When you think of Arizona, what first comes to mind? It’s probably something along the lines of hot, barren, desert, and cactus. While Arizona is all these things, it’s also so much more. Just two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, Northern Arizona transforms into a cool, lush, rocky, pine forest of adventure, where temperatures regularly dip into the 30’s at night as late in the year as May… oh, yeah, and it snows.
Northern Arizona is a vastly different world than Southern Arizona. This state joins the small ranks of states I have visited that change so drastically from south to north (Illinois, California, and Indiana being a few). This state could actually be categorized into three different categories: first Southern, which is the barren, hot, sandy, cactus-filled desert that is typically pictured when one thinks of Arizona, then Central, where cities like Prescott, Jerome, and Sedona are located.
The central portion of Arizona is like a perfect mixture of the southern and northern parts – part desert, with cacti and grand, majestic rocks jutting into the sky, and part hills, with the beginnings of a forest-type ecosystem taking shape. And finally, there is Northern, which is very foresty and mountainous, with little to no cacti in sight. This is because once you get about an hour outside the suburbs of the Phoenix area, the elevation quickly begins to climb.
In this blog, I’ll cover numerous places in central/northern Arizona: Munds Park and the Flagstaff area, Sandy Canyon, Walnut Canyon National Monument, a re-visit to Sedona, and our disastrous, ill-fated trip to a snowy, angry Grand Canyon.
Munds Park and Flagstaff
Munds Park is a small, quiet, retirement and vacation cabin-filled town located roughly 30 minutes directly south of Flagstaff, right off highway 17 (the main highway that runs from Phoenix to Flagstaff). There is no grocery store in the town, one gas station, and two diners. I assume most full-time and part-time residents make the trek to Flagstaff when they need groceries or other supplies (as we had to do).
**Note: I very dumbly did not take enough photos of the cabin or area around Munds Park, so please enjoy these photos from Walnut Canyon National Monument**
However, if you do happen to find a cabin to rent or an Airbnb in Munds Park, don’t fret. This is a wonderful little spot to stay, with numerous points of interest in reasonable distance. While the Grand Canyon is about 1 hour and 50 minutes away, the distance from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon is only slightly better at 1 hour and 30 minutes. Unless you stay in Williams (still an hour’s drive to the South Rim), or in one of the MEGA expensive resorts right near the Rim, odds are you’ll be driving a bit to the Grand Canyon regardless.
One of the major advantages of staying in Munds Park is its proximity to numerous locations. While it’s near enough to the Grand Canyon for a day trip, it’s also only about 50 minutes from Sedona, one hour to Jerome, 2 1/2 hours from Page (Antelope Canyon), as well as very close to many hiking trails and national monuments like Walnut Canyon. All these places are 100% day-trip doable, while you get the bonus of coming back “home” to a nice cabin in a quiet, less trafficked area.
Here is a link to our wonderful Airbnb:
Flagstaff is very different, not so much in geography, but rather in size and congestion. While the towns are located only 25 to 30 minutes from one another, Flagstaff has a much busier, “big town” feel to it. This town is situated right off I-40, which is one of the 3 main interstates that runs from middle America to the west coast. It is a highly traveled road to say the least, even if you aren’t stopping at one of the Natural 7 Wonders of the World. Flagstaff is also home to Northern Arizona University, which brings its own population and issues. It’s just different.
We didn’t spend too much time in Flagstaff, mainly because, why? We stopped there for food and a few groceries at the Walmart and it was back to Munds Park. While staying in Flagstaff certainly has its advantages, if you’re looking for a more laid back, cabin-like adventure, I would look at Munds Park and other small towns in the area. There might be more availability, as well as better prices. Just a suggestion 🙂
Sandy Canyon is located about 30 minutes away from Munds Park and is a great day hike. Tucked back off the touristy, beaten path, Sandy Canyon could easily be overlooked or missed if you didn’t know it was there. When you pull into the parking lot, you would never imagine that such beauty awaited in a short 2 1/2-mile hike. The trail starts out down a rocky path, through the woods, but quickly opens into a flat, semi-rocky path (that eventually becomes all flat and easy) and stays this way for most of the trail, all the way to the caves.
The distance to the caves and back is 5.03 miles; however, you can keep going for much longer if you choose to. The Arizona Trail comes right through this area, which is a humongous trail that stretches from Mexico to Utah. There are also numerous “splinter” trails that branch off in various directions. I can’t tell you where they lead, but they’re there.
The first cave you come to is at the base of a giant protruding rock. While not very deep or protective, it would be a decent shelter to stop and eat lunch at or take shelter from a rainstorm.
The second cave – which is further past the first cave and back on a part of the trail that becomes single-file and rocky again – is much deeper, creepier, and exactly where I’d want to be if I were lost and needed shelter for the night. Seriously, this cave would have been primo real estate back in the day. It had a private walkway, foyer/living room, long hallway, master bedroom with cathedral ceiling, and even a small nook that could be a closet tucked away in the very back. It would be the optimal place to avoid predators or the elements. I’m talking choice.
Like too many places in Mother Nature, people can’t just leave it the F alone and have to LeAvE ThEiR mArKs with graffiti and other scrawlings, but nonetheless, the place is still very cool and a worthy destination to hike for well over a 5k.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
I’m going to tell y’all something about this place that nobody told us: it’s freaking WINDY. I’m putting as much emphasis as possible on the word “windy”, because omfg. You really have no clue what is about to hit you as you park and walk to the front doors of the entrance/visiting center. It’s not windy at all up there. Like not even a little bit. Zilch. Nada. However, as soon as you exit the doors into the area that begins the long descent down the stairs and into the canyon, you are hit in the face with Mother Nature’s equivalent to a giant industrial 50-pound fan. I’m not exaggerating, the wind blows so hard up there I could easily see some Darwin Award winner getting blown off after crossing the guard rail for a deadly selfie.
Another FYI about this place, there are A LOT of stairs leading to the bottom, and to the bottom you must go. That is where all the accessible ancient cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people are located. It’s quite remarkable because not only are these cliff dwellings located along the edge of the commercialized walking path, but also along steep cliffs that jut out to the side, totally off-limits to visitors, and knee-shakingly high. I have an immense fear of heights; however, these cliff dwellings were ridiculously high and I’m at a loss for how the Sinagua people came to and from them. Protection wise it makes perfect sense, but you definitely couldn’t have a fear of heights in those days.
The Island Trail is the trail for visitors, which is only one mile long and wraps around in a loop. While this is a rather mundane trail (no rocky parts or climbing), it’s a tad bit too thin for my liking. I understand the Arizona Park Service had to work with what they got, but just be aware. People come the opposite way, so you have to kind of squeeze to fit comfortably and not feel like you’re about to turn into a Sugar Glider sailing to your death.
All along the loop are cliff dwellings aka pueblos, some off limits, and some you can walk in to and hang out in. Some even have burn marks still on the walls and ceilings. Of course, most artifacts have already been discovered and removed from these ancient homes, but you never know. However, I doubt that the Arizona Park Service would take too kindly to any kind of unauthorized digging in an thousands-year-old indigenous national monument.
There is one other trail at this monument, called the Rim Trail (not to be confused with the Grand Canyon Rim. Pretty self-explanatory but ya know). This trail goes around a small portion of the rim of Walnut Canyon. It is only 0.7 miles and just along the top; you don’t actually go inside the canyon and there are no stairs. This is a very mild trail and the main point of interest is the outlook point, down into Walnut Canyon. It is also extremely windy up here too, and while I was trying to take a selfie (my friend had tuckered out and didn’t want to come to the lookout point with me), I was terrified that my phone would be blown out of my hand. This was not a stupid, risking-life type selfie; I was on the proper side of the railing, just throwing that out there. It was just really, really, REALLY windy and I could see the wind taking my phone like a balloon.
Hello Sedona, my old friend
Full discretion, while I absolutely love Sedona and think it’s literally a magical place, this trip to Sedona was hampered a bit by the fact that I was not supposed to go to Sedona this time. I didn’t make the 9-hour drive to the cabin (7 hours to Phoenix due to an overturned semi-truck and then 2 hours north to Munds Park) to visit Sedona. Nonetheless, our fate was completely out of our hands when the Grand Canyon decided to be a freak and snow/sleet/rain/ice all over the place when it was almost June (thanks global warming). But more on that frightening and gut punching escapade in a sec.
While it seemed that the entire area of Northern Arizona was getting slammed with an oddly late winter storm (again, thanks a lot global warming), Sedona appeared to be one of the least-hit areas. It still got hit with some rain, but it was slight, and there thankfully wasn’t any snow or ice. Combine that with its beauty and amazing hiking trails, and Sedona was quickly picked as option #2.
If you have been keeping up with my blog, you know I went to Sedona solo back in February 2018. I went way earlier in the year that time and it was about 90% hotter and sunnier. I’m just saying, it’s something to ponder.
We chose Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte simply because we both had hiked there before, so we sorta kinda knew the territory, and you want to be somewhere you know if the weather turns bad. I’m pretty sure I included this in my first Sedona blog, but in case I didn’t or if you didn’t read that one, you must pay to park at this trail. Maps online will tell you that you don’t, but when we got there, there was a big sign right near the entrance that said a pass was required. If you don’t have an annual Arizona parks pass, you will have to go to one of the various locations in Sedona or Oak Creek to obtain a day pass. These locations are easily found on Google.
Last time I was at Sedona I did the Courthouse Butte trail, which begins easy enough but turns into a hillier and rockier trail. Both my friend and I were still pretty sore and worn-out from our previous day of hiking (I ended up doing a total of 8.57 miles that day), so we wanted to take it easy. I didn’t get to do the Bell Rock pathway last time I was there, so we gave that a whirl.
This quickly turned into a regrettable moment because almost immediately the Bell Rock Pathway became very rocky, tumultuous, and required a lot of energy. It’s not that it was difficult, just that we were too tired for it, plus it was rainy and wet, and the rocks were very slippery.
We got almost about ½ a mile in and turned around, deciding to walk along the Courthouse Butte Trail until it became rocky.
When you get to the point of the Courthouse Butte Trail that becomes rocky and hilly, there is another trail that splinters off called the Baby Bell Trail. I really liked this trail because it had enough variation to be interesting, gave a great lookout point to the Sedona desert, had rocks you could climb (if you chose), and went in a loop so there was no getting lost. If you cut across the rocks, the trail is about 2 miles long; however, it can go much longer. I highly suggest it.
The Great Grand Canyon Bust
Honestly, there is not much to write about regarding the Grand Canyon simply because we never made it to the Grand Canyon. Mother Nature had different plans in store, and you can’t fight or reason with her. My friend’s sister called us the night before to warn us of an upcoming snowstorm, but I tried to remain hopeful, tell myself that she was overreacting, and still went to bed that night like a child going to bed on Christmas Eve, except my present would be waking up to no snow.
While I got my May Christmas wish, it was very short lived. While it was true that there was no snow on the ground in Munds Park when we woke up, we quickly learned that that meant nothing. We headed towards the Grand Canyon by 7:30am, fully intending to beat the rush and have an awesome-filled day of Grand Canyonness. We made it past Flagstaff and about halfway to Williams before the weather slowly started taking a turn for the worst. Getting more and more nervous, by the time we were roughly 15 to 20 minutes outside of Williams, a full-blown “winter” storm was upon us.
My poor Arizona-born and raised friend had never, EVER, driven in the snow before that day, but she did great. We ended up having to pull over on the side of I-40, debating on whether we should wait it out there, keep trudging along and hope for the best, or turn back and call it a wash. We ended up choosing option #3 because we had no idea how long the storm would last, and we also didn’t want to risk our lives. I am not exaggerating; we saw SIX wrecks within a 2- to 3-mile distance, mainly cars that had hydroplaned and flew into the ditches. A few of them had even clearly rolled. It simply wasn’t worth it. The Grand Canyon will always be there, and hopefully one day soon I can go back and bask in its grandness.
Overall, Arizona is one of my absolute favorite states in the whole nation for so many reasons. While I can do without their draconian marijuana laws, I always love and adore being able to visit this state which is just a short drive away from my home in California. There are so many places to visit and things to do here, whether you’re into hiking, ghost towns, off-roading, camping, and more. I definitely suggest giving the 48th state a visit.