With its rugged landscape, ancient ruins and quaint towns with long histories, Northern Arizona is a diverse region perfect for a slow day of exploring.
We set out from Pine after dawn, with enough time to catch the rising sun turn the hilltops a golden orange. And enough time to miss our turn and realize we’re on the wrong road and heading to Winslow.
But the morning is young and we soon find our way. A sign with two crossed feathers greets us saying: “Welcome to the Yavapai-Apache Nation,” and we continue down the quiet road lined with old, wide houses and cluttered porches until we enter the Montezuma Castle National Monument.
It’s a cold December and we rush inside to the visitor’s center for warmth. There’s an exhibit on the daily life of the Southern Sinagua, a pre-Columbian culture that flourished here in the Verde Valley centuries ago and built the dwelling that would later be called Montezuma Castle. European colonizers named the structure mistakenly because they assumed it had a connection to the famous Aztec emperor.
The Sinagua were mainly farmers who relied heavily on corn. Displays show the reddish-brown pottery they were known for, and decorated pottery likely traded from the Hopi. There are also tools for grinding corn, and artistic gemstone ornaments.
And though the Sinagua lived in unstable pueblos made with local materials, the Montezuma Castle was expertly buit. It has survived for over 700 years tucked into the mountain inside a natural alcove and protected from the elements.
We head outside into the afternoon sun, and walk down a path lined with creosote bushes. Montezuma Castle looms some 27 meters up a sheer limestone cliff, built high possibly to escape the annual flooding of nearby Beaver Creek. It measures some 370 square meters of floor space across five stories that were built over generations by skilled and courageous engineers. A series of ladders were used to access the dwellings.
The castle perches precariously, but is also defiantly stable, abandoned for unknown reasons (perhaps drought, or clashes with the Yavapai). It has borne centuries of Arizona sun and now looks as solid and unshakable as the cliff it sits on. The castle blends into the landscape and distinguishes itself as man-made only with its straight lines and square windows.
We walk around the snaking trails at the base of the monument and read a few signs that give Latin names, histories and uses of various bushes and trees. Many are so familiar they blend into the landscape, but they’re fascinating when studied closer.
There is the creosote bush whose resinous scent fills the Arizona air especially after summer rains. It’s one of the oldest plants on earth, and a wonder that cures anything from dandruff to infections. The pale green velvet mesquite has seeds that were grounded into meal and then baked for protein. While the oneseed juniper provides fuel and light, and is used by the Hopi for stomach ailments.
There’s a well and the remnant of a Sinagua village nearby, also part of the national monument, but it’s cold and we head back to the truck. And back on the road through a national forest towards the 260.
JEROME: AN ARTISTIC OASIS
Our next stop is Jerome, and it comes into view after a winding drive uphill.
Perched on the side of Cleopatra Hill, this small town is built in a series of zigzags, sharp turns and steep stairs that cling to the landscape.
The New York Sun in 1903 dubbed Jerome as the “Wickedest City in the West with its rowdy bars, treasure hunters and prostitutes. Today’s quiet, artsy Jerome has preserved its tumultuous history as a roaring copper mining town. But when the mining died down, Jerome refused to shrivel into a ghost town.
We park and walk uphill, past crumbling facades and bright turquoise houses with balconies lined with bunting. There are cozy bookstores and quaint hotels like the Connor, built in 1898 and complete with a spirit room. There are art galleries that sell polished mesquite wood and crystals, and hotels that could be backdrops for westerns.
We start with coffee at MoJo To Go, where a spinning wheel tells me I’m 7,453 miles from Cairo (where I live as an expat). Then we make our way past a tiny fire department with red doors, Gibson’s Grocery and Market and a pit filled with rusty mining equipment.
It’s a curious mix of decay and high-end boutiques. But there’s a small-town vibe that recalls black-and-white American films where people shop at corner stores and the busiest road is Main Street. An America filled with kind neighbors and bake sales that’s harder to find these days, but still here.
SAVED FROM OBLIVION
Yet Jerome was once nearly forgotten. It escaped a ghost-town fate into oblivion thanks only to those who couldn’t bear to leave.
Once a booming mining town of 15,000 people, Jerome in its heyday produced an incredible 3 million pounds of copper every month and attracted hopefuls from around the world, along with bootleggers, saloon keepers and sex workers. But the mines finally closed in 1953 after the Great Depression, falling copper prices and labor unrest took their toll.
The town dwindled to a population of some 50 people in the late 1950s. In the 1960s and 70s, artists and hippies moved in, renovated its homes and reopened once-abandoned shops. Then the residents turned to tourism and managed to secure Jerome’s legacy by getting National Historic Landmark status in 1967.
We browse the tiny boutiques and wander uphill until the streets turn thinner and more residential. Then we’re back on the winding highways, through the Prescott valley and an Indian reservation, watching for our next exit.
PRESCOTT: ARIZONA’S CHRISTMAS CITY
With its historic downtown, old elm trees and white-columned courthouse twinkling with lights, Prescott deserves its official designation as Arizona’s “Christmas City.” It feels like a real-life Bedfort Falls from the film It’s a Wonderful Life: quaint and independent, with a motto that it’s “everybody’s hometown.”
But there are none of the cowboy cliches you’ll find in some other Arizona cities.
Prescott boasts Victorian style homes, museums on local history, and a historic Whiskey Row that includes The Palace, the state’s oldest frontier saloon and bar. The city likes its booze. When a great fire in 1900 nearly destroyed all of Whiskey Row, the patrons reportedly took their drinks across the street to watch the flames from the courthouse square.
Many of the historic buildings have been converted to boutiques and restaurants; Prescott is great for browsing antique shops and art galleries. There’s also a small liberal arts college and a thriving indie music scene.
My favorite spot for browsing is the Peregrine Book Company, an independent bookstore with a choice selection of staff picks, comic books and bookish curiosities.
There are plenty of boutiques for unique Christmas gifts, too. Whether that’s the latest novel, some turquoise jewellery or soaps infused with local herbs.
With its laid-back vibes, tree-lined courthouse plaza and offbeat antique shops, Prescott is ideal for slow travel. It’s also an uplifting look at what’s best in small-town American life.