Beguiling Northern Arizona

It is good to combine business and pleasure when you can. Business is taking me this week to Flagstaff, Arizona, which is three time zones away from home and 6910 feet in altitude. Its altitude likely makes it one of the highest cities in the nation, if not the world. I could have arrived here this evening and attended just the business portion of the trip. It is a much better idea though to invite my wife to travel with me and arrive a few days early. We arrived last Friday, spend a dutiful Saturday with my wife’s mother and step father in Chandler (a city outside of Phoenix) then drive up to Flagstaff on Saturday night. With the Columbus Day Holiday I was able to turn a three day business trip into a weeklong trip west, with four days of vacation. Moreover, my employer paid for my airline fares. The Residence Inn here in Flagstaff was also gracious enough to extend our low business travel rate to my leisure days too. In short, this is something of a bargain mini-vacation.

Flagstaff in October was much different from Flagstaff in August 2001, which was the last time I was here. Actually, in 2001, we never quite made it into Flagstaff proper, so this was my first real encounter with the city. It is quite a change from its big sister city Phoenix two and a half hours by car to its south. We arrived to subzero temperatures and blustery winds. Apparently the management of the hotel turns sprinklers on at night even when the weather dips below freezing. Sunday morning thus revealed well-manicured lawns and sidewalks covered with ice.

The wind has not stopped blowing since we arrived. We are told that the temperature is well below normal too. Thankfully, we had the foresight to check the extended forecasts before we left. I was glad that I packed a jacket, a sweater, gloves and a winter cap. There was a hint of snow on the upper slopes of the nearby San Francisco Mountains, but it is unlikely we will see any precipitation this week.

Sunday we ventured south into Sedona. It is in the news because one of John McCain’s many homes, and arguably his principle residence, is located in Sedona. Sedona is about thirty miles south of Flagstaff. While in the mountains, it is considerably lower in altitude than Flagstaff. To get to Sedona from Flagstaff, you must drive down AZ-89A, which takes you via many twists and turns through the spectacular Oak Creek Canyon. Sedona itself seems an odd location for John McCain to call home. It feels more like Berkeley, California since it is hard to turn around without running into a shop selling New Age merchandise. It also resembles Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. because it seems impossible to find a parking space. While I am sure there are natives who live there, the local economy is all about marketing to the many tourists who pass through the valley. John McCain’s ranch must be far outside the city limits because the mountains are so close and so vertical that it is hard to imagine that there is space for any resident to have a ranch. Nonetheless, this odd town is where Sarah Palin was coached for her vice presidential debate. Its liberal values probably rubbed off on her, and affected her debate performance.

Sedona, while beautiful, held little appeal to me as a place to spend much time. We bought some touristy junk, ate some ice cream and felt we had seen enough. Of far more interest was humble Slide Rock State Park on AZ-89A where we spent a couple hours before returning to Flagstaff. The creek this time of year had a relatively low flow, and the temperatures may have been in the fifties, but it did not stop some crazy coeds from Northern Arizona University from jumping into the creek in their bikinis and sliding down its slippery sandstone rocks. The state park is small but charming and is framed by the surreally beautiful creek that bounds gently over its well weathered sandstone rocks. Small can be beautiful indeed.

Yesterday we took in some closer tourist attractions. Just a few miles from our hotel is Walnut Canyon National Monument. The canyon itself is relatively small, but a trail takes you into its bowels where you can discover cliff dwellings of the lost Sinagua tribe. For those who fear to tread up the two hundred some odd steps of the Island Trail, a shorter Rim Trail is easily accessible. While normally climbing steps is not a challenge, I found it to be challenging because the canyon is 6700 feet high. Consider yourself a hearty soul if you can make it from the base to the rim without an altitude break or two.

A sure hit near Flagstaff is Sunset Crater which can be found fifteen miles or so north of the city. The crater is part of the larger Sunset Crater National Monument. The volcano appears to be dormant, which is a good thing, given its proximity to Flagstaff, which did not exist when it last erupted in 1100. The visitor center can be skipped, but you should tarry a while at collapsed lava tube field a short hop past the visitors center. Nine hundred years later it is littered with large volcanic boulders from the eruption, which neither time, rain nor wind has eroded. Unlike Mount St. Helens, where life is rapidly reemerging, little has grown on the lava tube or along the sides of Sunset Crater, which are black with volcanic ash. Hiking to the top of the crater is not allowed, but across from the lava tube you are allowed to hike a half mile or so to the base of the crater, which looks very much like a giant sloping asphalt parking lot, but missing cars and lines.

As impressive as Sunset Crater is as a tourist destination, I think it pales in comparison with the Wupatki National Monument just to its north. Fortunately, the same road that takes you into Sunset Crater National Monument continues into the Wupatki National Monument. As you pass out of Sunset Crater, you are offered stunning vistas of The Painted Desert to its north. The highlight of the Wupatki National Monument is its visitors center, or more specifically the spectacular Pueblo Indian ruins behind it. The area provides a feeling of desolation that is hard to find in the continental United States. It would be an ideal place for stargazing, so far from city lights. It is hard to understand how the Pueblos managed to survive in such a dry location but presumably, there were small springs from a nearby aquifer that allowed their small communities to thrive. One only has to spend a few hours here to understand why Native Americans feel such a reverence for nature. They must have felt a sense of awe at the glorious scenery that enveloped them every day.

In the evening, we drove up to the Lowell Observatory, which sits on a small mountain overlooking Flagstaff. The observatory is now rather dated, as it does not possess any radio telescopes. For the casual stargazer though it is a compelling as well as a historical destination. (A mausoleum containing the remains of Percival Lowell sits next to the observatory with the twenty-four inch telescope.) Both day and night tours are available. We opted for the night tour. A few minor telescopes were set up allowing us views of the full moon as well as Jupiter and four of its moons. The smaller observatory at the top of the hill was trained on a double star in the constellation Cygnus. We had to wait in the dark in a long line on a cold and blustery night to see these stars, but it was worth the wait. It was a cold but pleasant way to spend a few hours marveling at our amazing universe.

Today a group of us drove up to the south rim of The Grand Canyon. A spectacular blue sky showed us the canyon at its near best. We had visited it back in 2001 but only briefly. Today’s visit with a number of the people I will be working with this week was equally brief, but was long enough for a number of us to venture a half-mile or so down Bright Angel Trail. We found a ram and some mountain goats precariously surviving on the rim of the canyon. We also watched numerous mule trains pass us by on the trail. A group of ravens entertained us from a tree on the canyon rim. I would still love to hike this trail. My sense of vertigo was not as bad as I thought it would be on the trail. I would need a few practice hikes though before trying to tackle the 27-mile hike from the rim to the Colorado River, and then its much more arduous ascent.

Northern Arizona remains a beguiling tourist destination. The Grand Canyon is its crown jewel, but traveling to Northern Arizona and only seeing The Grand Canyon is to get but a taste of the area’s natural richness. A proper vacation in Northern Arizona demands a week or more.

As for Flagstaff, while I have travelled through it a few times, I have yet to explore it beyond a few of its restaurants. I hope that by the end of the week I will have seen enough of it to give it a proper assessment.

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