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Canyonlands – Cowboys, Cattle, Copper, Canyons and Critters

A daytrip through Wickenburg, Prescott, Jerome, Cottonwood, Sedona & Flagstaff

Your family has traveled to the Grand Canyon State so, undoubtedly, you’ll want to see it up close and personal. From Phoenix it’s a full day’s drive to the Canyon and back—with perhaps a bit of time left over to check out a Flagstaff attraction or two. Or, instead, consider coupling a visit to Sedona with a leisurely drive through Prescott and Jerome?

It’s easy to navigate toward northern Arizona canyon lands and wide-open spaces from either Phoenix or Tucson. Flagstaff is 2-1/2 hours north of Phoenix. The Grand Canyon is 4 1/2 hours; Prescott is 1.5 hours. Check out a map and see what appeals to your wanderlust and energy levels. One thing guaranteed, the northern Arizona is an altogether different experience than the Sonoran dessert lowland topography—both equally stunning.

The approach from Phoenix or Tucson will be the “back way” through Wickenburg, or Interstate 17, Arizona’s major North/South highway taking you up to I40 and Lake Powell at the northern border, and the Grand Canyon’s north rim.

So, saddle up and start to explore. Here are some points of interest along the trail:

Although adventurous hunters and trappers explored the Wickenburg area as early as 1820, the area did not actually become part of the United States until afte ther Mexican-American War in 1848. And then a gold strike on the Colorado River (near what is now Yuma, AZ) jump-started the settlement. Henry Wickenburg struck it rich in 1862; his Vulture Mine (Which you can still tour) delivered over $30 million in gold deposits, Mr. Wickenburg, the miners and the many settlers that homesteaded the fertile plain of Hassayampa River from Sonora founded Wickenburg in 1863. In fact, you’ll find many landmarks in Arizona were named after early settlers and miners.

The early history of European settlement in the area is grim; settlers and native Yavapai collided in horrific bloodshed and hostilities in the mid-nineteenth century. The “Indian Wars” raged from 1860-1869, with settlers determined to drive the Yavapai from their homelands. 1000 Yavapai & 400 settlers died in the process. In December 1872, the Skull Cave (or Skeleton Cave) battle in the Superstition Mountains decisively routed the Yavapai from the area marking, for the Yavapai, the “most catastrophic event in their history.” Within a year Yavapai resistance was crushed. They were moved to the Rio Verde Reservation, where they flourished, which rekindled government fears. In 1875 the Yavapai were forced marched to the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Many died en route. They remain the only tribe in Arizona that was moved completely away from their traditional homelands.

Turbulence continued in the area for several years. Mine closures, drought and the 1890 break of the Walnut Creek Dam (which killed nearly 70 residents), kept the settlement in flux. However, with the railroad came vigorous economic growth that continued into the 1900s. Guest ranches flourished in the area as easterners more frequently traveled west in search of cowboy, Indians and legendary wide-open spaces. The Bar FX Ranch was the first; Kay el Bar, Rancho de los Caballeros and Flying E ranches, amongst others, followed. With the construction of the Phoenix to California highway (Highway 60) more tourists flocked to the area, making Wickenburg the Dude Ranch Capital of the World. Wickenburg today is still growing in leaps and bounds; the town now has over 600 businesses. The new housing developments north of Wickenburg are encroaching on its cowboy-town image as “the center of the Old West.” However, for now, Wickenburg cradles her western small-town ambiance and is a slice of western heritage worth stopping for. The Desert Caballeros Western Museum ( is a showcase for western and southwestern art: it does an excellent job of interpreting and exposing the mythic cowboy lifestyle with interesting exhibits and special events. If you feel like hiking, the nearby Hassayampa River Preserve, (a Nature Conservancy site) is very interesting as this is the only area where the 100-mile river flows above ground. Kids love the abundance of lizards and weird crawly creatures around the 4-acre pond; over 280 bird species have been spotted in the area. See for a first hand account of a visit to this beautiful close-to-Wickenburg wilderness destination.

In 1863 Prescott (pronounced press-kit) was designated as the original capital of the Arizona Territory so that southern territory Confederate sympathizers would be far away from the seat of government located near Fort Whipple. In 1889 the capital was moved to Phoenix. Prescott sits at a mile high elevation and enjoys an idyllic, moderate climate. Plus, it’s just a fun town to visit; it even calls itself “everyone’s home town” and that’s how you feel as you walk around. The Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe reservation is located next to, and partially within, the borders of Prescott. To the east is Prescott Valley, to the north Chino Valley. Prescott’s famous attractions include the Old Courthouse and picturesque Courthouse Plaza, Whiskey Row (which is on Montezuma Street, bordering the Plaza, the Sharlott Hall Museum, where guests visit several authentic “period buildings”— including a Victorian house, a large log house, a one room schoolhouse, a barn filled with antique vehicles, and a small cabin; and the Smoki Museum, with its interesting “trading post” gift shop featuring items from Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Tohono O’Odham, the Rio Grande Pueblos, Mexico and Guatemala. There are also lots of marvelous hiking, biking and horseback riding trails in the area. The Prescott Circle Trail is a network of varied trails intended to eventually encircle Prescott and The Greenways Trails follow Granite and Miller Creeks through downtown Prescott for a more urban hiking experience.

From Prescott take HWY 89-A to Jerome, nicknamed "The City in the Sky.” This drive is one of Arizona’s most scenic—even Fodor’s agrees! Jerome, a historic ghost town and copper mining town, clings to the side of Cleopatra Hill and has a history as colorful as any of the legendary Western boom towns. The first claims were staked in 1876; the United Verde and Little Daisy claims set the expansion in motion. In 1900, Jerome was the fourth-largest city in the Arizona Territory; by the time the boom ended there were only 50 residents. Billions worth of copper, gold and silver were extracted from the area before the mines finally closed in 1953. Fires ravaged Jerome’s clapboard buildings on several occasions; even so, some of the buildings you see in town are those that existed during Jerome’s heyday. Walk around; meet the interesting locals, now mostly comprised of writers, artists and small business owners. The Douglas Mansion, a landmark since 1916, was built by Jimmy Douglas on a hill above the Little Daisy mine and was originally intended to be a hotel for mining executives. It is now Jerome's State Historic Park featuring the mining history of the area. One mile northwest of Jerome is The Gold King Mine where visitors can see daily demonstrations of mining equipment and an amazing collection of old trucks, cars, large and small tractors and road working equipment. Be forewarned, the place is a jumble of “stuff” from the past, a true walk down memory land for just $4.

Just down the hill from Jerome are Cottonwood and the Verde Valley area with a super selection of things to do for the entire family. Visit pre-Columbian Sinaguan sites, a cavalry fort, and a casino all in one day. Historic Old Town Cottonwood is about as authentic as they come. It’s small but features unique shops, antique stores and restaurants. There’s eight hiking trails in the area; nearby Mingus Mountain is famous for hang gliding and skydiving excursions.

Notable attractions include Dead Horse Ranch State Park, just outside Cottonwood, offering families a beautiful picnicking, fishing and horseback riding escape—and it’s open all year. Going the other direction out of Cottonwood is Tuzigoot National Monument. This old Indian dwelling is accessed by two hiking trails. At one time the settlement was home to around 150 people and had up to 80 rooms. There is a small visitor center with exhibits and artifacts. The Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area, first in Arizona to be designated a Primitive Area, is a state treasure. Second only to it’s more famous cousin Oak Creek Canyon in size, this 55,000+ acre wilderness offers pristine, sometimes challenging, hiking trails and the chance to explore a unique canyon riparian eco system.

And if you have several hours to invest and want to see the Verde Valley from a club car, hop on board the Verde Canyon Railroad for delightful ride featuring eye-popping scenery. Take your camera!!

According to a Yavapai tribal representative Yavapai ancestors were the first people to occupy this area of the world. They are descendants of "The First Lady," daughter of the “Lady of the Pearl.” Their Creation Story recounts how The Lady of the Pearl was sealed in a log with the Woodpecker and sent from Montezuma Well at the beginning of a Great Flood. For days and nights to follow, it rained incessantly and floodwaters rose to cover every landform on earth. After 40 days, the rain stopped, the water receded and the log finally came to rest in Sedona. The Woodpecker freed the beautiful young woman from the log and guided her to the summit of Mingus Mountain, bearing a white stone or "Pearl" her people had given her for protection on the journey. There she met the Sun, who fell in love with her. She returned to Sedona and bathed in an enchanted pool in Boynton Canyon. Soon afterward she gave birth to a daughter—referred to as “ The First Lady," and considered the mother to all the Yavapai people.

Visitors can’t help but embrace Sedona as a sacred place, moved by its stunning natural beauty and it’s famed energy fields called vortices. It won’t take you long to observe that a specialized New Age tourist industry vibrates through the Sedona area and, therefore, through its residents and sometimes its visitors. In 1987, 5000 people gathered in Sedona to celebrate the Global Harmonic Convergence. Imagine that! And, many of these folks put down roots. "Spiritual vortices" are said to be concentrated at Bell Rock, Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, and in Boynton Canyon. Why not visit and see if you can feel the buzz? There are numerous tours available and volumes have been written on the subject.

Your teenagers have probably heard that Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon have an awesome place called Slide Rock State Park where they can wriggle down a 30-ft natural waterslide that’s been worn in rock over the years. It’s true! And darn fun. Little ones should stay clear of this activity and younger kids should be supervised closely. The water can be swift and cold, even in July. Frank L. Pendley, originally homesteaded the area in 1907 and planted an apple orchard that still produces a tasty crop. Cabins built in 1933 are nearby; several hiking trails originate here.

Sedona’s shopping is great fun, as you’ve probably already heard. Toney galleries, fashionable shops, plus craft, textile, pottery, jewelry and artifact emporiums are plentiful in Sedona’s five major business districts: the original Uptown area, a favorite of tourists (and therefore very crowded most of the year); West Sedona (featuring more traditional services, housing and dining establishments); Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village with it’s Spanish aura and fanciful pedestrian-friendly walkways featuring lovely tiled fountains and planters bursting with colorful flowers; the Highway 179 Corridor rightly known as “the gallery district”; and Village of Oak Creek, south of Sedona, featuring an array of shops and popular chain eateries. The Shops at Hyatt Piñon Pointe features courtyards, cozy patio dining, incredible views and 21 shops and galleries.

From Sedona take a beautiful drive up Oak Creek Canyon to Flagstaff Arizona—home of Northern Arizona University. Flagstaff, about 150 north of Phoenix, is a quaint college town with a variety of family- friendly spots to visit. Flagstaff is situated at the base of an ancient volcano, San Francisco Peaks, on what is called the Colorado Plateau. The peaks are sacred to the Navajo and to the Hopi, who consider the region home to their katchinas or ancestor gods.

Flagstaff started as a railroad town on the Atlantic & Pacific (now Santa Fe) line in 1881. It sits at the northern end of the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest so logging was inevitable. In 1882 the Ayer Sawmill was established in town, thus launching the first large-scale industrial effort in the area.

The Flagstaff area is a day trip in and of itself. Create your own family adventures in this northern Arizona playground; hiking, biking, fishing, golfing and skiing are all possible! Or, Flagstaff is the perfect place to stop for a meal on the way to the Grand Canyon. Plan your stop in the heart of downtown around Heritage Square (Follow I-North—it becomes Arizona Veterans Highway, then S. Milton Rd (1.8 mi). Continue on I-40-bl for .3 miles and exit left and N. San Francisco St. Turn right at E. Aspen Ave.). You’ll find historic buildings, quaint shops and a variety of dining options. Grab a bite or just stretch your legs, walk around, window shop and enjoy the high-mountain fresh air. In the summer enjoy live music offered Thursdays and movies on the square offered Friday evenings. (928-774-6929).

One way or another, star gazer families will want to visit famous Lowell Observatory, located just one mile west of historic downtown Flagstaff. The Steele Visitor Center, on Lowell’s scenic Mars Hill Campus, offers guided campus tours daily (on the hour, 1-4 PM) of the Clark Telescope, the Pluto Telescope, and the Slipher Building Rotunda. The doors open at 5:30 PM for evening programs. On clear nights, once it is dark enough, guests actually get to look through the historic Alvan Clark refractor—the telescope Percival Lowell used to observe Mars. At the Visitor Center you can also explore the Discover the Universe exhibit hall and the John Vickers McAllister Space Theatre where the "Sky Tonight" multimedia show plays nightly at 7PM. (928) 774-3358, seasonal hours. 1400 W. Mars Hill Rd., Flagstaff, AZ 86001)

Would the family enjoy an all-encompassing overview of the cultures that have lived on the Colorado Plateau for over 12,000 years? Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, and other Native American tribes are beautifully showcased in the Museum of Northern Arizona’s permanent anthropology exhibit entitled Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau. The Ethnology Gallery introduces visitors to the daily lives of today’s tribal members, many of whom balance traditional lifestyles with jobs and activities outside their reservations. The Museum’s other permanent exhibits include biology and fine arts—plus you’ll see a Hopi Kiva Room and an eye-popping Jewelry Gallery. For collectors and shoppers, the Museum Shop and bookstore feature a fine collection of traditional and modern Native American arts including fetish carvings, Katsina dolls, pottery, Navajo rugs, sculpture and jewelry. (928-774-5213. On US HWY-180, just 3 miles north of downtown Flagstaff. Open 9-5pm daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years), 3101 N. Fort Valley Rd., Flagstaff, AZ)

What about Flagstaff’s western heritage and the story of its ambitious pioneers, homesteaders and loggers? Kids, teens, parents and grand parents will find Flagstaff’s Pioneer Museum the place to hitch a wagon for an hour or two. Located in the historic 1908 Coconino County Hospital for the Indigent, this Arizona Historical Society museum has been open to visitors since 1963— and still features the barn and root cellar that serviced the hospital and County in the early 1900’s. The Museum houses over 10,000 artifacts including household items, clothing, tools, medical equipment, farm machinery, vehicles and more. You can see a 1929 steam locomotive and a pioneer cabin on the grounds; the annual Christmas exhibit features old toys, games and dolls. (928-774-6272. 2340 N Fort Valley Rd (HWY-180), Flagstaff, AZ 86001. Adjacent to Sechrist School; free admission on the first Saturday of each month.)

Plant lovers will appreciate a visit to one of the nation’s largest collections of high country wildflowers—The Arboretum at Flagstaff. The views of the San Francisco Peaks are incredible; hike the nature trail in Ponderosa Pine in this 200-acre botanical garden and nature preserve. There’s guided tours (11:00am or 1:00 pm) where you’ll learn about the natural history of the region and on weekend there are live birds of prey programs. Take a picnic and relax or saunter around the Arboretum gift shop for some unique mementos. (928-774-1442, 4001 S Woody Monument Rd, From downtown get on E Santa Fe Ave., turn right at I-40-BL/E Santa Fe Ave. and follow it west until it turns into Milton Ave./ Historic US 66 (I-40 BL). Follow Historic 66 west (2 mi) to S. Woody Mountain Rd. Turn left and go 3.6 miles to the Arboretum).

Nearby Flagstaff:
Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments
Just 900+ years old—an infant in geologic time—Sunset Crater Volcano is the youngest of the many volcanoes on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient Sinagua Indians actually witnessed the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano. There’s a “lava walk” daily from the Visitor Center that lasts about 45 minutes, plus summer and evening programs. Or, you can take a self-guided tour on the handicapped accessible Lava Flow Trail, that’s one mile long. 928-526-0502. From Flagstaff take U.S 89 north 12 miles; turn right on the Sunset Crater - Wupatki Loop Road, go 2 miles to the Sunset Crater Visitor Center. Open all year. One admission fee for Crater and Wupatki ruins.)

Continue on the Park’s loop road another 22 miles. Many settlement sites are visible and your “introduction” to Wapatki National Monument is awe-inspiring. This was the largest Native American pueblo in the Flagstaff area. Built by the Ancient Pueblo Peoples—the Sinagua, Cohonina, and Kayenta Anasazi—the pueblo’s population dramatically increased after the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater in the 11th century that displaced its inhabitants. Each settlement was constructed as a single building, sometimes with scores of rooms. The “Big House” (or Wupatki in the Hopi language) was the area’s largest structure at the time, 3 stories tall! The Monument also contains ruins identified as a ball court, similar to the courts found in Meso-America and in the Hohokam ruins of southern Arizona. The structures are marvelously well preserved and interesting to explore. If there’s time also visit the Lomaki, Nalakihu, and Citadel ruins off the loop; they’re located just before reaching Route 89 (which will return you to Flagstaff or take you north toward the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon or Bust
Whether you visit the Grand Canyon for an hour, a day, a week or a month you’ll come away with a profound sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of the canyon named Grand by ancient Hopis for a reason. The stats alone belie the enormity of the Canyon, preserved (thank goodness!) by President Theodore Roosevelt as one of America’s first national parks. Today the park contains over 1.2 million acres making it almost as big as the entire state of Delaware. The Canyon is 277 miles long, from 4-18 miles wide and up to one mile deep. It took over 6 million years to carve. The National Park serves as an ecological refuge, with relatively undisturbed remnants of dwindling ecosystems (such as boreal forest and desert riparian communities) still in tact. It is home to numerous rare, endemic (found only at Grand Canyon), and specially protected (threatened/endangered) plant and animal species. Over 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammalian, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found in the park. The California Condor, regarded as one of the rarest birds in the world. Is sometimes seen soaring overhead Grand Canyon Village and is enjoying a slow comeback from the brink of extension thanks to Park intervention and management. Click here to take on this exciting day-trip.