The Winter Escape Trip
10 Days in New Mexico and Arizona, in February
This trip begins and ends in Albuquerque, but it could also easily originate out of Phoenix, Tucson, or even El Paso, if necessary. It's 10 days, 9 nights, and spends most of the time in Arizona -- which means your driving loop could be shorter if you start out there. However, there are some good reasons to include New Mexico in your loop.
Arriving in Albuquerque
I usually don't consider my arrival day as Day One, since I usually don't do much more than get where I'm going, and allow my carefully-packed suitcases to explode inside the rental car. On this day, however, I had an easy flight into Albuquerque -- only about 6 hours of flying, with only one short layover. And, since I have visited Albuquerque before, I knew my way around, and I didn't need to waste much time figuring things out.
After checking into my hotel, I headed straight for Sadie's -- a legendary local New Mexican restaurant that serves up phenomenal food. Before you go, acquaint yourself with the official New Mexico state question: Red or Green? It refers to red or green chile (not chili). Any time you order spicy food in New Mexico, you'll be asked this question. Red is typically milder in flavor, however both can be quite hot to the untrained palette. If you're not sure what to order, ask for "Christmas", and you'll get both red and green.
Sadie's was a hit, and I stuffed myself with a Chile Relleno (green chile stuffed with cheese) and an enchilada. After that, I needed to walk-off some of that food, so I took a stroll through the Bosque -- the green space that borders the Rio Grande through town. I finished the day with a sunset at West Bluff Park. Just before sunset in Albuquerque, the beautiful Sandia Mountains turn pink and purple. West Bluff provided a good view of the mountains and almost the entire city.
Driving south through New Mexico
This day was destined to be a busy day of driving. I think I ended up covering about 400 miles, but it was necessary to get over into Arizona, and into the right place for the following day's big hike.
I headed south on Interstate 25, stopping in towns like Socorro and Truth or Consequences, just to see what was there. After T or C, I ventured out onto New Mexico Route 152. It's a scenic route that includes more curves than I could count. I usually enjoy a mountain road, but this twisted highway was almost too much for me to handle.
Route 152 passes by a huge open mine at Santa Rita, and then through Silver City, New Mexico. I took a few minutes away from the drive to walk around Silver City, and appreciate this wild west town's newly-found artsy vibe.
From Silver City, I headed south to Interstate 10. I began to realize that it was too early in the day to hurry on to my motel in Willcox, Arizona (I'm fairly certain there's never a reason to hurry to get to Willcox). So, I decided to try my luck at re-tracing the steps of a family vacation, back when I was 10 years old. In 1985, we took a road trip across the southwest, and somehow ended up crossing over the Chiricahua Mountains on a rough, dirt, Forest Service road. Making matters worse, our car broke down briefly at the top of the pass. The unplanned adventure became a defining moment in our family history, and I had wanted to retrace that route ever since. So, with the luxuries of GPS and cell-phone service, I found those old roads and passed over them again -- this time, with no break-downs.
In the Wonderland of Rocks
I devoted almost all of this day to accomplishing another long-time goal. Back in 2005, I visited Chiricahua National Monument, and while at Massai Point around sunset, I met a couple of hikers who were huffing-and-puffing their way up to the parking lot. They were raving about their all-day hike -- the "big loop" -- which took them 9.5 miles through the best rock formations in the park. Then and there, I knew I wanted to come back and do that hike myself. It took me nine years.
The Big Loop consists of about eight trails, and some of them are quite challenging, since you lose and gain elevation several times. The most exciting segment of the hike is called Heart of Rocks. It's a small loop inside the Big Loop, that passes by some incredible rock formations. Unfortunately, there's no short way to get there, so you have to plan your entire day around a lengthy hike.
I finished the Big Loop in just under six hours, which I thought was a pretty good pace for nearly 10 miles of hiking. I drove out of the park and on towards Tucson. Just outside of town, I was quickly approaching sunset, so I took a detour down Arizona Highway 83. As luck would have it, the road heads into some beautiful mountain terrain, and I managed to take a few pictures.
cactus and mountain-climbing
I started the day by exploring the western section of Saguaro National Park. A scenic drive and some short trails led through hills covered in the giant cactus. Once I had seen all the saguaro I needed to see, I looked at the map and decided on my next destination. The Ironwood Forest National Monument wasn't far away, and even though I didn't know anything about it, I decided to drive out to it and check it out. As a bonus, it looked as if the dirt roads through the monument would take me west, then north, and return me to the freeway near Picacho Peak, which I hoped to hike a bit later.
As it turns out, there isn't much of anything in Ironwood Forest National Monument, except for more cactus, and the park's namesake trees. There are no overlooks, no developed picnic areas, and no visitor centers. I was quite satisfied to move on, taking that road that promised to connect with I-10. The road passed through numerous dry washes, which were no problem at all -- until I reached one that wasn't dry. That's an understatement. There was a full-blown river running through it. I doubt it could be crossed in a jeep, let alone my meager rental car. With no alternate routes, I had to turn around and drive back through Ironwood Forest the way I came, and connect with I-10 much further east than I had hoped.
I did, eventually, make it to Picacho Peak, with just enough time to make the hike to the summit. This trail seemed less intimidating than the previous day's hike -- just 4 miles round-trip. And while I hiked 10 miles in 6 hours the previous day, this time, it took me 4 hours to hike just four miles. The reason? Picacho Peak isn't a hike, so much as a climb. There are numerous cables anchored into the rock, to help you pull yourself up. Anyone with a fear of heights would be petrified. I was frightened, too -- but the view from the top was very rewarding. Later, the old, abandoned stores below Picacho Peak, near the interstate, also provided for some interesting exploration.
Hiking Around Phoenix
At the last minute, I decided to devote the entire day to Phoenix. Every time previously I had been in this city, I had been traveling through. I wanted to experience a little of what it's like to live there. So, I tackled two trails that are popular with the locals: Piestewa (Squaw) Peak and Camelback Mountain.
The first, Piestewa, was challenging but not exceedingly difficult. Of course, it's uphill all the way, that was no surprise. It also wasn't surprising that the trail was crowded with hundreds of people -- a striking difference from my previous two days of hiking.
I took a while to drive around Phoenix, then ended up at Camelback Mountain, which is almost a next-door neighbor to Piestewa. Echo Canyon Trail is the most popular route to the top, and it too is incredibly crowded. While this trail is slightly longer than Piestewa, it seemed much more challenging. A good portion of the trail is a non-stop climb up a boulder slide, where you hop from one rock to another, gaining about a foot in elevation with each step.
After a little more driving (or more accurately, sitting on I-10 in rush-hour traffic), I ended up back at the trailhead for Piestewa Peak, to view the city at sunset.
HIking Sedona's Red Rock Country
I left Phoenix early and arrived in Sedona early, then spent the rest of Day Six hiking around the incredible red-rock formations of the Sedona area. I didn't want to tackle another challenging uphill climb, since I was still exhausted from the previous day. So, I chose some easy trails: first, Boynton Canyon. I had hiked it years earlier, but I hadn't hiked the entire trail, just the first mile or so. This time, I went all the way to the end, and was rewarded with a nice view of the upper end of the canyon.
Later in the day, I struggled to decide where to go. After weighing several options, I ended up on a trail that I had never hiked before, even though I had always heard that it was spectacular. The Airport Loop trail encircles Sedona's airport, which is perched on top of a mesa in the middle of town. I had always been turned off by the idea of hiking around an airport, with no nearby red-rock formations. While that part is true, it doesn't really matter. Instead of close-up views, you get distant views of almost everything in the area, from giant Wilson Mountain looming over town, to the Coffee Pot and Steamboat, and the Dry Creek area in the distance towards the northwest. As I walked the loop, the view continuously changed, and with the sun setting quickly, everything was beautifully lit.
The scenic route to the Grand Canyon
On Day 7, I was worried about the weather. I had hoped to undertake a major hike at the Grand Canyon on Day Eight, but a storm system was moving in. I feared it would ruin both days. But, it hadn't started raining early in the day, so I decided to squeeze in one more trail before it did.
After checking out of my motel, I hiked the Jordan Trail - Cibola Pass loop. It wasn't as spectacular as some of Sedona's other hikes, and the grey weather didn't help. But, it was still a nice trail, and a good way to spend an hour.
Afterwards, I drove up through Oak Creek Canyon and into Flagstaff. Clouds were looming around Humphreys Peak in the San Francisco Mountains, but to the east, the skies were clear. So, that's where I went.
I drove through Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments, checking out some of the lava fields in the former and the Native American ruins in the latter. I drove back to Flagstaff, and then on to the Grand Canyon, only to find both shrouded in clouds. Sunset at the canyon had a bit of color to it, but it certainly didn't live up to my hopes.
Hiking in the Rain and Snow at the Grand Canyon
This day wasn't the day that I had planned, but in some ways, I was thankful. Stormy weather moved in, late in the previous day, and I awoke to grey, foggy skies, and rain that ranged from drizzle to a light downpour. I had hoped to spend this day on an ambitious hike, halfway down into the Grand Canyon, and out to Plateau Point, then back up to the rim. In order to do that hike, I'd need to start early, and finish late. I knew it would be challenging and exhausting, and I knew that the soggy conditions would double that misery, while cutting the enjoyment of the scenery in half.
So, I scrapped the plans for the big hike, and drove from my hotel in Tusayan to the rim. It was damp and cold. At times I wasn't certain if it was raining or snowing. I determined I needed to find a fireplace with a nice chair in front of it, and that's what I did -- in the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel.
I spent a couple of hours there, waiting for some improvement in the weather. Much to my surprise, it happened! When I ventured outside around midday, there were still some sprinkles, but the sky had opened up above the canyon itself, letting some glorious light through. I decided to hike along the rim, for as long as I felt like it.
Since it was now March 1, it was the first day of shuttle service along the South Rim. I took the bus out to Hopi Point, then hiked the entire distance to Hermits Rest. I witnessed some incredible things along the way, including rainbows (or maybe snow-bows), and a beautiful show of lights and shadows, as the clouds moved in and out. By the end of the hike, drizzle and snow had taken over once again, and to be honest, the final mile was a miserable march. But, the bad weather made the hot chocolate at Hermits Rest all the more enjoyable. I headed back, and spent another night at Tusayan.
A drive down Route 66
I wasn't expecting much from this day, since I knew I had no choice but to make the very long drive back to Albuquerque. It turned out better than I expected. Because Interstate 40 (the quickest way back to New Mexico) follows the path of old US 66, there are plenty of old road relics and small towns to enjoy along the way. Highlights included the old Twin Arrows truck stop, Winslow (home of the Standin' on the Corner corner), Jackrabbit Trading Post (famous for its "Here It Is" sign), and Holbrook (where you can sleep in a wigwam -- which I did, back in 2007). Just before the state line, you'll find the ruins of Fort Courage, which capitalized on the old TV show F-Troop.
After crossing into New Mexico, it's worth checking out the towns of Gallup and Grants. Both are loaded with great old neon signs and businesses that cater to Route 66 traffic. There's also a nice, short section of old 66, just east of Grants. If you're determined to follow the old sections of pavement, you'll need a good guidebook to provide advice, turn by turn.
I took one final detour down New Mexico 6 to Los Lunas, then drove up Interstate 25 into Albuquerque for my final night in town.