T.he last time I visited Arizona was on a road trip with my older brother. I was only weeks away from becoming a father and he’d offered vague reassurances as we swayed, somewhat dazed from the Grand Canyon, between craft breweries in the Route 66 college town of Flagstaff. This time, traveling through the state’s bright and blazing Sonoran Desert together, I was fast approaching a cross-country house move with my little family. But then, with its vast, awe inspiring canyonlands and natural monuments, Arizona offers the space and clarity with which to contemplate such life changes.
Historically, one goes west in America when considering new horizons; into California, the Golden State, with its golden oranges, golden sands and sandy tans. And tourism has long followed suit. California remains the most-visited of all US states: even under pandemic constraints, its nine national parks had more than ten million visitors last year. So it’s high time to stray across the border to discover what many Yankophiles already know: there is much more to the Grand Canyon State than the Grand Canyon.
Arriving into Phoenix a day earlier than my brother, I made for Scottsdale, the capital’s artsy sister city. Phoenix rose from the desert, its easily navigable grid concluding at the edge of Scottsdale’s vibrant old town, and the Senna House hotel. A relatively new addition to Hilton’s glitzy Curio Collection, and furnished with a simplicity to recharge the weary hiker, Senna House reflects the Arizona dichotomy: upmarket urbanity in the presence of wilderness.
Arizona’s metropolises are some of America’s most rapidly expanding, with buzzing wine bars, art galleries and trendy restaurants, plus attractive desert architecture indebted to the modernist visions of Frank Lloyd Wright. The surrounding landscape is dramatic and inhospitable: a sweep of armored cacti and rocky outcrops, flushed purple-red at dusk and dawn.
In Scottsdale you drink, dine and dance, but rise early to don hiking boots: breakfast at Senna House is either fruit-laden healthiness or a breakfast burrito for the trail-beater’s backpack.
Many of the trails are within the 30,500 acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve, America’s largest urban park – and the city lies within easy reach of red-rocked Sedona. Within the great canyon and pine-lands of Coconino National Forest, Sedona is not only encircled by diverse beauty but, according to a spiritualist contingent, has a metaphysical energy. Healing crystals abound in the storefronts, but there is mysticism enough in the astonishing panorama of high desert broken by weathered sandstone monuments.
I drove out in the cool dawn, going north on a road that climbed first through canyon and then wide scrubby plain, and on towards the steep, shadowy hills. By mid-morning I was breaking in my boots at Sedona’s imposing Bell Rock, a 275 million-year-old bell-shaped butte ascended first by signposted trail, and thereafter by nose. Two thirds of my way up the 1,500m clamber, perched on an escarpment, I was joined by a pair of youthful Minnesotans. “You hit a dead end?” asked one. “Very likely,” I replied, squinting up at my limited, sheer-rock options, “but the view will do it for me.” We paused, stunned by the oceanic-scale terrain of layered stone, green with juniper. It was snowing back home, the Minnesotans told me – “feels pretty good to be here”.
While springtime in the northern hemisphere can be temperamental, central to southern Arizona is reliably steady. None of that coastal humidity, just dry, soul-warming sunshine. That evening, back in Scottsdale, my brother and I witnessed the last droves of college kids on spring break. We enjoyed the boisterous chatter of a weekending fraternity while eating roasted pork shoulder and shaved kale at the Latin-influenced Mission restaurant.
Green-fingered or not, when in Scottsdale, visitors go to the Desert Botanical Garden, a champion of desert life in Phoenix since 1939. Home to extensive collections of fleshy flora, the world- renowned garden offers an unparalleled introduction to the defining characters of this curious landscape: velvet mesquite trees, needle-clad chollas, prickly pears and towering 250-year-old saguaros. Ever since John Ford trucked these iconic cacti up to the Utah sets of his 1940s gunslinging westerns, they have become the pin-up for the entire southwest. But their natural home is the Sonoran region where they stud the hills around Phoenix all the way down to northern Mexico. At the botanical garden, I learn of the saguaro’s vital role in the desert’s ecology – lifeblood of doves, bees and bats. And as we meandered below them, Gila woodpeckers fluttered from high nests drummed into their fleshy cavities, chattering in bursts of soft staccato.
The next logical waypoint on my road trip is Saguaro National Park, which straddles the city of Tucson just over 100 miles two southeast. Besides the saguaros themselves, my enduring memory is of the dry air – dehydration creeps up undetected; carrying water is essential – and the sparkling pink hibiscus that brightened the paths underfoot.
Bell Rock, Coconino National Forest
Thanks to flash summer rains the Sonoran is the lushest of North America’s four big deserts (California has the Mojave, Nevada and Utah the Great Basin and New Mexico the Chihuahuan) and so the most species-rich. Birdlife is abundant, and other residents range from coyotes and cottontails to desert tortoises and four-inch tarantulas (also, beware the pitched clatter of a retreating rattlesnake).
I cannot overemphasise the intoxicating thrill it was to witness the desert colors at sundown; the glowing reds, purples and greens. This is why people come to the Sonoran Desert, and why sun and rain gods feature in the mythologies of its native Pima and Tohono O’odham peoples: desert life survives by ephemeral miracles.
If Scottsdale and Sedona cater for an upmarket crowd, Tucson is staunchly down to earth: friendly people, affordable living, unpretentious food. Ceded by Mexico under the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, but formerly part of Sonora, the city retains a strong cross-border culture – close to half its 500,000-plus residents are Hispanic. In 2015 Tucson became America’s first Unesco-appointed city of gastronomy, acknowledging its now world-revered Sonoran-style cuisine. Mesquite-smoked and slow-cooked beef; corn – not flour – tortillas; the antithesis of sloppy Tex-Mex.
The city promises “23 miles of Mexican food”, so choosing a restaurant is overwhelming. Try downtown’s El Charro Café for its Tucson-style Mexican dishes (the birthplace of the deep-fried chimichanga, the family-run restaurant turns 100 this year), or midtown’s Tito & Pep for its modern approach to traditional wood-fired ingredients. For breakfast tacos and hibiscus margaritas after a walk in the beautiful Catalina foothills – a landscape rife with wildflowers, butterflies and birdsong in view of the Santa Catalina mountains – try the trendy but informal Seis Kitchen.
It’s rare for me to truly love a city. However, rising early for a morning jog around the broad streets of Tucson’s academic Sam Hughes district, and beneath the soaring palms of Himmel Park, I experienced something of an urban epiphany. Perhaps it was fresh air, the architectural cacti shadows falling on colorful residential stucco – Mount Lemmon glowing snowcapped in the distance – or the effect of the mid-century Airbnb in which I slept as soundly as a desert tortoise.
After satisfying our Tucson interests – the sprawling Pima Air & Space Museum for my brother’s aviation addiction (six cavernous hangars and acres of jets preserved in the desert dry); scenic Picacho Peak for my hummingbirds and Civil War history (site of a bloody engagement between Union cavalry and Texan Confederates, now a beautiful state park) – we continued south for the mining towns of Wild West Tombstone and energizing Bisbee, former wellsprings of silver and copper, respectively. This is the Arizona road of vacant vistas presented by the old US Route 80 as it deviated from the Sonoran into the higher Chihuahuan Desert, making for New Mexico 70 miles east.
While Tombstone preserves its outlaw history through horse-drawn tours and recreations of the Earp brothers’ legendary gunfight at the OK Corral, Bisbee – just 11 miles from the Mexican border – reinvented itself after mining declined in the 1970s, and through vacant, affordable housing became a center for artistic counterculture. It is now a town of colorful storefronts, quirky antiques dealers and rock’n’roll bars; a sort of Brighton in the desert. As in Tombstone, you can tour a relic Bisbee mine, only you emerge into the sunlight for a locally brewed IPA at a fashionable brownstone, rather than a traditional saloon. A couple sat next to us at the Old Bisbee Brewing Company were regular visitors from Tucson, coming almost every month to what they considered Arizona’s most-beloved town.
We took a leisurely road back up to Phoenix for the flight home, passing through Globe, another former mining boomtown retaining elements of Old West architecture and frontier sensibility, and the wide waters of Roosevelt Lake. Somewhere in between, we rounded a bend to the spectacular sight of hillsides shimmering purple. I jumped out for a closer look: sand verbena blooming prolifically over ground recently charred by wildfire.
In his masterpiece of southwestern writing, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Tucson’s Edward Abbey wrote that, “you can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it”, cautioning against the pitfalls of experiencing America’s national parks from behind a windscreen. Arizona demands boots-on exploration and having returned from my immersion in the vast, gritty acres and saguaro sunsets of the spectacular southwest, I felt ready for the road ahead once again.
Matt Collins was a guest of the Arizona Office of Tourism (visitarizona.com). Room-only doubles at Senna House Scottsdale from £ 290 (thesennahouse.com). Pieds-a-terre offers a range of Tucson houses beginning at £ 60 a night (pieds-a-terre.com). Fly from London direct to Phoenix with American Airlines.