Mozying Up Northern Arizona’s Back Roads

In the era of freeways, bullet trains and the Dreamliner aircraft, it is easy to forget there was once a time when it took days or weeks for travelers to get from point A to point B. However, travelogues from a century ago and older reveal the journey could be as satisfying as the final destination. Modern families can discover what has never changed if they slow down and absorb northern Arizona’s many riches when they leave the four-lane highways behind.

Wickenberg, an hour northwest of Phoenix, is effectively the gateway to the Old West. Highway 60 is the first in a series of two-line highways, slicing through rugged desert terrain. The second, Highway 89, tilts upwards with austere shrub giving way to mesquite and ironwood trees and tiny towns with names like Congress and Yarnell. When the roads wind through Prescott National Forest, the landscape becomes greener, more mountainous and a bit like a thrill ride, with curves, steep hills and trees precariously hanging to cliffs. Pull-out areas begging for family photos (selfies not recommended) appear every few miles. They not only remind motorists to slow down for safety’s sake, but also to take in the timeless natural beauty of landscape. On a clear day, the best views reveal Sedona’s Red Rocks in the far distance.

The town of Prescott boasts a historic downtown anchored with a shady plaza. Surrounding streets are dotted with historic buildings interspersed with clothing boutiques, antique shops and trendy eateries. Further up the mountain passes, former 19th-century copper mining town Jerome emerges from the mists. It has been retrofitted into a bohemian-chic village of sloping streets lined with coffee bars, vintage boutiques, art galleries and a smattering of high-end steak-and-burger restaurants with killer views. It is easy to find parking on weekdays, providing an opportunity to trek up and down long staircases connecting the main streets, adorned with sunflower gardens, patches of herbs in flower boxes and vintage homes and cars in unexpected colors.

Beyond Jerome, Camp Verde awaits with surprising hidden treasures predating the founding of the United States. Tuzigoot, a 1,000-year-old, two-story architectural site built by the Sinagua Ancestral Puebloan people, was partially restored in the 1930s. While only a fraction of the compound exists, the remnants reveal a sophisticated and orderly civilization. Montezuma Castle is another dramatic pre-Colombian ruin 100 feet above the valley. The five-story cave dwelling with 65 units and the Montezuma Well are adjoined by a visitor’s center with fascinating displays about their discovery and excavation.

Close up view of the beautiful Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona.

Close up view of the beautiful Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona. Photo: Fotoluminate | Dreamstime.com

Route 179, a two-lane highway leading out of Sedona, turns into a one-lane gravel road leading to the V-Bar-V Heritage Site. A quarter-mile hike into the woods leads to 1,032 ancient petroglyphs that together make up a calendar used by the area’s indigenous people for farming and ceremonial purposes. Page Springs Road, off highway 89A, leads to the Lo-Lo-Mai Campground, where campers can pitch a tent, rent a rustic one-room cabin or go “glamping” in a fully outfitted log cabin.

Even when you hit civilization — Sedona — there are still plenty of destinations to explore that span prehistoric times to Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” The always-reliable Pink Jeep Tour of Sedona offers sojourns through the always-interesting Red Rock formations. Bouncing Jeeps, led by equally bouncy guides, climb over steep hills past such distinctive formations as Snoopy Rock, Prudential Rock and Cathedral Rock — all of which found their way into several Hollywood westerns.

The Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock offers spacious suites, some with a Jacuzzi and all with Red Rock views and cozy fireplaces. It is family-friendly, yet not overrun with noisy tots. Parents can indulge with massages and facials at the Eforea Spa, and the experience is relaxing, aromatic and relatively free of the New Age patter Sedona is known for. The yoga classes present perfect opportunities to meet local regulars and get tips on where to eat and shop.