My travels got off to a good start this year. I had a work thing in Phoenix this week and as I usually try to do, I managed to take an extra couple of days for myself.
I didn't really have much of a plan. This is a part of the world I really just enjoy exploring and following my nose but I wanted to see Sedona, a Saguaro and spend a night in Flagstaff - possibly taking in Meteor Crater which is an hour East of there.
Alas, mother nature had other plans. Saturday night, a large Winter storm blew through the Flagstaff area dumping several inches of snow. Being in a rental car with only all-season tyres made my decision easy - get back to lower elevation before midnight on Saturday. So that's what I did.
I'm no stranger to long driving days and the distances out West, but this was a pretty big day even for me. I left the hotel in Phoenix around Sunrise on Saturday and headed North via the Tonto National Forest.
At this point I didn't really have much of a plan other than to get to Sedona without taking I-17. After a couple of hours of desert views following Highway 87 towards Pine, I came across Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. What a lovely little hidden gem.
A short but steep hike down into the gorge permitted access the river bed. From there, you could scramble your way along, down and through underneath the giant arch above your head. It was rather icy as I got nearer the waterfall area so I elected to turn back but this place was well worth the $7 state park admission fee.
I found the structures of the rock particularly interesting. Almost like a drinking straw. The rock almost look like tree roots or capillaries in places. Really unique and not something I've seen before.
From here I continued over the pass via Pine and Strawberry dropping down into Camp Verde, home of the Montezuma Castle. I neglected to visit the Castle itself deciding to save that for another trip, perhaps with company.
There was snow at the higher elevations and I even made direct eye contact with a Wolf who ran across the road in front of me. That was a cool moment.
Sedona next. I took the Red Rock Scenic Highway AZ-179 and it has to be one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the country. Short, and crowded. But beautiful none the less.
It was about this point in the day I checked the weather forecast and noted the winter storm warning. I sat and thought about what to do over a Chicken Salad sandwich lunch in Sedona at Wildflower and decided I would have a better time overall if I was attempting to drive the 2 hours back from Flagstaff tomorrow if I headed South to Phoenix tonight.
With that decision made, I relaxed the pace a little. I headed up Airport Mesa for a fabulous view of the town down below. Seriously, who thought to put an aiport on top of the hill like that? It's so cool!
Parking at the airport was $3 (I used the change from my $7 state park visit earlier in the day) which for the length of time I spent up there was outrageously expensive. But I get the feeling that Sedona is that kind of place.
As a place, it reminded me a lot of Keswick in the British Lake District. A honeypot tourist town that is a victim of it's own success. It was busy on a cold Saturday in January, one can only imagine how unpleasantly overcrowded it will be in the summer months.
After chatting to the family back home for a little while I had another decision to make. Where to go next? I didn't really feel in the mood for another hike so I was considering whether to head for Meteor Crater about an hour east of Flagstaff, or the Grand Canyon at sunset. I just about technically had time to do both if nothing went wrong but in the end, I elected to go... well, can you guess?
Words cannot describe how cold the icy wind whipping up the canyon walls was. I had to take short bites at being out of the car to stop my fingers from falling off. The windchill must have been well below freezing and that is considering that the ambient air temp wasn't far off!
Having visited twice before in the summer, it was really interesting to see snow on the ground. It was also surprising how busy it was given the time of year and weather.
After sunset, I had a 3.5hr drive back to Phoenix down I-17. Long, and boring in the dark but that's just how it goes out West! I should clarify, I already had a hotel room booked in Phoenix that night so that's why I went all the way back. Plus, I had a 3pm flight home and didn't fancy having to rush - when it comes to airports removing any source of friction or stress is the name of the game!
The following morning I woke up and checked the traffic cameras for I-40 in Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon entrance stations. Not only had they closed the South Rim road due to snow, but portions of the Interstate were down to a lane at best.
Feeling good about my previous days decision, I elected to head to the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix's Papago Park. But first, my rental car had developed a flat tyre overnight and the hotel valet (this hotel was valet park only) had kindly pumped it back up for me - it was a slow puncture as I made back to the airport just fine.
There's something about Desert plants that I really like. I think I like Cacti more than I realised! In particular on my wish list was to get up close and personal with a Saguaro cactus. They are more like trees than I had appreciated and quite a good bit taller too.
The gardens had a really marvellous array of all sorts of vegetation - as one might expect! But the fun here was that it was raining! In the desert! Possibly my absolute favourite thing was how the staff protect some of the more delicate prongs from frost (which was due that night).
I spent about 2.5 hours at the gardens just slowly mooching about at an entirely less than usual speed for an Alex. But had a really pleasant time nonetheless. Highly recommend a visit here if you're ever in Phoenix.
And with that it was time to head home - but not before finding a local Taqueria to have a truly delicious $11 Carne Asada plate.
With my entertainment locked and loaded, a short 3hr 20 min flight back to NC awaited. And of course being reunited with the family.