll plan any trips there in the summer any time soon, but I was pleasantly surprised with everything I saw and did while spending the holidays and new year there.