Discovering Areas around Flagstaff, Arizona
Each year Justin and I meet up to explore a new area. These areas are vast, and we barely cover any of the ground. But each year we get to discover somewhere new, meet new people, enjoy new places to stay, eat, drink, and experience. After every trip I promise to get a blog review out in a timely manner. I don’t. Here we are, 7 months past, and I’m finally writing it. You can catch up on past adventures in Colorado, Utah, and some other adventures in Orlando and at Fairmont Hot Springs.
Being from the north, the Arizona trip was vastly different than others. Justin, being from El Paso, experienced more of the desert that he knows, and got into the mountains like he loves. This year, Todd (Justin’s former colleague) drove over from California to help us explore the mountains, streams, waterfalls, breweries, and architecture in and around Flagstaff, Arizona.
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Big Cactuses at Cave Creek Regional Park
Our trips are generally planned around an area where one of us can drive, and the other can fly. This way we have a vehicle to go wherever our whims take us. After I landed in Phoenix, we headed north. But before we got out of the valley, we had one goal: to see big cactuses.
The Saguaro cactus seems to only grow in certain elevations. In Phoenix they aren’t around, but as you drive higher they become abundant. Heading north toward Flagstaff, as you’re getting out of the city area, there’s a small state park. Cave Creek Regional Park is a protected area with hiking trails, a buttload of cactuses, and presumably wildlife. Most wildlife, however, was not stupid enough to be outside in the 107 degree heat.
In the offices the staff gave us a map of the area, and pointed out some key sights that we should look for. Since we weren’t interested in walking a long way in the heat, we kept our trek to a little less than a mile. In that time, however, we were able to see some iconic Saguaros like the Three Amigos and the Michelin Man. How hot was it out? As I was taking pictures of the flora, my phone overheated and shut down. I’ve had that happen only once before when I laid it on a black tailgate in the sun for several hours; never while I was actively using the phone.
Drive to Flagstaff
We got pretty tired of being hot, so it was off to Flagstaff where the current temperatures were a good 25 degrees lower than near Phoenix. It was only about a 2 hour drive to Flagstaff from where we were, and the car had air conditioning… or so we thought. Thus began the great Misadventures in Arizona.
Not even 30 minutes into our drive, the car stopped blowing cold air. It was still 100+ degrees out, so this was not good. Unfortunately, there was not much that we could do on our drive up the mountain, so we had to roll down the windows and hope that we soon broke free from the nasty temperatures.
Halfway into our trip up the mountain we passed an Arizona Highway Patrol who was monitoring vehicles from the median. At the time Justin was doing about 82 in a 75mph zone. The cop pulled out behind him and lit us up. Justin groaned, but knew that he was going a bit over the speed limit so he submitted to his defeat. It turns out that we weren’t pulled over for speeding, the cop told us that it was because there was something hanging from the rearview mirror. How he saw that as we zipped by at 80+mph is beyond me; I’m just kicking myself for not getting a picture.
The drive up the mountain was rather fascinating. As you gained elevation, you leave the Saguaro cactuses behind. It turns into more of a scrubby desert for a while. Gaining more elevation, shrubs appear, then juniper bushes that turn into juniper trees. Eventually those give way to pine tree forests as you’re getting in close to Flagstaff.
Drinking Horn Meadery
We had three stops before we headed out to our first campsite. First, we needed some supplies, so we tracked down the local Walmart. When we had finished our shopping (bought beer), we were able to go to one of my long anticipated spots: Drinking Horn Meadery.
If you don’t follow too close, I love to make mead. It’s a beverage that isn’t found often around Montana, so when planning this trip I happened to search for meaderies near Flagstaff. Sure enough, there’s one there! It’s an interesting place.
There are two types of breweries/meaderies/wineries out there. There are those that want traffic to flow in and out of their doors from as soon as they open until they close. They’re built in prominent spots, have plenty of seating, and have festive décor. On the other hand, some cater mostly to distribution or via internet orders. Drinking Horn Meadery definitely falls into the latter category.
In a small area tucked away in a bit of an industrial complex, the seating area can host maybe 10 people at a time; that would be pushing it. Fortunately they’re not planning on having dozens of people flock through doors at once, so we were the only partakers to enjoy the nectar of the gods on this particular afternoon. We ordered a flight, where we could sample a little of every type the company makes. It comes with a list so you can taste test it, and then compare your tasting to what’s actually going on.
After throwing back a few (they’re only 2-3 ounce tasters), It was time to continue on our journey. A quick stop by Jannette’s to check-in and introduce ourselves (her sister lives in Billings and Jannette and Eddy graciously let us use their camper since we couldn’t find any open camping spots due to forest closures because of fire danger).
Cave Springs Campground
Not far from Flagstaff, a little over halfway to Sedona, is Cave Springs Campground. The highway takes you windingly down through the canyons into heavily forested areas. A location a mere couple hours from Phoenix, where everything is dry, dusty, and hot, seems to be a bit out of place. The campground is well maintained, and it’s really big.
Fortunately, we booked in advance. We would never have been able to get a spot, even on a Thursday night. And fortunately there is enough vegetation around that even through all 84 campsites were filled, it didn’t feel as though we were crowded in amongst many other people. It was a typical campground with a communal outhouse style bathroom down the way, a concrete picnic bench, and a fire pit. There was enough room for a couple of vehicles and a couple of tents.
Our spot was pretty choice. It was across the street from the creek, so there were no campers able to pitch their tent on that side. The creek was small, but provided that babbling brook ambiance you want when camping. There were a couple larger groups with kids nearby, but they were quiet enough and there weren’t any problems. Except the bird.
The bird was an angry stork-like creature. It was massive, and it flew over the campground literally all night long. If that’s all it did, that would be fine. But instead, it flew over and it squawked really loudly. A terrifying annoying squawk of a creature that had its home invaded by a bunch of ruthless humans. I have no idea why the bird was so angry, but it made me angry due to lack of sleep come the next morning.
Just after sunset, before the twilight had faded, Todd rolled in from California. He drove 12+ hours all by his lonesome just to come see us, and we respected that.
The next morning we took Justin’s car back to Flagstaff so the AC could be fixed. Then we piled into Todd’s car and headed down the mountain, through the juniper trees, until nearly the end of the juniper scrub bushes, to an area of the Coconino Forest called Wet Beaver Wilderness.
The Crack at Bell Canyon
The hike to The Crack was a fun one. There was very little elevation gain, so it wasn’t terribly difficult. What made it fun was the terrain and the views. These weren’t the views you get from the tops of mountains, but rather from looking out across the scrubby desert.
At the beginning of the trail there is a historical marker (you can read what it says up above). It turns out that people have been hiking along this creek for close to 100 years. From there, it’s a moderately flat first couple of miles. As you continue on the canyons start to narrow around you a bit, and you gain a little elevation moving you up and away from the stream.
Surrounded by reddish colored sandstone, it doesn’t look like this is going to be a great place to go swimming. Except that at the bottom of the canyon the valley is filled with lush green vegetation. Trees tower over the creek which on occasion can be heard bubbling along over the rocks. You continue hiking and the trail eventually dips back down toward the water. It splits, one leg heading to the creek and the other turning slightly left and up a separate canyon.
Here we weren’t sure where to go, so we went to the water. Crossing the creek we started heading up the canyon and the trail almost immediately petered out. This wasn’t the way to go. We hoofed it back to the other trail, and continued up the canyon. Another 100 yards and we were at The Crack.
The Crack is exactly that. It’s like a giant fissure in the sandstone where the stream is compressed. Because it can’t go anywhere, it gets really deep here. Deep enough that you can’t see the bottom of the clear waters; I estimate 12 to 20 feet where you’re going to jump in. There are flat rocks on which you can sunbathe, and overhanging cliffs where you can do all sorts of flips and whatnots into the water below.
Our particular adventure was on a cooler day; a high of in the low 80’s. We arrived at the crack before noon and the day hadn’t fully heated yet. Justin and Todd, being warm weather beings, mostly chickened out. Justin did jump a few times, Todd just cast devious stares. Todd, if you’re reading this, you may have jumped but I can’t remember [edit: Todd did jump but hit something underwater and bruised his foot]. I jumped. I jumped a bunch. I jumped from the low spots, the mediums spots, and the highest spots I could find. I like jumping. I even crossed the creek, climbed the cliff, and jumped from the other side to get another 5 feet of air.
As a side note, this is still the desert. The desert contains animals not found in many other places around the country. Some of those animals are disgusting creatures called tarantulas. Fortunately, I saw zero of them. What I did see, however, was a creature that was as beautiful as it is deadly. A 2 inch long, brilliant blue and gold, tarantula wasp. Later research determined that these incredible creatures eat giant spiders. I’m glad it didn’t mind me because research also indicated that their stings are immensely painful.
Even though the day wasn’t incredibly hot, this is a popular place. It’s a mere hour and a half from downtown Phoenix, so there’s a few million people that are vying for a spot to jump off the cliff. By the time we left in the early afternoon, more and more groups of people were showing up. Many of them were doing flips as they jumped from the cliff, so we all felt a little emasculated and decided it was time to head back to Flagstaff so we could enjoy frosty beverages.
Lumberyard Brewing Company
After returning to Flagstaff we got all cleaned up at Jannette and Eddy’s house, Todd and Justin went to see to Justin’s car. I walked from our camper in the driveway to Lumberyard Brewing Company; a short mileish walk away. It’s one of the handful of local breweries in downtown Flagstaff, and had a fun atmosphere. There was a large dining area, a bar, and a patio that is so popular you have to make reservations. Without the reservations you are relegated to sitting on a wooden bench around the perimeter. Not a big deal if you’re just enjoying a pint or two.
After knocking back the early evening pint, we headed deeper into town to find some food and see what other nightlife awaited us. Of course our goal in the area wasn’t to go clubbing, so we turned in before things got too wild so we could do another hike through some canyons the following day.
West Fork of Oak Creek Trail
From Flagstaff we headed back down the highway toward Sedona. Just a mile or so past the Cave Springs Campground is an area called the West Fork of Oak Creek Trail. It’s a cool place with a ton of history, some of which you’re able to walk right through as you explore the trail.
Our original plan was to do this hike on the first day, and then to do The Crack. However, the weather wasn’t cooperating with those plans, and the second day turned out to be a bit cooler with some drizzly rain. We weren’t going to let that stop us, so we hiked anyway.
The hike turned out to be great, even with the rain. The rain actually made it a little more pleasant as it kept us cool. It also gave Todd and me a chance to laugh at Justin as he whipped out a disposable poncho and proceeded to wear it the first couple miles of the hike. He was happy to wear it as it saved 11 raindrops from touching his skin.
The start of the hike takes you over a bridge that crosses Oak Creek. From there you walk through a flat valley filled with ferns and, surprisingly, apple trees. An entire orchard full of them. It turns out that the valley was homestead back in the 1800’s, and the family planted the orchard. It has since been taken over as public land, but the trees remain. In mid-June, however, the trees weren’t ripe for the picking.
Once you’re through the apple orchard, you turn West and head into the Secret Mountain area. Shh, it’s a secret! It’s barely a half mile into the hike, and it’s getting fun. The cliffs rise immensely on both sides, and you follow the West Fork of Oak Creek as it winds its way through the canyons.
Huge trees surround you the entire hike, opening on occasion to show you just how high the canyon walls are around you. Vegetation that doesn’t seem fitting for an area less than 2 hours from the hot Phoenix desert provides a pleasant and calming touch.
The trail meanders along the creek for just over 3.5 miles. At that point the walls begin to close in, and the trail all but disappears. Actually, it’s at that point that the walls are close enough together that the only way to continue on upstream is to wade through the water, or skillfully traverse the canyon walls and ledges. On our adventure we made it a little past the “end” of the trail. We continued along an additional quarter of a mile until we came to a rocky outcropping. Here we shed our packs, had a snack, discovered a new friend, and relaxed a little before moseying back down the trail and back to Oak Creek.
If you’re heading to the area, and you want to go camping, this is a forest service area. However, there is no camping along the West Fork. The canyon is too narrow, and flash floods could sweep you away. There are signs along the way that show you must continue on well past the “end” of the trail before you come to an area where fires and camping are allowed. Now if you wanted to shimmy up the canyon walls and camp on top, that would probably be reasonable.
Oak Creek Brewing Company
After getting back to the car we drove the 10 more miles or so to Sedona, Arizona. We passed by Slide Rock State Park, which we were recommended to avoid. And we are glad we didn’t pay the money to go there. It’s a cool area, maybe worth checking out if you have a bunch of time, but it was busier than anything (plus about 400,000 kids running around, not something a group of three grown men want to participate in on their vacation).
Getting into Sedona it was still a bit drizzly rainy. We parked near Oak Creek Brewing Company, and headed inside for a late lunch/early dinner. Of course when travelling it’s imperative to test out the beer offerings of that area. The problem is that most places have a dozen beers on the menu, and you only have room in your stomach for a couple or three. Fortunately, most places offer a flight of beers.
At Oak Creek Brewing, the flight comes in half a dozen tiny beer stein mugs. It’s a pretty cool setup. Other than the restaurant being cold (they’re not used to the cool weather, especially not in June) there wasn’t actually a whole lot memorable. Worth a stop, but not really a “must do” on the list in Sedona.
After dining we weren’t quite ready to pile back into the car. Especially because we hadn’t explored the town yet. We walked up the hill to the main drag, a street lined with boutique/southwest shopping places. Justin bought some jerky or something, and I bought a couple pieces of candy. Along the way, however, there were a bunch of historical signs pointing out features and describing how the town came into existence. One such sign points to Snoopy rock. I’m glad the clouds lifted enough to get a picture of Snoopy rock.
Downtown Flagstaff FLG Terroir
Our last night in Flagstaff meant that we didn’t have to get up super early to get out there and explore the area. So it meant it was time to find the hot spots downtown. And when I say “Hot Spots” I mean that we are all in our mid-30’s so we prefer the quiet ambiance of a wine bar to the bumping music of a club.
Fortunately, Flagstaff has both. We bounced from place to place, ending the evening at a second floor restaurant and wine bar called FLG Terroir. They had a variety of wines, and a smattering of exotic beers. It was a great place just off Route 66 where you can relax with a beverage.
The downtown area consists of about 4 square blocks… or is it 16? 4 blocks by 4 blocks. After that activity drops off sharply so you turn around and head back into the thick of it. I’m sure there are plenty of other great places, but we were tired from a 7+ mile hike, and we’re old so we don’t stay up late anymore.
The next morning it was time to head out. We said our teary eyed goodbyes to Todd. Wished him well on his 12+ hour drive back to the left coast, and then we hung out for a bit. My flight didn’t leave until the late afternoon, so we had a bit of time.
After leaving Flagstaff we got 30 minutes out of town, and Justin’s AC turned off again. It just trickled out the cool air, but wasn’t working the way it should. Quickly pulling over, we called the shop and decided to head back to Flagstaff to see what was up. The technician poked at it a bit (literally, he did basically nothing). Then turned the car on, and voila, it worked! We headed back down the mountain toward Phoenix.
30 minutes out of town, bam, no AC again. There was no time to drive back to Flagstaff, so we suffered the best we could.
Just past the turn off to The Crack is a little desert spot called Montezumas Castle. It’s an amazing place where the native people of the time (1100-1400 or so AD) built cliff dwellings. The “castle” is positioned in such a way that it’s hard to see it until you’re basically right at it. The surrounding area has a creek that wanders through, and would have been a fantastic strategic front for any people group.
Unfortunately we didn’t have a ton of time to explore and learn the area due to our detour back through Flagstaff, but it was a nice little break going from the sweltering heat of the car to the sweltering heat of the outside, and back to the sweltering heat of the car.
From there it was a trip to Mesa, AZ where we found a burger joint not far from the airport. Justin dropped me off, we said our teary eyed goodbyes promising to meet again for further adventures. Justin drove back, sans AC to El Paso and I sat in the Mesa Airport for almost 3 hours until my flight left.
A side note: after many hours of diagnostic work Justin figured out the Honda Civic AC issue. It turns out that there was a circuit something something behind the dashboard that would over heat and lose connection. When it cooled, it would reconnect and the AC would work again. He was able to fix it on his own with a $50 part from Ebay.