Wide open space to find your place on an Arizona road trip – Calgary Herald

Author of the article:

Michele Jarvie

Horseback riding in the wildness of Monument Valley. Courtesy Arizona Tourism ORG XMIT: Transmitted via CleanPix Corp. Asset Management System for pictures, photos and PR marketing files
Horseback riding in the wildness of Monument Valley. Courtesy Arizona Tourism ORG XMIT: Transmitted via CleanPix Corp. Asset Management System for pictures, photos and PR marketing files Photo by AOT /AOT

It’s arguably the most iconic highway in the United States. But motoring down historic Route 66 isn’t the only sightseeing road trip you can do in Arizona. Every corner of this state has things to see and do, and ways to recreate. And most importantly, in this era of COVID, you can experience it all without another soul around for miles.

“One of the things that makes Arizona a great destination is that we have both the benefit of a major metropolitan area in Phoenix which allows air travel … and once here, most of Arizona is very rural and has a lot of public lands set aside. So getting outside into some really unique recreational settings is easy to do,” said Jon Colby, experiences regional manager southwest for REI, a national adventure organization. “You can find yourself alone in some of our amazing landscapes with a little planning and knowing what you’re looking for.”

The pandemic has severely impacted Arizona’s tourism. Airport traffic is down 55 per cent year to date while state park visitation is down 16 per cent. This is a state that before COVID in 2019 marked 6.1 million international visitors who spent $4.6 billion.

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“Canadians are a major part of our business… and we’ve missed them,” said Colby.

When the land border opens or when Canadians feel comfortable flying there, Arizona presents many opportunities for socially distanced travel in the great outdoors. For example, Aravaipa Canyon is one of the most beautiful canyons in Arizona, and only 50 people are allowed in each day, so it’s possible you won’t come across anyone else. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge attracts people for the same reason. It’s very rugged, with not much infrastructure and few visitors.

To really get away from it all, get off the main highways onto the backroads of the state. There are many secondary routes with breathtaking scenery and quirky history, such as centuries-old cliff dwellings, mining ghost towns, and still thriving cowboy bars. There are also three distinct wine-growing regions beckoning off the beaten path. Just be aware that some of these routes pass through tribal lands, which presently are closed to travel due to the pandemic.

The hard part will be deciding where to go. There are 30 state parks, six national forests, 11 U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges, dozens of national monuments and wildlife areas, and has more certified Dark Sky Places for stargazing than any other state.

Colby suggests visitors narrow down the experience they want, whether it’s a road trip to see iconic landmarks or a more active trip off pavement.

“You really need to ask yourself what do I want my vacation to include. If it’s, ‘I really need to find myself where there’s the fewest people around me possible,’ then you take those iconic destinations off your list and think about where are some of those places off the beaten path and Arizona has plenty of those.”

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Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Hiking at Chiricahua National Monument will take you through multiple landscapes. Courtesy, Mark W. Lipczynski / Arizona Office of Tourism
Hiking at Chiricahua National Monument will take you through multiple landscapes. Courtesy, Mark W. Lipczynski / Arizona Office of Tourism Photo by Photographer: Mark W. Lipczynski /Mark W. Lipczynski

Hiking

You don’t have to go far from civilization to immerse yourself in a stunning landscape. The Superstition Mountains lie just east of Phoenix but are a world away. The Siphon Trail is a good bet for those who are fit as it’s a strenuous, five-hour round-trip to Flatiron Peak.

A much more doable hike for the average joe is in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, on the west edge of the state bordering California. The Palm Canyon Trail is a mile-long stroll through the desert. You’re pretty much on your own out here north of Yuma. This area does attract serious climbers though to Signal Peak, Ten Ewe Mountain and Castle Dome Peak.

The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness area north of Tucson is another good bet for isolated backpacking. The area is a great mix of all of what makes Arizona so unique: canyons, cliffs, caves, deserts and rivers. The entire canyon hike, which can be accessed at either end, takes 10 hours but take your time for side forays.

Two well-known areas that still have plenty of open space to explore on foot or horseback are Monument Valley and Chiricahua National Monument. Monument Valley on the northeast Arizona-Utah border is one of the most photographed places on earth and the site of many a western film shoot due to its towering sandstone buttes. Chiricahua is in the extreme southeast near the border of New Mexico. Hiking here will take you from massive rock formations through pine forests to the Sonoran desert.

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Biking in the Grand Canyon. Courtesy, Arizona Office of Tourism
Biking in the Grand Canyon. Courtesy, Arizona Office of Tourism jpg

Biking

With so many national forests, there are dozens of options for both on and off-road cycling. For mountain bikers, the pinnacle might just be the Rainbow Rim Trail at the Grand Canyon. Located on the north rim in Kaibab National Forest, it’s the only single-track in the canyon and runs for about 20 miles through meadows and forests. Arizona Outback Adventures recommends bikers acclimatize first however as the route stays between 7,500 and 9,000 feet elevation.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument way south in the Sonoran desert bordering Mexico. This is a UNESCO biosphere reserve that attracts few visitors. So you’ll have the roads to yourself. Just be aware that bikes are not allowed on hiking trails or after dark.

Road riders will want to head for Mount Lemmon, an hour north of Tucson. At 9,000-feet-high, it’s the tallest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and attracts both cyclists and longboarders. But it’s a hard climb of almost 7,000 feet of twists and turns although the incredibly fast downhill makes it worthwhile for many. Just be aware that you’ll be sharing the road with motoring sightseers and living-large longboarders.

Kayaking the back waterways of Lake Havasu. Courtesy, Arizona Office of Tourism Tourism
Kayaking the back waterways of Lake Havasu. Courtesy, Arizona Office of Tourism Tourism Photo by Kathy Sickles /Kathy Sickles

Paddling

Depending on whether you want a lazy float trip, a thrilling whitewater adventure or something in between, there are options in Arizona.

On the California border, Lake Havasu is adventure central with all manner of watersports, offroading, cycling, hiking and golfing. It’s one of the more popular areas of Arizona but with 400 miles of coastline and 40 miles of navigable waterways, you can still find space of your own.

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Another popular lake lies across the border in Utah. Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir, attracts upwards of two million people a year. But follow the Colorado River south to Lees Ferry and you’ll find exception kayaking through the Grand Canyon. Various outfitters run trips here for those too inexperienced to navigate on their own.

The global pandemic has changed the way people view travel. For many, it’s now about really experiencing a place, and finding space for yourself. There is no better way to do that than exploring outdoors. Once you feel safe to go, Arizona stacks up well with options in every corner of the state.

Know before you go:

Stay up to date with COVID travel information at https://tourism.az.gov/covid-19-updates-2/ In 2020, the United States, Canada and Mexico announced a temporary restriction of all non-essential land travel across shared borders. The restriction is still in effect until May 21, 2021.

Check out Visit Arizona or the Arizona Office of Tourism for easy-to-digest advice and recommendations.

The REI Arizona Adventure Centre has experienced guides and rental gear.

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