Desert Companion

Arizona highways

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Hotel St. Michael in Prescott
Greg Thilmont

Hotel St. Michael in Prescott

There’s still time for one more summer adventure — make it a road trip to Prescott, Arizona and beyond

Hello, August! Time to squeeze in that last summer road trip. And we have just the drive. A mere five hours away there’s a highway route that mixes forests and rangeland with a Victorian-era city, a nearly Gothic-looking mining town, pre-Columbian ruins and a ranching settlement brimming with wineries. There’s even a spectacular, quirky stop amidst sandstone spires at the end. This is the loop that unites Prescott, Jerome, Cottonwood and eventually Sedona. So let’s take off for Arizona! 

 

SOUTHEAST BOUND

Head past Hoover Dam on Highway 93, where the view is all spindly, Mojave-dry yuccas. Turn east onto Interstate 40 at Kingman. Soon, the foliage changes. The ground becomes grassy and closely dotted with rounded, gray-green junipers. In an hour and a half, the pyramidal peaks of the lofty, volcanic San Francisco Mountains rise in the distance. Veer right at the tiny waypoint of Ash Fork. You’re definitely not in Nevada anymore.

Cruise south along Route 89 through an undulating, mostly uninhabited landscape for 50 miles. Vistas of serrated ridges and buttes are far on the horizon in every direction. More junipers abound. After a stretch of suburban farmland, wind through a granite canyon and drop into Prescott proper. It’s a leafy place, filled with deciduous and evergreen trees throughout. It’s completely un-Mojavean. 

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The casually driving road-tripper will probably pull in to Prescott in the afternoon. At 5,300 feet, the August daytime clime might reach the 90s, but the area cools down quickly in the evening. It’s time to secure some lodging. With a regional population of 250,000 in a wide circumference, Prescott has plenty of nice, mid-level hotels of the Hampton Inn and SpringHill Suites variety. There’s also the upscale Prescott Resort on a hilltop. But it’s the town’s vintage accommodations that make for more memorable stays.

You can’t miss the old-timey Hotel St. Michael in the heart of town. A grand stairwell leads up to the second level, as does a gated, somewhat creaky elevator. Stays come with complimentary breakfast in the full-service Bistro St. Michael: The morning after my June overnighter, I ordered a substantial plate of cooked-to-order sunny-side-up eggs, thick ham steak, savory house potatoes and sourdough toast with coffee. Very filling.

The Hassayampa Inn, just up Gurley Street, is gorgeous from its four-story, red-bricked exterior to its grand foyer. Fans of classic national-park hotels like the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar and the Zion Lodge will appreciate the lobby’s landscape murals, tiled fireplace, chandeliers and exposed-wood ceiling. Rooms are well-appointed in a comfortable, Western-style décor. Suites are available.

For the hungry, the Hassayampa houses the elegant, Art Deco-decorated Peacock Dining Room. There’s also a compact, Art Nouveau-inspired side lounge. It’s beautiful and would be crammed with drinkers every night if it were in Vegas. It’s that cool. During my visit, I sipped on a splendid Perfect Manhattan. The cocktail’s lemon twist and cherry garnishes complemented the room’s swirling woodwork and low-glowing glass panels.

More bedding can be found in the Hotel Vendome’s 20 rooms. Like the Hassayampa and the St. Michael, it’s rumored to be haunted. 

Prescott’s historic downtown is something of a time warp back to the 1880s, when it was incorporated. In its early frontier days, Prescott served twice as Arizona’s territorial capital. In the park-like town square, the colonnaded Yavapai County Courthouse is picture-perfect Americana. It’s downright Midwestern, in fact. Along Montezuma Street, Whiskey Row is all woolly with Wild West nostalgia. This is where buckaroos, barkeeps, preachers, politicians, lawmen, ladies of the evening and other fine folk all did business of every variety. Today, it’s lined with Southwestern curio emporiums, snack shops and numerous bars, all tourist-forward.

For history buffs, Prescott has a trio of collections. The Phippen Museum specializes in Western art. The Smoki Museum focuses on Native American culture. The Sharlot Hall Museum encompasses centuries of Central Arizona’s past.

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Observation deck in Sedona
Greg Thilmont

Observation deck in Sedona

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Mingus Mountain, near Jerome
Greg Thilmont

Mingus Mountain, near Jerome

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The Palace restaurant in Prescott
Greg Thilmont

The Palace restaurant in Prescott

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Whiskey Row, also in Prescott
Greg Thilmont

Whiskey Row, also in Prescott

A number of lively, locally owned shops fill the Bashford Courts Atrium Mall across from the courthouse, including The Raven, a stylish stationery vendor and the extensive — and aromatic — Spice Traveler. Boutiques also line adjacent Cortez Street.

 Hankering to chest-push through swinging doors like a tough-as-nails sheriff? Well, The Palace is the watering hole of your Zane Grey fantasies. Touted as the oldest operating saloon in the state, it has significant taxidermy overlooking the long, ornate bar. The food is quality, from the nightly prime rib entrée to chicken wings.

Back at Bashford Courts, there’s plenty to eat and drink, too. Prescott Brewing Company has vats of frosty beverage and hot pub food, from pizza to fajitas. In the basement, Prescott has a boozy leg-up on Nevada: Superstition Meadery. In huge glass jugs, the establishment ferments honey into inventive vintages. I sampled a half-dozen 1-ounce snifters in styles ranging from Champagne Brut-tart to brandy-sweet. The “honey wines” are individually flavored with various ingredients such as Spanish saffron, Tahitian vanilla beans, coriander and marionberries. Behind Whiskey Row, in the Old Firehouse Plaza, grab gourmet burgers at The Hungry Monk. Nearby, the arty Wild Iris Coffee House can fill your espresso needs.

 

PICTURESQUE JEROME

Jerome is your next stop. Leaving Prescott via switch-backed State Route 89A over Mingus Mountain, this substantial “ghost town” suddenly appears around a blind corner. Built mountainside, it’s as if a section of late 19th-century San Francisco had been plopped down in the high desert. Its twisty streets are dotted with brick buildings galore from copper-mining heydays of yore.

The original town, which once had a population pushing 15,000, slumped off after the Great Depression and World War II to a few hundred. These days, some five hundred people live in Jerome. But it’s packed with visitors ambling down its crimped sidewalks. It’s nearly medieval. Restored structures house galleries, restaurants and shops. Step into the prismatic Nelly Bly, which specializes in kaleidoscopes, or pick up a case of Chenin blanc at Caduceus Cellars, a winery owned by avant-garde rocker Maynard James Keenan. Lodgings include The Surgeon’s House, a bed and breakfast; the sizable Jerome Grand Hotel; and the quaint Hotel Conner.

One of the main activities in Jerome, besides taking pictures of stacked-up buildings and the non-Euclidian street layout, is looking out over the wide Verde Valley that spreads to the north. Fantastic views are to be had at Jerome State Historic Park. It’s an enormous mansion that occupies a bluff of its own.

Leaving Jerome, venture down into the Verde Valley. Your first stop is at Tuzigoot National Monument. Above a bend in the Verde River, pueblo peoples known as the Sinagua built a ridgetop settlement. Its stony, desolate walls and foundations stand sentinel over modern ranches and subdivisions.

Next up is Cottonwood, with its perfectly linear Main Street. Many of its old town buildings could have been backdrops for The Rifleman. More than a few are now tasting rooms, such as Pillsbury Wine Company. The watered landscape around the once-and-still cowboy town is dotted with vineyards. One completely modern and worthwhile stop is wood-fired Pizzeria Bocce. It has a namesake bocce court off its back patio for playing the venerable precursor to bowling.

After Cottonwood, the highway soon approaches the Mogollon Rim, an escarpment rising some 3,000 feet in the air. The trees of the Prescott National Forest begin to envelop the landscape. Sandstone cliffs with rusty colors from peach to orange seem to leap upward. Welcome to Sedona.

 

BRING YOUR CHAKRAS

Geologically, Sedona is an echo of Red Rock Canyon multiplied with slices of Utah’s Canyonlands. Culturally, it goes for a funky, Santa Fe-ish resort vibe. There are architectural gems like the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which rises from a ruddy sandstone cleft. The Tlaquepaqe Arts & Craft Village is a hive of memento-buying frenzy in an Old Mexico-themed complex.

Of course, New Age esoterica is big business. You can hire a shaman, get your chakras astrally cleansed at a cosmic “vortex” on a mesa or attempt to commune with UFOs. Uptown Sedona is not unlike the Strip, however, with its full-on tourist economy of timeshare-hawkers, jeep-tour booths and hot-air balloon outfitters. There are also psychic tchotchkes for sale in nearly every business.

For something more down-to-earth, pull up a chair at the Canyon Breeze restaurant’s wide patio overlooking Oak Creek. Order a refreshment and peer through a mounted viewfinder for an up-close scan of multihued palisades. You don’t even have to add a quarter for a telescopically sublime scene. Sedona is easily one of the most beautiful settings anywhere.

Whether you stay overnight in Sedona (bring lots of money!) or need to move on to home, there’s one more amazing treat on this venture: Oak Creek Canyon, which begins just past the town’s northeast edge. It’s a like a miniature, jungle-filled Grand Canyon or a sere West Virginia gorge somehow transported beyond the 100th meridian. It’s a 13-mile, side-winding passageway that takes up the better part of a breathtaking hour.

Eventually, the highway emerges above Oak Creek Canyon’s magnificently eroded walls onto a Ponderosa pine-dense plateau south of Flagstaff. When the route meets Interstate 40 in 17 miles, turn left. Alas, Clark County is just down the road a stretch ... this fantastic but nearby and easy excursion is approaching its end. 

 

Stay, do, eat

Hit these arizona hot spots

Prescott

Prescott Resort — prescottresort.com

St. Michael Hotel — stmichaelhotel.com

Hassayampa  — hassayampainn.com

Hotel Vendome —  vendomehotel.com

Whiskey Row —  whiskeyrow.us

Bashford Courts —  bashfordcourts.com

Old Firehouse Plaza —  oldfirehouseplaza.com

Phippen Art Museum —  phippenartmuseum.org

Smoki Museum —  smokimuseum.org

Sharlot Hall Museum  — sharlot.org

The Palace  — historicpalace.com

Prescott Brewing Co.  — prescottbrewingcompany.com

Superstition Meadery  — superstitionmeadery.com 

Wild Iris Coffee  — wildiriscoffee.com

 

Jerome

Nellie Bly  — nellieblyscopes.com

Caduceus Cellars  — caduceus.org

Surgeon’s House bed & breakfast  — surgeonshouse.com

Jerome Grand Hotel  — jeromegrandhotel.net

Hotel Connor  — connorhotel.com

Tuzigoot National Monument  — nps.gov/tuzi

 

Cottonwood 

Pillsbury Wine Company  — pillsburywine.com

Pizzeria Bocce  — boccecottonwood.com

 

Sedona

Chapel of the Holy Cross  — chapeloftheholycross.com

Tlaquepaqe Arts & Craft Village  —  tlaq.com

Canyon Breeze  — restaurant canyon-breeze.com

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