Last month, I took a road trip out West with my good friend Zoe, a first-timer in the camping arts. Trading in clogged Manhattan streets for nature, open skies, and some quality campfire vibes, we hopped on a plane to Phoenix.
Now, before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you a few things I’ve found out about Phoenix in June:
- You need a pair of oven mitts in the car at all times, because Arizona steering wheels can inflict second degree burns. And…seat sweat is a very real thing. (o_o)
- The Arizona sun is a different sun. It’s bigger, brighter, hotter, and will unceremoniously zap any wisp of cloud that tries to block it out.
- No matter how much the locals like to brag about the “dry heat,” there can NEVER be enough A/C.
If you couldn’t already tell, I don’t do well in the heat. My friend Zoe, on the other hand, loves it. I’m melting into a puddle, and that girl barely sweats.
But that was neither here nor there. We were about to embark on one of those classic American road trips––driving through the Southwest and eventually ending at (of course) the Grand Canyon. Who can forget that three-part Brady Bunch Grand Canyon episode where Mike and Carol get the mule chafes, Alice makes fried chicken (how she supposedly managed it still eludes me), Peter and Cindy befriend a Native American kid with hot dogs and baked beans, and the Brady’s get locked in ghost-town-jail by a crazy old prospector? (i.e. Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island––I know my 90s TV Land.) My family took a similar trip when I was 9 years old, with my parents, sister, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins in tow––a veritable caravan of minivans and sippy cups.
For others, the Southwest evokes curiosity and a sense of adventure––Zoe had never been to the Southwest, and she was more than a little excited when she read about the energy vortexes of Sedona, the promise of turquoise jewelry and chakra crystals, and of course, all the natural wonders we were bound to see. Even for me, Arizona was a rather foggy memory, and despite the face-melting heat, I was excited to see what it had to offer––17 years later.
So, armed with cooling towels, electrolyte tablets, a box of wine, and a trunk full of groceries, we ventured out into the Arizona desert.
Our first stop was Sedona, red rock country––about a 2 hour drive from Phoenix.
Driving through, we were both struck by the otherworldliness of the place––and that amazing feeling of being really far from home.
I was pretttttty cranky though, considering that when we got out of the car near Bell Rock, the temperature gauge on the dashboard read 118 degrees. ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTEEN! As in, not fit for human habitation.
It was already pretty late in the day, so to escape the heat, we drove up to Pine Flat Campground in Oak Creek Canyon, where we’d be staying for the next few days.
I never thought that 96 degrees would ever feel cool and comfortable, but it totally did. We made camp, grilled steaks and vegetables for dinner, and went to sleep at 9:00 like a couple of grannies.
The moon was half full that night, glaring like a spotlight through the trees. But I set my alarm for 3:00 AM, waking up after the moon had set, and the stars were blanketed across the sky. The great thing about being in the desert in the summer––no rain, and no rainfly needed on your tent. We slept under the stars, with the cool breeze flowing through the tent mesh, and the smell of surrounding campfires in the air.
The next morning, we got an early start. (Like…really really early. I got up at 4:30 local time––7:30 AM back home in New York.)
With all that time on my hands, I shamelessly built an entire campfire just to make some cheese toast to go with our scrambled eggs and Canadian bacon. Which was totally worth it.
I mean, look. at. this. breakfast:
To beat the heat, we got out onto some of Sedona’s beautiful, quirkily named hiking trails by 7:00 AM––Hog Heaven, Hog Wash (ha), and Broken Arrow.
On our hike, we saw these pink jeeps driving up and down the steep red rock formations. While it wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice to see nature from the back of a jeep, the fact that A) the temperature was inching steadily toward the triple digits and B) my hair was getting all kinds of sweaty under my hat––it did sort of validate the whole thing.
After a day of hiking (and…let’s be real, some shopping in the town of Sedona. Key purchases? Some local pottery, and some REALLY choice beef jerky), we headed back to camp to prepare dinner, Woks-of-Life-in-the-Woods-style.
On the menu: seared salmon with olive oil and lemon, and orecchiette with tomatoes, basil, and lots of melted cheese.
Pro Tip: (Zoe’s idea, and an awesome one)––don’t have a non-stick pan? Line your frying pan with a layer of nonstick foil to sear fish or meat on! Worked like a charm.
Note: Mug o’ wine in the background, my brand spankin’ new Whisperlite International stove (Favorite purchase of 2017. Couldn’t keep running off with my dad’s Whisperlite every time the wanderlust struck), and the sheer triumph of this summer meal:
The next day, we went to see something really really cool. A half hour outside of Sedona, at an address that you can’t even hope to find on the Internet (well, you can, but it’s the wrong address! Don’t trust Google Maps. Just call the Visitor Center office for the quick and dirty driving directions), is the Palatki Heritage site, an archaeological treasure that’s a bit off the beaten path (i.e. a really long dirt road), and not super crowded. When we arrived, there was only one other car in the dirt parking lot.
I’m not sure why more people aren’t going to see this place.
Because just a short hike up the hill, under a huge, natural sandstone overhang, sheltered from elements, are the remains of this stone dwelling, built right into the cliffs 600-900 years ago by the Sinaugua people.
Some really magical vibes in that place. Plus, some really ace volunteers who answered all of our questions and had some cool artifacts to pass around.
After hiking and adventuring all morning, we drove to Slide Rock State Park to hang out, eat takeout tacos and tortas, and chill for the afternoon.
Slide Rock is essentially a giant, natural water slide. It’s a relatively small park, made up of shallow pools, flowing waters, and slippery rocks perfect for sliding.
It was like a day at the beach, only cooler. We lounged in the sun, and I DID do the water slide thing, which was faster than it looked, and really fun. Highly recommend just embracing your inner 9-year-old and going for it.
The next day, we drove another couple hours up to Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ. We went to see both the upper and lower canyons, which are narrow slot canyons carved out of the sandstone by rainwater and wind. You’ve probably seen photos of it (it’s pretty well known on the screensaver circuit). No screensaver or HD laptop wallpaper could do the real thing justice, though, as we would soon find out.
Antelope Canyon is located in the Navajo Nation, and you’re not allowed in without a Navajo guide. They rigged a series of pick-up trucks with seats in the back, and we piled in with a family from California and two couples from Germany, driving along a wide, sandy wash to the upper canyon entrance.
And guys, it was really awesome. There aren’t really words to describe the nuances of how the light hit the walls of the canyon, and created all sorts of different shades of orange, pink and purple.
Every spot in the canyon had a slightly different view out of the top, with different colors, shafts of light, and curves of rock.
Getting to the lower canyon was a little bit different––with a series of metal staircases leading down into it.
Equally cool inside.
The natural wonders of Page, AZ didn’t stop there. Just 15 minutes from Antelope Canyon is THIS:
Horseshoe Bend, and our first glimpse of the Colorado River.
Later, we drove to where we would be staying for the night––Lake Powell.
We sat by the beach, which was technically in Utah (the lake is right on the border between the two states).
And up at the campground, we fortuitously pitched the tent facing sunrise, which looked like this, the next morning:
We were feeling pretty lucky at that point.
Our last stop was the grand finale––the Grand Canyon.
We drove in via Desert View, where I think we got the best view of the canyon from the entire trip, and a big slice of the Colorado River.
Looking at out the canyon from the Desert View Watchtower, I felt as if I was seeing the canyon for the first time. It’s not everyday you see THAT out your window. I even put a quarter into one of these old fashioned telescope things, and could see the banks of the Colorado, and little sprays of white water on the river.
Our stay in the park was a blur of immense landscapes, more campfire meals, mugs of wine, and early morning hikes.
Our first night there, we had THIS wonderful meal, after visiting the GROCERY STORE at Grand Canyon Village.
No joke, Grand Canyon National Park has a fully stocked grocery store, a Chase bank, a post office, library, and shuttle bus system. It isn’t exactly the wilderness.
But while the canyon does have a mini city running on its rim, with boatloads of tourists walking the Rim Trail every day, all it took was to venture down into the canyon to get away from the crowds.
We hiked the South Kaibab Trail, getting an early start to beat the sun.
The thing about hiking in the Grand Canyon is, it’s easy going down, but you have to remember that each step you take into the canyon, you’re going to have to repeat in the other direction. And the sun is only getting higher and hotter. Luckily, we had plenty of water, and Zoe’s trusty electrolyte tablets.
We hiked to Ooh Aah Point…
And then down to Cedar Ridge, about a mile and a half down.
All along the trail, we saw casual day hikers like us, as well as grizzled, exhausted looking hikers who had clearly been trudging uphill for hours from the bottom of the canyon.
We also checked out some of the canyon museums, did some shopping, gawked at some elk, and enjoyed this fine dinner, courtesy of the local grocery store. Grilled pork chops and mushroom ravioli with wilted spinach, parmesan, and lemon. We were, you know, roughin’ it.
After dinner, we headed out to Yavapai Point for one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve had the privilege of seeing. (To see? Of seeing. Bah. It’s 12:09 AM, and I can’t grammar right now.)
As the sun dipped below the horizon, everyone grabbed their cameras and started snapping photos.
When the sun did go down, though, a lot of people got up, went back to their cars, and drove away.
But they missed the best part. Watching a sunset isn’t about actually watching the sun go down. It’s about watching what happens to the sky in the 15-30 minutes after the sun goes down.
The next day, we hiked the Bright Angel Trail, a trail used by people and animals alike for hundreds of years.
We saw this big guy, who looked like he was taking a well-deserved rest after ferrying people down into the canyon and back.
And got on the trail.
In a canyon so vast, hiking a couple miles down didn’t feel like it got you very far.
But the views were still spectacular.
All in all, it was an amazing trip.
While I’d retraced some of the steps I’d taken as a kid traveling with my family, I felt like I was seeing everything from an
older wiser perspective––appreciating every moment as a completely new experience. Feeling so much gratitude for where I was, and what I was seeing. Traveling with a wonderful friend, and feeling as if we’d soaked in several weeks’ worth of life experience in the course of just 7 short days.
Of course, there were some places that did bring back bits and pieces of old memories. You know that feeling when you go to a place that you thought was new to you, but it definitely feels like you’ve been there before? Perhaps in a very different time in your life, under very different circumstances?
I had to go home to my parents’ house after the trip to look through old family albums to find this:
And remember that you never know where life will take you.