The sound of sun-scorched Arizona soil crunching beneath your boots is a unique one. There’s just something about how millennium of sweltering heat, clay, sandstone, and tumbleweed roots come together to give it that special sound. It’s no coincidence that when the time comes to prepare for the next mission to Mars or shoot a space odyssey all directors turn to the same part of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah for testing and filming…
When I left you last I’d just wrapped up a delightful evening exploring Flagstaff and begun my first American Hostel experience. The following morning I woke up early, washed up and made a quick call to connect with Noelle who was the friend of a friend I’d met the evening before and was eager to join me on my day-long road trip through Northern Arizona. We connected around 10:30 and by 11 had piled into the car and were trailblazing northward.
The first 30 minutes of the drive were pleasant and cool along old route 89A. It took us through rural Flagstaff, pine forest and open meadows before cresting a small hill which opened up onto Arizona’s barren flatland’s. The view before us stretched out and away for miles with the straight black line of the road cutting a ruler-perfect line down the sloping hill and out toward the horizon. From our vantage point it was easy to identify where the pine transitioned into juniper, the juniper forest into grass lands with an occasional tree and then the naked rocky terrain that springs to mind when one imagines Arizona.
As we said goodbye to most things green we found a small paved road which forked out from a tiny town (Gray Mountain) with a restaurant, gas station and 4 buildings nestled along along the highway. Eager to get out into the countryside we followed the road as far as we could – it eventually turned to dirt before dead ending at a power relay station. As we backtracked we parked (essentially in the middle of the road) and got out to take in the natural beauty and sheer contrast of the location. The desert that surrounded us was brown and lacked any consistent form of ground vegetation, though it was periodically dotted by beautiful blooming cactus blossoms or small wildflowers with muted orange and yellow flowers. The barren desert landscape stretched out, largely flat, but was broken by the snow covered peaks of the San Francisco Mountains which surround Flagstaff.
The small town of Cameron is located just under 60 miles north of Flagstaff and tends to stand out on maps for two main reasons. The first and best known of which, is that it sits at the junction of Highway 89 and Highway 64, which splits off from 89 and strikes west towards the Grand Canyon. The town’s second claim to fame is the Cameron Trading post: a sprawling trinket, food and hotel complex that sits overlooking the Little Colorado’s dusty riverbed.
While the trading post itself has never had much draw for me – it mostly consists of the usual over-priced south western toy tomahawks, sand paintings and weird leather cowboy memorabilia – the old bridge built in 1911 has always captured my imagination. There’s something about the basic design, when combined with the classic suspension architecture that oozes personality.
The old one lane bridge, which has been closed to public traffic for years, turns 100 next year. Though old and no longer used by automotive/foot traffic the bridge is in good condition and still supports a large north/south pipeline. It offers an interesting contrast between new and old, as it stands immediately parallel to a more modern bridge which supports 89A and serves as one of Arizona’s main North/South arteries.
Painted Desert/Tuba City
Some 30 miles North of Cameron is Tuba City. Though a relatively short geographic distance, the geological variation is spectacular. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that those 30 minutes, took us close to two hours as we regularly paused along the side of the road to explore.
Our first stop was at a series of incredible bald hills. The hills, if they can be called that, varied in size and looked more on par with giant anthills than the usual small hill. Roughly the size of a house, they were completely devoid of any vegetation. What limited vegetation could be found was usually in the form of small plants clustered along small ditches carved out by rain and erosion.
Unfortunately, the area we stopped at had been used somewhat recently by ATVers for off road fun which left the hills heavily scarred. The ground itself had an odd consistency. The dirt was cracked and obviously dry, but also extremely fine and soft. It left me feeling like I was walking across the surface of the moon, though its appearance had far more in common with mars. The dirt itself was a wide mixture of colors, from reds and browns to deep grays. It’s truly an incredible site and well worth exploring. Especially if you’re the type who has always dreamed of visiting Mars or the Moon.
Our next stop wasn’t technically in the painted desert, which is further to the North East, but it did offer an incredible view of gorgeous desert landscapes that looked as though they’d been painted in watercolor.
Located just outside Tuba City – these hills were absolutely stunning. With each layer a different color they offer a desert rainbow for those who pause long enough to take them in. In many places the sandstone rocks have been partially eroded creating small sand dunes, which only serve as a further reminder of just how arid and difficult the natural environment is.
As we paused for a few photos, we were greeted by one of those a-typical sights that you only stumble across while traveling. As we stood sweating, roasting in the desert heat a heavily laden Asian man in what appeared to be his 30’s passed us. In and of itself not all that noteworthy right? Wrong, this guy was apparently rollerblading his way across the state, loaded with a heavy backpack, wearing two roller-blades, and with a modified hockey stick for balance (and perhaps snakes). Needless to say, the guy oozed a mixture of badass and Buddhist monk.
From there it was up a hill, across jagged, rocky terrain and into Tuba City. A small-ish town with a few gas stations, fast food joints and a dive restaurant or two. We ended up at a small sandwich shop which looked busy and had mediocre food. The service was slow and ambling, though that may have been as much perception as reality given our famished state.
Time was slipping by, and we elected to stop our northward push and begin making our way back towards Cameron, where we’d split off and make a B-Line for the Grand Canyon in the hope of reaching it in time for sunset. First, however, it was time for another quick break. This time we found a small pull off atop a decent sized shelf, which offered a Lion King esque view of the desert valley below us.
The view was incredible and the lack of vegetation served as a stark contrast against the pine trees and lush greenery that we’d started the morning out with.
We took a few minutes to enjoy the view, paused to snap a few silly snapshots jumping off the cliff or taking in the scenery and then jumped back in the car. We were drenched in sweat and eager to escape the sun scorched desert.
Where next? Cameron, a quick pause along the Little Colorado and then the Grand Canyon to take in a spectacular sunset. The photos from that leg of the trip are spectacular, so stay tuned for my next post!
I’ve made no secret of my general lack of passion for the desert so this series of posts will no doubt surprise some of you. Based out of Scottsdale, AZ most of the year, I don’t do a lot of hiking and seldom write posts dedicated to exploring my own back yard. We’ve got a lot of different types of cactus, cat’s claw, dirt, rocks, rattle snakes and scorpions. None of which really reaches out and excites me – a person drawn to running rivers, green mountains, moss covered rocks or sandy beaches and open ocean.
That said, A three day weekend presented itself and I decided to give Northern Arizona a chance while checking out my first US Hostel. I’ve been in Arizona for a long time. Nine years in Sedona, four years in Prescott and another seven plus in various cities around the valley. Prescott holds a special place in my heart for its fun atmosphere, history and spunky nature.
On the other hand Sedona and I have just recently begun to get re-acquainted. After leaving the city at the end of middle school we got a much-welcomed divorce. I lost any/all appreciation for the area’s natural beauty and was at constant odds with the never ending onslaught of star children, boredom, grumpy retired corporate executives and a prolific assortment of people that were…well…quite often batshit insane.
I share this with you because it underscores the often overlooked value of changing your perspective and exploring your own back yard through the eyes of a tourist. Over the years I’ve probably made 50+ trips to Flagstaff to shop or visit College friends. I can navigate my way around, am familiar with some of the popular watering holes and can readily recite local attractions. Despite all that I hadn’t ever truly seen or experienced Flagstaff until this past weekend. A realization which has only just begun to register.
The premise was simple: Drive north. Try a hostel. Be a tourist. Have fun.
I had 3 days, a hand sketched map of Northern Arizona with a few significant points of interest marked and a $19 online booking for 1 night at the Grand Canyon International Hostel in Flagstaff, AZ. From there I’d spend a day exploring the far northern reaches of the state before returning to Flagstaff where I’d crash on and old College buddy’s sofa before heading back to Phoenix the following morning.
The trip started out well. Shortly after mid-day on Saturday I packed up the car, grabbed a water, wiped the sweat from my eyebrows and cranked up the AC. I was off. Me, myself, my thoughts, and an adventure.
The drive north was great. No where near the Memorial Day Weekend traffic I expected. The weather was beautiful – sunny blue skies with a slight breeze. The Scottsdale/Flagstaff leg of the trip on the I-17 was old hat, but I tried to push myself to see it differently…to explore it as a new adventure and experience. The end result was a very pleasant drive which left me drifting along the interstate lost in my own thoughts and the hypnotic feel that goes with a long drive down open roads on a beautiful day.
I reached the city around 4:30 in the afternoon. Scratched my head and looked at my poorly drawn directions before setting off to find the hostel. Before long I found San Francisco Street and made a right turn. The road was blocked by a passing train which caught my attention and drew most of my focus. As I sat filming the train from my diver’s side window a shirtless biker paused briefly. I raised an eyebrow to which he quickly responded, “Dude, you know this street is one way, right?” I quickly muttered a curse about one way streets in Arizona, thanked him for the heads up and flipped a hasty U turn more than a little grateful that the train was still racing by blocking the wall of traffic which no doubt waited patiently on the other side. I was a bit flustered and couldn’t help but laugh heartily at myself. You don’t find many one-way streets in Arizona and yet I’d not only found one but turned down it. It would appear I was working overtime to play the part of the tourist.
After a bit of backtracking I quickly overcame the challenges posed by the one-way streets and found the right cross streets for my hostel. Parked and made my way inside. The guy at the front desk was friendly, checked my reservation and made a face. My heart skipped a beat as he muttered “Oops, looks like there was an issue with your reservation” he paused briefly, then looked up and smiled, “No worries though, your reservation has been transferred over to Dubeau hostel down the street” I grimaced, not sure what to expect and thanked him for the directions.
It turned out that the Dubeau hostel was right around the corner and a great place with a fun vibe. I’ve done dozens of hostels in Europe and Central America but had no idea what to expect in an American hostel. Would they be social? Would they be clean? Would they be youth oriented? As it turns out, the answer is yes. It would seem that hostels are hostels no matter what country you find yourself in.
The hostel was an old converted motel in the shape of a U. The rooms stretched back around a parking area while the bottom of the U consisted of the main office, two kitchens, a dining room, common reading area and activities room with free pool, table soccer and several tables.
I was given a quick tour, then sent out to find my room. The room was nice and clean. It had an en-suite bathroom, and 4 bunk-beds. I quickly chose one of the remaining free ones, and got acquainted with a Brazilian guy who was unwinding after a long bus ride from Canada. We talked about Flagstaff, things to do and see and a bit about Brazil before I set out to explore the town.
The hostel has a great vintage feel, driven home by a large sign mounted on top of what looks like an old radio tower in the front yard. It adds a very western feel which seeps into the surrounding area. The streets south of the railroad tracks between Beaver Street and San Francisco Street are alive with small shops, dive bars and old-nearly abandoned warehouses, accommodation, and apartments. Buildings are either decorated with pealing paint and old sun faded signs or vibrant wall art/graffiti which brightens up alleyways and puts a near constant smile on your face.
As I wandered through the area I found myself pausing regularly to take in entertaining little nuances. Perhaps the most entertaining was an old beat up tourism sign on what looked to be a small abandoned building framed perfectly by a sign for the local strip-club which was across a side street and right next door. The end result was a comical contrast of clashing cultures which perfectly reflects Flagstaff’s eclectic culture.
Before long I found myself crossing back over the tracks and into the city’s main downtown area. A mixture of outdoor shops, restaurants, bars, new age shops, art galleries and coffee shops the whole area is alive with foot traffic and bustling with energy. People are friendly and the sound of an outdoor music performance could be heard drifting from a public square near by. Truly, it’s a great part of town and one that I’d never seen or experienced during previous trips. The area which also holds the town’s bar district (similar to Whiskey Row in Prescott and Mill Avenue in Tempe) was something I’d only seen at night and often only in passing.
From there it was back to the hostel where I quickly struck up a conversation with two guys from the UK – one from England, one from Scotland. As it turned out there were 6 of them, all Royal Airforce/Military on a two week hiking trip out from their military base on Cypress. We quickly hit it off and talked travel, Arizona, US and Mexican food before joining a game of horse shoes (a first for them) with two girls from Durango. As we continued to get acquainted over a beer or two a French Canadian gal joined the group, along with two Germany girls and the rest of the Brits. We shared stories, got acquainted and then got several raging games of table football going before playing some music. Shortly after 11PM I geared up to head to the bars where I was scheduled to meet up with an old College friend. I set off with one of the guys from Scotland in tow. Before long we’d found our way into one of the local watering holes and set to enjoying the local bar scene.
A while later my friend arrived with several of his girlfriends. We got acquainted and continued telling funny stories while laughing heartily as the others tried to decipher Paddy’s thick Glasgow accent. As the night wound down, I shared my plans for the following day with Noelle – one of Ryan’s friends. She expressed interest in the trip and I invited her to join. To my surprise (Given we’d just met and since I’d made it clear I didn’t have a set schedule) she jumped at the opportunity. We set a time to connect in the and then said our goodbyes before heading back to the hostel to call it a night.
Stay tuned to part II of this post for photos and stories of the wild desert north of Flagstaff, Tuba City, Painted Desert, a Man on Rollerblades and Sunset at the Grand Canyon!